Listen to this story:
ROME – Britain’s ambassador to the Holy See has praised the legacy of Queen Elizabeth II, saying her faith and deep respect for the popes she met throughout her lengthy reign have helped shape his country’s relationship with the Catholic Church.
Speaking to Crux about the importance of faith to the queen, Ambassador Chris Trott said, “there’s no doubt that her faith was central to the role that she performed.”
“I think this makes my position here particularly poignant in this context, because she met five popes in her lifetime,” Trott said, voicing his belief that “the mutual respect between her and the popes that she met obviously helps facilitate the job that I do, because I’m her representative here.”
As a constitutional monarch, the queen did not have direct power over policies or decision-making, but “the obvious nature of her faith enhanced the nature in which she was held by the individual popes that she met,” Trott said, noting that it was during Queen Elizabeth II’s reign that Britain reestablished formal diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1981.
Queen Elizabeth II died Thursday at the age of 96, having held the British throne for 70 years, making her the world’s longest-reigning monarch. Her reign spans seven different pontificates, beginning with Pope Pius XII. She met with Pope Francis at the Vatican in 2014.
RELATED: Pope praises Queen Elizabeth’s ‘unstinting service,’ faith in Christ
Please read below for Crux’s interview with British Ambassador to the Holy See Chris Trott:
Crux: Can you describe the feeling of the British people at this time? You are here in Rome, but how are people generally living this moment?
Trott: I think the sense that you get is that the British public is really very moved by the death of Her Majesty. You’ve seen the crowds lining the street where her coffin was driven out of Balmoral yesterday, the attendance of people at public events across the country, there’s been this glorious process of, I want to call it annunciation, but I’m not sure what to call it. In times gone by, before social media, they had to send people out into the towns and villages to announce that there’s a new king. That system has been revived for this moment, so you’ve seen in towns and villages across the country, the town prior coming out and announcing Charles’s accession to the throne. It’s been really, really, very striking and very moving.
I watched the proclamation in London…
Yes. I’m very struck by the fact that you’ve already seen the mark of His Majesty the King on the decisions that are being taken. There was a lovely service in St. Paul’s Cathedral on Friday night, and instead of inviting the government – our Prime Minister was there – but they took 2,000 wristbands out onto the street and just gave them to people. So, the cathedral had 2,000 members of the public randomly picked on the street from all walks of life, tourists overseas, who just happened to get an armband, and then went and sat in the cathedral.
That decision I think was a decision taken by His Majesty the King. I still can’t get used to saying it, even though my title has changed. I have to be reminded, we’ve all been reminded, to make sure that on our email signature box we don’t say “Her Majesty” anymore, we say “His Majesty.” That’s the smoothness of the transition, it makes it quite easy. Even if emotionally it’s hard, practically it makes it quite easy.
You’ve been in Her Majesty’s service for several years. What struck you most about her, and being able to serve under her guidance and leadership?
I think it’s the sense of honor that you get to be serving someone who has clearly spent her whole life focused on service to her people. To be chosen to be her representative overseas was hugely, exciting? No, it’s not exciting. An honor? Yes. You don’t spend a lot of time with her, she doesn’t send you instructions every day, but in your role as an ambassador, by tradition you are awarded an audience, either before you left or early in your posting, so twice I was received by Her Majesty. It was called “kissing the hand,” but it didn’t involve any kissing. That was a wonderful occasion, because she was very informal, although we were pretty tense going into the thing.
You went in and there were a couple of other ambassadors and their spouses, and she spent ten minutes with each couple, talking about your posting, talking about your family. It felt so normal, and she was so genuinely interested in my family, as well as very knowledgeable about the country I was serving in. She’d been to almost every country in the world, so she was able to talk about her time in that country, the contacts she’d had with the country, and it just felt so natural.
