UK celebrates 30 years of diplomacy with Vatican

By David Kerr

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British Ambassador to the Holy See Nigel Baker. Credit: British Embassy to the Holy See Flickr.com-ukinholysee.

Today the United Kingdom marked 30 years of full diplomatic relations with the Holy See with a one-day conference in Rome.

During his introductory remarks on March 30, U.K. Ambassador Nigel Baker called 1982 “a red-letter year in the relationship between Britain and the Holy See.” 

The year “saw the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations at ambassadorial level and the United Kingdom, for the first time, welcomed a reigning Pontiff – Blessed Pope John Paul II – to its shores.”

The day-long event, which was hosted by Rome’s Venerable English College, was titled “Britain and the Holy See: A Celebration of 1982 and the Wider Relationship.” With the assistance of numerous contributors, it attempted to review the events of 30 years ago and assess their historical, diplomatic and ecumenical impact.

“I think that relationships have developed well over those 30 years since that first Papal Visit,” said Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien of St. Andrews & Edinburgh, Britain's most senior Catholic, who chaired the first session.

He felt that for the first time the people of the United Kingdom realized that “as well as being a great religious figure” a Pope could also be “very human.” During his visit several decades ago, Blessed John Paul II conveyed “Christ’s message in an uncompromising way yet in a way that could relate so well to people, especially young people.”

It was on April 1 in 1982 that Sir Mark Heath presented his credentials to Pope John Paul II and thus became the United Kingdom’s first ever ambassador to the Holy See. A month later the Pope arrived for his historic six-day tour of England, Scotland and Wales.

Ambassador Baker felt that the Papal visit of 1982 gave Catholics in the United Kingdom a “sense of belonging” which “perhaps, given the history of the relationship and historical discrimination against Catholics they had found difficult to find for themselves.”

Archbishop Mario Conti of Glasgow, who in 1982 was the Bishop of Aberdeen, agreed that the visit was “enormously important for the Catholic community in Scotland.”

“They discovered themselves as part of the greater Scottish people and other Scottish people recognized within them a significant community which was being recognized internationally with the Pope coming to greet them,” he said.

For Welsh Bishop Edwin Regan of Wrexham one of the most significant moments came on the last leg of the 1982 visit when Pope John Paul kissed the soil of Wales as he landed in the capital city of Cardiff.

“The Holy See is very well aware that we are not the same as England we have our own history, our own language our own customs,” he said.

“We’re a very small country in the huge scheme of things but I’m heartened by the sense that in the Holy See they do recognize the importance of Wales as a separate nation.”

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