The atmosphere in London is solemn, but not sad. The crowds at Buckingham Palace have been huge, and the mood is one of sharing in something sacred, important, history-making. It is dramatic, but not in the sense that war or other horror or tragedy is dramatic. Queen Elizabeth II was much-loved, and died in her own Scottish home, in the Platinum Jubilee year of her reign, and with people she loved.
It was a peaceful journey home of the sort we would all wish for elderly parents or grandparents. She was a devout Christian who spoke openly, though without priggishness, of her faith in Christ. She was brought up in a tradition of orthodox Christianity – taught the Ten Commandments and familiarity with the Scriptures, with a routine centred around regular Sunday worship and daily prayer, and an assumption that this was normal.
At Westminster Cathedral on Friday, the Union Flag was at half-mast following the news of the Queen’s death, and her picture, flanked by candles, was placed at the head of the aisle. Our bishops issued special prayers for the Queen, for the Royal Family, and for the new King and our country. On Friday, the evening Mass was a Requiem, celebrated by the Cardinal, and it was packed. He preached movingly, and we sang “God save the King” at the end with all our hearts.
During the day the Cathedral Bell, known as Big Edward, tolled out the 96 years of the Queen’s age, as did the bell of Westminster Abbey, while over in Hyde Park the Royal Horse Artillery thundered out a gun salute which we could all feel as well as hear in Victoria Street and Parliament Square.
On Saturday I was due to lead a Catholic History Walk for the new intake of seminarians from Allen Hall – the Westminster diocesan seminary — starting at London Bridge and finishing at the Tower of London. Nothing could have been more appropriate. As we stood on the bridge, with its history of the last great battle against the Vikings, we watched the guns pounding out from the Tower while the Royal succession was announced and the Thames was wreathed in smoke.
History has strange and powerful links. That last big Viking battle on the Bridge was in 994, on September 8th, Our Lady’s Birthday. The Saxon victory, securing the survival l of a Christian monarchy, was attributed to Our Lady’s intercession, hence the song’s reference to the “fair lady”. This year, On September 8th, we marked the passing of our long-reigning Christian Queen, and the smooth transition to her successor, and gave thanks.
On Sunday, I went to the Requiem at St George’s Cathedral in Southwark. Many in the mostly African and Caribbean congregation were dressed in respectful black. At the end, we had the beautiful Domine salvam fac, and we heard, for the first time, the choir sing “Regem nostrum Carolum.” It was moving.
An apology to some American listeners of various Catholic TV and radio networks: I was at home when the news broke about the Queen on Thursday evening and was suddenly bombarded with calls. With one mobile and a laptop in a small kitchen where I had been cooking supper, it got chaotic trying to tackle radio interviews, Zoom, and more. I probably didn’t sound very professional. I certainly didn’t feel it.
I am as old as the Queen’s reign. My memories of being a reporter go back to the days when you rummaged for coins to use in a red telephone box to dictate your story to the newsroom: you dialled the number and asked for “copy” and a copy-taker — traditionally somewhat surly — took down your words. You spelt things out but they still often came out wrong. Oh, that was a long time ago!
I belong to the same generation as our new King, and I met him long ago at an ecumenical youth event when he was young and I was young. The 21st century seemed a long way off. He seemed then and seems now to be sincere, hard-working, and earnest.
God save the King!
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