She never escaped from it, and you saw that two days before she died, she received our new Prime Minister, and it was quite clear, both the Prime Minister and her predecessor said publicly that in those meetings she was perfectly lucid, perfectly engaged, an absolute pleasure as always to be talking to. In a way, she was perhaps very blessed to have been able to pass in a kind of smooth way like that. Perhaps that compounded the shock, a bit, because I think for many British people, she’d always been there and it almost felt like she was going to be there forever, and then suddenly, it wasn’t as if she’d been ill for some time and then died, it was suddenly announced that she was under medical care and she’d died.
It was quite a shock for us too. One of the many things people have remembered the Queen for was her faith and the role that played in her everyday life. Serving under her and observing her, how much of a role would you say her faith played in everything she did, her decisions and service?
I think there’s no doubt that her faith was central to the role that she performed, central in a way that didn’t affect daily decisions, because as a constitutional monarch she didn’t have that much control over a lot of the decisions that she made, but she endorsed them rather than making them. But you can see from the way she spoke in her Christmas messages, for example, or her engagement with the church or people of faith, not just Christians, you can see how much it meant to her.
I think this makes my position here particularly poignant in this context, because she met five popes in her lifetime. The first time she came it was Pius XII and she was a princess, in 1951. I think the mutual respect between her and the popes that she met obviously helps facilitate the job the job that I do, because I’m her representative here, and I think, and you saw this in Pope Francis’s very moving telegram that he sent to King Charles within hours of the announcement of her death, you could see in that that the fact of her faith, and the obvious nature of her faith, enhanced the nature in which she was held by the individual popes that she met.
That was going to be another question, was how her faith shaped this post in particular…
I think it absolutely did. It was only in her lifetime, in her reign, that we restored, after quite a long break, the appointment of an ambassador to the Holy See. There’d been one in 1530, and there was a gap, but in 1981, inspired in part by the relationship she had started to develop with John Paul II, the British government decided to raise the level of diplomatic representation here in Rome to a full ambassadorial post. This year we’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of our diplomatic relations at that full level. We opened an embassy here in 1914, but it was headed by a minister rather than an ambassador, a minister of diplomatic rank rather than a minister, as in government minister.
Apart from these practical changes, how do you think her approach shaped the relationship between Britain and the Holy See?
I think she sets the background, as I’ve described it. The monarch doesn’t engage in what I do from day to day, because what I’m doing is engaging on issues that my government wants me to engage on, talking about issues that matter to the British people, and not necessarily being directed by Her Majesty the Queen.
There’s going to be no change in that, because the values that we support or the work that we are doing on the sustainable development goals, for example, the Catholic Church and the Holy See are natural partners in the work we are doing in trying to meet the expectations set out in that document, and the network of health centers and schools that the Catholic Church runs throughout the globe. And we can’t get to the sustainable development goals without engaging with the institutions that are providing the education and the health care, which means that we are natural partners because we share a natural ambition.
My previous jobs in Africa allow me to bring here an understanding of the conflict issues and humanitarian issues that are really close to the heart of Pope Francis. It’s a reflection of how we see the focus perhaps having shifted under Pope Francis that I’m here and I’m talking about all of these things that matter so much to him and matter so much to us.
One final question. What do you think we can expect now with King Charles?
In a way we all felt that we knew him, because he’s been the heir apparent for 50 years, but actually, in a number of the interviews he’s done over the years, he’s always made it clear that his role as king will be different than his role as heir. He has acknowledged in some of the things he’s said in the past, because he was seen as a campaigning prince, and in full respect to him, he was talking about the environment a long time before any of the rest of us were, so he was campaigning on issues that clearly still matter, but he’s made it clear that his campaigning, he’s going to have to step back from some of that in order to be a head of state. I imagine that he will have learned a lot from having watched his mother and will use that experience to shape his reign.
As I said before, I think we’ve already seen the impact of a much more modern approach in allowing television cameras into his accession council Saturday morning, that was extraordinary. That’s him, that’s his decision, no one’s going to impose that on him, and I think that demonstrates that he’s going to be more modern. He’s not going to drop the trappings of the monarchy, because that’s part of who we all are, but I think we will see him drawing on his mother’s experience but creating his own identity as monarch.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen