Being British, it’s hard to avoid the topic of the Royal Family when abroad. Foreigners often don’t let you.
I’ve learned to spot the disappointment in people’s faces when I don’t have an opinion on Harry’s latest girlfriend, or Kate’s dresses. As my wife will tell you with some regret, I’m a bit of a disappointment in the royal gossip department.
But I’m no republican. I get that it goes with the territory once you throw off your imperial monarchy and set up on your own, like Ireland, India or the U.S. But if a royal heads your state, it’s obvious that once you defenestrate them, their powers will transfer to the president, and soon you’ll be obsessing about Melania Trump’s footwear or Emmanuel Macron’s holiday home.
So: I respect the royals, even admire them. I can riff, for example, on the evangelical Anglican piety of the Queen — a model of tireless, faithful service — and Prince Charles, who shares his family’s Christian passion for the environment.
But the people themselves, and their dramas? I don’t live them the way many do — with an intensity normally reserved for soap operas.
So when, in the Peruvian mountain city of Ayacucho 20 years ago, tearful strangers — Quechua speakers, mostly — crossed the Plaza de Armas to commiserate over the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, I was taken aback and didn’t know what to say, except gracias, es una tragedia.
The months prior to her brutal end in a Paris traffic pile-up had been tawdry. The messy divorce from Charles a year earlier, her tearful self-pitying interview on the BBC, her affairs and the cold-shouldering from what she called ‘the Firm’ — it wasn’t the royals’ finest hour, and there was even dark talk of the monarchy’s extinction.
But two decades on, the monarchy thrives, and the coverage of the anniversary of Diana’s death has helped me see why. The BBC’s brilliant account (also on Netflix) of the seven days leading up to her funeral, as told in part by the princes, William and Harry, was essentially the story of the restoration of a deep, preternatural bond between a people and their sovereigns, one that has a powerful religious resonance.
Evolutionary biologists call it an “intersubjective myth,” meaning that it’s something not materially real, and it’s not simply based on mutual interest, yet it has enormous power. Call it a capacity for oneness, for collective emotion, for shared meaning; whatever it is, it’s essentially religious, in the primitive meaning of that word, re-ligare, to bind together again, to reconnect.
It’s what, days after Diana’s death, brought the Queen back from Balmoral, after talking with Tony Blair, who could read like no other the emotion of the crowds. Having tried to shelter her grandchildren from the storm of grief out there, she now knew she had to respond to her subjects’ needs.
“She should be ‘ere with us,” people said indignantly, and the tabloids took up their cry. It made me think about another kind of connection.
Pope Francis has told bishops that they should be resident in their diocese, present with their people, and not be ‘airport bishops,’ scuttling from place to place like busy executives. As ever, he has walked the talk: As archbishop, he barely traveled outside Buenos Aires, and kept his visits to Rome as brief as possible, always insisting he had to get back to his “spouse.”
In 2014, he told the Congregation for Bishops that the Council of Trent’s decree demanding bishops be resident is more relevant now, in the age of the airliner, than ever before.
When, earlier this year, he revived an ancient tradition of asking cardinals in Rome to let him know when they were going to be gone, to where and for how long, it was read as Francis flexing his muscles. But it was really about reminding pastors that staying put is what they’re there for — because they serve their people (yes, even in Rome).
A bishop and his flock, a monarch and her subjects: there is a bond, one of mutual love and trust, fidelity and obedience, the breaking of which is a tragedy, like a bereavement. The Queen tirelessly serves the common good, which includes my welfare, and I pledge — not out loud, but in my heart — my loyalty, which includes my deference.
Thus, does the Church, thus does a Christian nation, move together, mostly in an invisible way, but sometimes, at times of tragedy like Diana’s funeral, in dramatic scenes of heightened emotion that express a deeper koinonia.
A sovereign can exercise their role, as the Queen and Prince Philip have traditionally done, in the Victorian manner: stiffly and courteously, with good grace but shyly, shunning intimacy, putting the institution first.
Or they can exercise them as Diana did, putting the institution at the service of the poor.
Blair called her, the day of her death, “the People’s Princess,” saying she would live on as such in their hearts. What would normally have sounded like a cheap soundbite struck home, because people genuinely felt that deep connectedness. She was other, yet belonged.
So much has been written about this, one need only summarize. While being the world’s most glamorous and one of its most beautiful women, she was also one of its most vulnerable, with a desperate need to be loved. She suffered from low self-esteem, bulimia, and an ultimately fatal desire to be noticed by the media.
(The Duke of Cambridge, who spoke nobly on the BBC about his feeling of powerlessness at his mother’s distress caused by the paparazzi, has learned that if you open the door too wide, you’ll never shut it again.)
But it wasn’t just that she was wide-open, and bore the scars. It was how she used them. She understood presence. Her charity work wasn’t just cutting ribbons and making speeches but above all sitting with people, hearing their stories, crying with them, hugging them, and — behind the scenes — working hard to relieve their situations.
She was, in short, an icon of mercy, in the way the Queen is an icon of service. Elton John caught it perfectly at the funeral: Diana was the “grace that placed itself / where lives were torn apart.”
Mercy, as Pope Francis spent a year telling us, is essentially loving action that begins with courageous presence — with the willingness to enter into another’s dark night. My favorite definition comes from Fr. James Keenan SJ: “The willingness to enter another’s chaos.”
It’s what Diana had. She sometimes said that she preferred the company of the broken and the suffering because the people were more real than in the world of glamor. In a world of bella figura, proximity to suffering brought her to truth.
Francis, whose effect on the papacy is analogous to Diana’s on the Royal Family, has insisted that bishops be present because mercy is firstly about presence. It’s about being there — and particularly about being with the least.
Perhaps the most iconic Francis shot is of the pope washing the feet of a Muslim woman prisoner. A close second would be kissing the horribly disfigured face of Vinicio Rivas.
Diana’s most iconic shots include her embracing a man with AIDS at a time when it was thought to be contagious, or clutching orphans in São Paolo, or fearlessly standing in an Angolan field full of mines.
She had merciful presence, in the way that Mother Teresa did, which is why they worked together so well.
“She was very concerned for the poor. She was very anxious to do something for them, and it was beautiful. That is why she was close to me,” she wrote just after Diana’s death. (St. Teresa of Kolkota herself died just days later.)
Because of the way she exercised merciful presence, Diana restored the British monarchy, just as Francis has renewed the papacy. It’s the same institution, but it has been re-invigorated from its roots.
Watch William sit with a bereaved person in the grief-counseling charity of which he is patron, and you soon see that, like his mother, he is using his wounds to heal others. He is regal, but it is another kind of kingship: In Francis’s words, he shows vicinanza (nearness) and concretezza (rooted in real life).
In a nation whose substrate remains Christian, there’s no surer foundation for the monarchy.