VATICAN CITY — “They clicked in a very warm, personal and non-protocol fashion,” said British Ambassador to the Holy See Nigel Baker, when describing Thursday’s meeting between Pope Francis and Queen Elizabeth II.
The encounter, the first between Francis and the British monarch, was very relaxed and informal compared to the 87-year-old monarch’s previous four visits to the Vatican.
Accompanied by her husband Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, the queen’s motorcade entered the Vatican at 3.20pm, 20 minutes later than scheduled after a prolonged lunch with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” the queen said on greeting the Holy Father. “We were having a very pleasant lunch with the president.”
The three spent just under 20 minutes in private conversation in a studio annex of the Paul VI audience hall. The original plan had been to welcome the queen in the St. Martha residence, but the number of officials, diplomats and media personnel present meant the venue had to be switched.
The subjects discussed remain secret but Ambassador Baker stressed it “wasn’t a political visit and wasn’t about politics.”
“These are two people of great experience of the broader world,” he told the Register. “They are both great upholders of values, from the family and the faith to social values, and I can imagine — though I really don’t know — that the conversations would have touched on some of these issues, but certainly not political issues.”
Political Issues Not Discussed
A Vatican official also said political issues were avoided, and stressed that the sensitive subject of the British-ruled Falkland Islands, whose sovereignty has long been disputed by Argentina, was not a topic discussed. Prior to the meeting, the Holy See stressed it was neutral on the issue.
“I don’t know but I imagine Anglican-Catholic relations would have been discussed, matters relating to Britain, how much they appreciate the work of the Pope,” he said.
Baker stressed it was a “personal, welcoming, warm and friendly” meeting and that was witnessed “in the exchange of gifts.”
The queen presented the Pope with a basket filled with traditional English goods, including produce from the Royal Estates and items specifically chosen by her. She said she also brought “two extra bits which would not fit in the basket” — a bottle of whiskey and apple cider. The Holy Father seemed a little surprised but pleased to receive the whiskey, according to reporters present.
Drawing attention to a jar of honey sitting in the basket, the duke explained it was from Buckingham Palace, to which the queen added that “it is from my garden” and that “I hope it will be unusual for you.” The queen is said to be very proud of her beehives. She also offered the Holy Father two signed copies of a photo of herself and her husband, telling him “I’m afraid you have to have a photograph. It’s inevitable.” The royal couple always give signed photographs to heads of state they visit.
Gift of Lapis Lazuli
Pope Francis presented Queen Elizabeth, who will mark the 61st year of her reign June 2, with an orb made of lapis lazuli with a silver St. Edward’s cross, very similar to the one atop the queen’s coronation crown. The orb of the blue semi-precious stone was for the Queen’s great-grandson, Prince George, and also contained an engraving on its silver base with the words: “Pope Francis to His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge.”
“This is for the little boy,” the Pope told the queen in Spanish, to which she responded: “That is very nice. He will be thrilled by that when he’s a little older.”
The Holy Father also gave Elizabeth a copy of the original 1679 decree adding St. Edward of England’s feast day to the Church calendar, which is celebrated every year on Oct. 9, as well as a set of three large medals marked with the face of Pope Francis, one of gold, one of silver and one of bronze.
Upon receiving the gifts, the Duke of Edinburgh, famous for his wisecracks, joked that St. Edward “was canonized, wasn’t he?” and said of the medals: “Oh, it’s the only gold medal I’ve ever won.”
Many noted the visible break with protocol. Queen Elizabeth has met every Pope going back to Pius XII with the exception of Paul VI and John Paul I, and on each visit to the apostolic palace she has worn black, as is customary, and the Duke of Edinburgh has been in uniform. On this occasion, they were in their “day dress”: the queen wearing a lilac dress and hat, and the duke in a standard suit.
The relaxed protocol “was very much a mutual preference,” said Baker. “We know Pope Francis doesn’t like protocol and formalities and this was very much something that the queen was keen on as well for this particular visit.”
“Everything about the visit was in keeping with that mutual preference for an informal, light protocol occasion,” he added. “The Holy See lived up to that absolutely which was great.”
Meeting Pope Pius XII
Queen Elizabeth’s audience with Pope Francis marks her fifth encounter with a pope, the first being with Pope Pius XII while she was still a princess in 1951, the year before her ascension to the throne. She met John XXIII in 1961 before the Second Vatican Council.
In 1982, she was the first monarch since the Reformation to welcome a pope to Britain when she received John Paul II during his pastoral visit to the country. In 2010, she also received Benedict XVI in Scotland during his visit to the United Kingdom.
The Vatican official stressed that the visit would “certainly” be of great help to British-Holy See relations, and was a sign of how close they are, especially as the queen’s visit to the Vatican is just one of two overseas visits she has planned for this year.
Some speculated the queen might ask the Pope to come to Britain, but Ambassador Baker said “no formal invitations were extended on this particular occasion.”
On leaving, Pope Francis said to the queen: “Please pray for me, don’t forget,” to which she replied: “I won’t forget.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.