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13 December 2006

by Jonathan Boardman

Star trekkie
If numbers are anything to go by, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s trip to Rome last month must come in as a winner: five sermons, two lectures, two ecumenical mega-liturgies, three public masses, half a dozen official meals, a handful of receptions, countless votes-of-thanks and toasts, and literally thousands of photos.

For those of us orbiting the massive star that is Dr Rowan Williams, the energy levels required came near to pushing us to escape velocity. On the day we were invited to attend his 7 a.m. mass at the Venerable English College, I looked at the clock at 6.15, decided I was already too late, rolled over, and headed back to outer space.

Reflecting on the difference between this and his first visit, in John Paul II’s last months, even the larger number of attendant cardinals and assorted monsignori represented an improvement. Rome regards bums on seats as highly significant, especially when those bums are upholstered in purple or red.

So what had happened to make this trip such a success? After all, the Vatican-termed “new obstacles to unity” — which the Anglican Communion had presented three years ago — haven’t vanished, or even substantially diminished with a flick of the Welsh wizard’s staff. But, clearly, it was Rowan’s personal magic that had made the difference.

First, there is his visibly warm friendship with the head of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, Cardinal Walter Kasper; then comes his well-established partnership with the RC Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, in making the Christian voice more audible in British public debates; finally, there is a greater awareness of Dr Williams’s scholarship and writing among the Roman academy.

All these factors contributed to a palpable enthusiasm for the visit in a city that is jaded by big events and historic moments. Seen one Archbishop of Canterbury during the past 45 years? Rome’s seen them all. And, increasingly, seen them more than once.

Far above rubies
The Archbishop was in Rome to mark the 40th anniversaries both of Archbishop Michael Ramsey’s visit and of the foundation of the Anglican Centre. A rather dry “historical note” prefacing some of the week’s liturgies stated that “For some years since the Great Jubilee” — the year 2000 to you and me — “the Roman Catholic Church has celebrated the 40th anniversary of the most significant documents and moments of the Second Vatican Council.”

During a celebratory lunch, the Rt Revd John Flack, the Centre’s director, gave a rather more personal, if also somewhat frank, motive for such junketing at a ruby rather than a golden anniversary. “If we were to wait till the 50th, we might well not be able to welcome back individuals who were instrumental in the setting up of the centre.”

There was a slight but general intake of breath as attention shifted soundlessly to the veteran section of the assembled company — most notably Margaret Pawley and Virginia Johnstone. These two admirable Englishwomen, as was noted at other events during the anniversary, are the memory of Anglicanism in Rome.

Mrs Pawley, a graduate in history from St Anne’s College, Oxford, and a member of the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War, is the widow of Archdeacon Bernard Pawley, one of the Anglican Observers at Vatican II. More than once, in the early 1960s, she entertained Cardinal Montini, the future Pope Paul VI, to dinner, and her reminiscences of the great characters of that gathering are legion.

Miss Johnstone, on the other hand, was a professional back-room girl as secretary to the Centre’s first director, John Findlow — a key position that she has kept up for many years as the powerhouse of the centre’s Friends organisation in the UK. Should either of these inspiring women not be available for a 50th anniversary, I am minded that it will be because of a Saga expedition up Everest, or a University of the Third Age trip to Mars, rather than as a result of any more commonplace obstacle. Ad multos annos.

Beyond the pail
I always thrill at seeing behind the scenes. Perhaps, then, the most privileged moment of the whole trip for me was trudging up the seemingly endless stairs to the top floor of the Pontifical Palace to be present at the midday prayer service celebrated by the Pope and the Archbishop.

On the (many) gloomy landings were huge classical statues set in front of rickety screens, barely able to conceal the workaday cleaning equipment so necessary to make a colossal palace into something of a home — feather dusters with enormously long handles, industrial-sized vacuum cleaners, and incongruous rows of ordinary-sized mops and buckets: the human face of an absolute hierarchical monarchy.

Seeing Benedict XVI himself for the first time, close up, reinforced these perhaps irreverent musings. He seemed less studied than John Paul II, less aware of making an impression — perhaps just shyer, as many commentators have noted. As he sat forward on his throne, joining attentively in the chanting of the psalms, my eyes rested on his lace rochet, which seemed ruffled and out of place. Could the cats have been playing there just minutes before?

He also seemed older and frailer than I had expected. Active himself as a middle-aged theologian at the Council, it now seemed less likely that he would be celebrating various golden anniversaries of significant documents and moments six or seven years hence.

  If, as was whispered, his conversations with Dr Williams were of an unusual cordiality and rigour, leading to a greater level of welcome for the Archbishop at the heart of the Roman Church, then the Pope’s frailty is certainly to be regretted, particularly by Anglicans.

The Revd Jonathan Boardman is Chaplain of All Saints’, Rome.

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