PROSPECT HEIGHTS — When then-Princess Elizabeth II turned 21 on April 21, 1947, she broadcasted a speech from Cape Town, South Africa, where she dedicated her life to the service of the Commonwealth, saying, “God help me make good on my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share it.”
That speech was made about four years before she ascended to the throne on Feb. 6, 1952, after the death of her father, King George VI. The invocation of faith was a preview of what was to come, as faith became a hallmark of the queen’s life and reign that ended last week.
Queen Elizabeth died on Sept. 8 at the Balmoral Castle in Scotland with most of the Royal Family by her side. She was 96 years old. Her 70 years on the throne made her the longest-ever reigning British monarch. King Charles ascended to the throne the moment the queen passed away.
An Anglican — and as queen, she held the title of Defender of the Faith and was Supreme Governor of the Church of England — Queen Elizabeth once called her faith “an inspiration and an anchor” of her life. And it was something she never wavered from proclaiming — she attended church every Sunday morning — even as the United Kingdom became more and more secularized.
A 2020 government study found that only 27% of Britons believe in ‘a God,’ and just over half of Christians (56%) said they believed in God’s existence. Still, Queen Elizabeth would often invoke her faith, especially through her annual Christmas message, a tradition started by her grandfather George V in 1932 and continued by her father.
In a speech on Christmas in 1952, the last before her coronation, she followed up her message from Cape Town four years earlier, asking the people of the UK “to pray for me on that day — to pray that God may give me wisdom and strength to carry out the solemn promises I shall be making and that I may faithfully serve him and you, all the days of my life.”
Fast forward to Christmas in 2000, and Queen Elizabeth spoke of the new millennium as the 2,000-year anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ, “who was destined to change the course of history.” What she said after shows how the queen’s faith was the foundation of her life.
“For me, the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life,” Queen Elizabeth said. “I, like so many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times from Christ’s words and example.”
On Christmas in 2016, she explained why Jesus was her “guiding light,” saying his “example helps me see the value of doing small things with great love,” which was a mantra she encouraged others to live by.
A Reign of Interdenominational Dialogue
Weeks before Cardinal Basil Hume of Westminster, formerly England’s chief Catholic Bishop, died of cancer on June 17, 1999, Queen Elizabeth awarded him the Order of Merit — Britain’s highest honor that is limited to 24 living individuals and given only by the current sovereign. The two had a close relationship, with the queen affectionately calling him “my Cardinal.”
About two years after Cardinal Hume’s death, Queen Elizabeth invited his successor, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor of Westminster, to preach at the Sunday morning service in the Anglican church at Sandringham — an unprecedented move for a British monarch.
The relationships the queen shared with the two former heads of England’s Catholic Church are examples of how she built a bridge between the throne and the Catholic Church in a way her predecessors hadn’t. These efforts extended well beyond her local Catholic leaders. Queen Elizabeth met with five popes a total of seven times during her 70-year reign, including the first papal visit to Buckingham Palace.
John Allen, editor of Crux, said the queen’s papal meetings were “enormously” important.
“In some ways, Great Britain has always seen itself as kind of alternative, a place where the pope, his authority does not run,” he told Currents News on Sept. 9. “And so the idea that the sovereign of Great Britain … would have been so respectful and so interested in cultivating good relations with popes, I think that’s enormously important.”
The most recent visit between the queen and a pope was in 2014 when she welcomed Pope Francis to Buckingham Palace. The meeting marked the 100th anniversary of the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the United Kingdom and the Holy See.
At the meeting, Queen Elizabeth gifted Pope Francis a wicker basket full of local delicacies — including a dozen eggs and two types of honey — and a bottle of whiskey. Returning the gesture, Pope Francis gave the queen a blue crystal sphere, with a silver cross of Edward the Confessor, as a gift for the queen’s then- eight-month-old great-grandson, Prince George of Cambridge.
Pope Francis said he was “deeply saddened” to learn of the queen’s death.
“I willingly join all who mourn her loss in praying for the late Queen’s eternal rest and in paying tribute to her life of unstinting service to the good of the Nation and the Commonwealth, her example of devotion and duty, her steadfast witness of faith in Jesus Christ and her firm hope in his promises,” Pope Francis said in a telegram to King Charles III.
Four years prior, in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI and Queen Elizabeth met at Buckingham Palace during the pontiff’s trip to England to beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman. At the time, Pope Benedict described the meeting as “cordial” and “characterized by the sharing of several profound concerns for the well-being of the world’s peoples and for the role of the Christian values in society.”
Before Pope Benedict, Queen Elizabeth met Pope John Paul II three times. The first was in 1980 at the Vatican, the second in 1982 at Buckingham Palace, and the third back at the Vatican in 2000.
The 1980 visit was Queen Elizabeth’s second papal meeting as queen, following a meeting with Pope John XXIII in 1961. Queen Elizabeth did, however, meet a pope before taking the throne. She met with Pope Pius XII in 1951, a year before her ascension to the throne.
A Leader of Billions
As queen, Elizabeth was the sovereign of 14 Commonwealth realms and the UK. These include Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Bahamas, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu.
She was also head of the Commonwealth itself, a voluntary association of 54 independent countries — 21 African, 8 Asian, 13 in the Americas and the Caribbean, and 11 in the South Pacific. There are a total of about 2.5 billion people who live in these countries, and her message of faith to them never wavered.
Queen Elizabeth’s last Christmas message in 2021 spoke of the losses and hardship suffered during the pandemic and her personal loss of Prince Philip, who died that April. She concluded by mentioning the four newborns the Royal Family welcomed that year, speaking about new beginnings.
“It is this simplicity of the Christmas story that makes it so universally appealing: simple happenings that formed the starting point of the life of Jesus — a man whose teachings have been handed down from generation to generation and have been the bedrock of my faith,” she said. “His birth marked a new beginning; as the carol says, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”