Canterbury Meets Rome
Saturday, October 4, 2003 is a day I will never forget. It began with an early morning call in the Canonica of All Saints, the Anglican church in Via Babuino near the Spanish Steps in Rome where I was staying. I walked along the Corso and through the little streets that lead to the Venerabile Collegio Inglese, the English Seminary where for centuries young men have trained for the English Roman Catholic priesthood. There I met Bishop Geoffrey Rowell, Anglican Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, the diocese that contains the 250 or so Chaplaincies on the Continent. There we were joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and his wife Jane; Bishop John Flack, the Archbishop’s representative to the Holy See and Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome, and his wife Julia; and Bishop Stephen Platten, Bishop of Wakefield and Chairman of the Governors of the Anglican Centre. I was there because I was Anglican Archdeacon of Italy and Vicar-General of the Diocese in Europe.
The Archbishop’s entourage set off in several black cars with motor cycle outriders and swept through the streets of Rome, over the Tiber, up the Via della Conciliazione, and into the Vatican Palace. We drove right through the beautiful gardens at the back of St Peter’s and then down into a heavily guarded courtyard, where the Archbishop was received by two Cardinals, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, and Cardinal Kasper, Head of the Pontifical Institute for Christian Unity. They led the way to an elevator which took us up into the Pope’s apartments. We walked through several magnificent halls until we came to the anteroom outside the room where the Archbishop was to meet the Pope.
Archbishop Rowan went in alone at first and had a meeting of twenty minutes or so with the Pope. Then the chamberlain returned and we were all ushered in. The Archbishop was sitting beside the Pope, and as each of us approached he introduced us to His Holiness and we knelt and kissed his ring. The first thing that struck me was how weak and tired he seemed, and this impression grew as he struggled to read the welcome speech in English. But he persevered to the end, and here and there I could make out words like Welcome and Thank you. Then the Archbishop made his speech, saying that he thanked God that it had now become natural for Archbishops of Canterbury to come on this kind of fraternal visit to the Pope. He pointed to his episcopal ring, and said it was the one that Pope Paul VI had given Archbishop Michael Ramsey. The Pope and the Archbishop then exchanged presents and the Holy Father gave presents of pectoral crosses and silver medals of his 25th Jubilee to the rest of us. We all went forward again to say Farewell, and as I bent to kiss his ring he said “God bless you”.
There were tears in our eyes as we came out of that audience chamber. Pope John Paul was clearly in the grip of a debilitating disease and very weak. But his strength shone through it all and set an example of great bravery in the face of adversity. We knew how privileged we had been to be in the presence of so great a man.
We then accompanied the Archbishop as he was taken into the excavations under St Peter’s Basilica and admitted behind all the protective gates and bullet-proof glass to pray at the grave of St Peter himself. His bones lie there where they were buried in the first century and where first the Emperor Constantine and then subsequent builders erected cathedrals to mark the spot. The Archbishop said a prayer for the unity of the church at this sacred place, which left me in tears for the second time that morning.
I reflected that this was the successor of St Augustine of Canterbury whom Pope Gregory sent to England, praying at the tomb of St Peter, having just left the presence of the successor of St Peter. Truly a most historic moment, which I was blessed to share.