By Francesca Merlo
As the longest reigning British monarch in history, Queen Elizabeth has met four Popes as Queen, five in her lifetime. Though the Queen was born on 21 April, her birthday is celebrated on the second Saturday in June, which falls this year on the 13th. This year, we celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s 94th birthday, her 67th since being crowned Queen.
Born in 1926, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary ascended to the throne in 1953 at the age of 25, after the death of her father, King George VI. Queen Elizabeth first visited the Vatican in 1951 as Princess Elizabeth. The Pope at the time was Pius XII.
First visit, as Queen of Great Britain
Queen Elizabeth's first visit as Queen, her second to the Vatican, took place on 5 May 1961. She and HRH Prince Philip were received in audience by Pope John XXIII. During the meeting, Pope John XXIII expressed his appreciation for "the great and noble British nation with its wealth of courage, its spirit of initiative, and its tenacity" which fights to realise "the great Christian ideal of peace, charity, and brotherhood."
Monsignor Charles Burns, OBE is Ecclesiastical advisor to the British Embassy to the Holy See. He was present at the historic meeting. Here is his memoir:
"In May 1961, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II paid an official State visit to Italy, her first as monarch. Undoubtedly her visit marked the apex of my four years as post-graduate student at the Pontifical Scots College in Rome, something altogether exceptional, memorable, unforgettable. My thesis was at final stage, with readers at the Pontifical Gregorian University, so there was greater freedom to be an eyewitness at several events.
The highlight of the State visit for us was the audience with His Holiness Pope John XXIII on 5th May, in the forenoon. The Superiors and the entire community of the Scots College were admitted to the Sala Clementina in the Vatican, as were the Superiors and components of the Venerable English and the Pontifical Beda Colleges, to give a standing ovation and acclaim the Royal Couple, after they had been received by the Pope.
The strains of the National Anthem played by the band of the Pontifical Swiss Guards and the voices of the laypeople as they broke into ‘God Save The Queen’ were wafted up to the windows of the Prima Loggia and increased our emotion. It was all very exciting.
Thunderous applause greeted the Royal Couple when they entered the Sala Clementina, escorted by the papal gentlemen-in-waiting in their baroque uniforms. An historic occasion. The moment was immortalised by a photographer for future generations".
HM the Queen visits John Paul II
Queen Elizabeth made history in 1980 when she became the first British monarch to make a state visit to the Vatican. It was during this meeting with Pope John Paul II, that the Queen and head of the Church of England, publicly welcomed the Pope’s plans to visit Great Britain in 1982 – stressing that his visit would be a pastoral one and not a state one.
“We support the growing unity between the Christian Churches throughout the world and we pray that your Holiness’s visit to Britain may enable us all to see more clearly those truths which both unite and divide us in a new and constructive light.”
John Paul II visits HM the Queen
Then, just two years later, as planned, Pope John Paul II made his pastoral visit to Great Britain. 1982 was an historic year for a Papal visit to Great Britain as Britain was at war with Argentina, who had just invaded the British possession of the Falkland Islands. In one of his addresses, the Holy Father went off script calling for peace in the Falklands. He appealed to Britain and Argentina ''to put aside the weapons of death'' in the Falkland Islands.
“My visit is taking place at a time of tension and anxiety, a time when the attention of the world has been focused on the delicate situation of the conflict in the South Atlantic. …..This tragic situation has been one of most serious concern to me, and I have repeatedly asked Catholics throughout the world and all people of good will to join me in praying for a just and peaceful settlement.”
Then, 18 years later, in the new millennia, HM the Queen visited the Vatican once again, in October. There she met with Pope John Paul II for a third time. They exchanged their speeches in envelopes.
Pope Benedict XVI in Great Britain
In September 2010, Pope Benedict XVI visited Great Britain on an Apostolic Journey on the occasion of the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, now a Saint. In Edinburgh, Scotland he met Queen Elizabeth II and expressed his gratitude to her for "holding out a hand of friendship" to him.
Finally, in April 2014, Queen Elizabeth made a state visit to Italy, and after meeting President Napolitano, went to the Vatican where she was greeted by Pope Francis. This historic meeting marked the Queen's seventh encounter with a pontiff and the fifth different Pope she has met. Her visit also coincided with the 32nd anniversary of the start of the Falklands War, the Islands known in Argentina as Las Malvinas, which are controlled by the UK but claimed by the Pope's native Argentina.
As Queen Elizabeth, and the world celebrate her birthday this year - in particular circumstances given the coronavirus pandemic - we remember her long reign and her numerous encounters with Popes throughout history.. wishing her a very happy birthday.