If any year can be said to have made a difference to the United Kingdom’s relationship with the Holy See, it is 1982. Today Catholics recall it as the year when a pope first set foot on Britain’s soil, but reaching that point took hundreds of years. And there was a stumbling block along the way – it was the visit that nearly didn’t happen.

Relations with Rome had been severed, of course, with the Reformation when Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church. It was not until 1914 that the UK established a presence in Rome again, when the Foreign Office realised at the outbreak of war that a resident envoy to the Holy See might be useful in counteracting the influence of the German and Austrian ambassadors on the papacy.

In 1929, the Vatican was constituted as a state by the Lateran Pacts but it was another nine years before an apostolic delegate was allowed to be appointed in London. By the 1970s the relationship between Britain and the Holy See deepened, partly due to a common opposition to communism during the Cold War.

Although the papal visit in 1982 was a pastoral one arranged by the Catholic Churches in England and Wales and in Scotland, rather than a state visit, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was well disposed towards it, and in October 1981 the foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, had urged the Cabinet to accept full diplomatic relations with the Holy See.

“The historical British conflicts with the papacy have lost most of their legal and political significance,” he told fellow ministers, and he clearly thought the impending visit would draw attention to the way in which Britain was lagging behind her allies. Most European nations as well as Australia and Canada had full diplomatic relations with the Holy See, while at that stage the US sent a personal envoy.

The figure of John Paul II loomed large over this argument about relations; Carrington pointed out to colleagues that the pope had influence in places where key British interests were at stake, including Ireland, eastern Europe and the Middle East.

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