My trip to Rome was a bigger adventure than I had expected. The Alitalia plane dropped gently down towards Fiumicino airport. I looked forward to a smooth landing. However, just as the wheels were about to touch the ground, the plane suddenly accelerated. My heart began to beat a little faster. A fire? A terrorist incident? We gained height rapidly and banked sharply away from the airport. Soon, we had left bright lights of Fiumicino far behind us. Some minutes later, the captain explained what had happened. As he arrived on the runway, he saw the preceding plane was ‘far too close’. I was thankful for the quick reactions of our pilot. It was an exciting start to an exciting weekend!
We gathered to celebrate 200 years of Anglican worship in Rome. The readings for our Sunday services related to the transfiguration of Christ. Jesus goes up to a high mountain, and his face and clothes are changed or ‘metamorphosed’. How appropriate! Because in 200 years, how the Anglican community in Rome has changed. At the beginning of the 19th century Anglican worship in the city was illegal. The first public services took place in 1816. Gradually, but reluctantly, the authorities allowed public worship to be celebrated. But police were posted, presumably to make sure that the Catholic faithful were not tempted to join in. Now the community of All Saints inhabits a wonderful building centrally located near the Spanish Steps; it has teaching programmes for adults and children; it sustains a range of worship. It has a woman priest. And, along with our other churches in Italy, it has State recognition.
Morning worship took place as usual (albeit with Bishops Robert, David Hamid and David Moxon up front), and I delivered a sermon on Transfiguration, which can be found here. But the main event was in the afternoon. We looked forward with great anticipation to the visit of His Holiness Pope Francis. This was the first time a Bishop of Rome had visited an Anglican parish in his own diocese. In fact, as far as we are aware, the first time a Roman Pontiff has visited any ‘ordinary’ Anglican parish (rather than let’s say a Cathedral). Precautions were elaborate: the building had to be ‘swept’; security was tight; the police presence in the street extensive. The church was packed and there was great excitement when Pope Francis arrived.
The service began with formal welcomes from the chaplain of All Saints and the Diocesan Bishop (my Welcome can be found here). In my greeting, I referred to the Pope’s global leadership role in such things as migration, the refugee crisis and the care of the poor, and to the inspiration he has been to the Anglican Communion. The Pope was then invited to bless and dedicate a glorious icon of ‘St Saviour’ commissioned specially for the occasion.
After this, he led the congregation in the renewal of baptismal vows, before moving to the chancel, from which he and I presided over the rest of the service.
In his sermon, the Pope spoke of the fruitful grace of Christ that is at work between Catholics and Anglicans, after centuries of mutual mistrust. He expressed gratitude to God for the desire amongst Christians for greater closeness. He indicated that, although progress towards full communion sometimes seemed slow and uncertain, this first visit of a Bishop of Rome to All Saints was a sign of encouragement. You can find a full English translation of his sermon here.
After his sermon Pope Francis responded to three questions submitted to him in advance. Perhaps most significantly in his answers, he referred to the planning of a visit by him and Archbishop Justin to South Sudan, at the request of church leaders there. This would, of course, be hugely significant for this desperately war-torn country and for our common witness to peace. The service continued with the formal signing of a twinning arrangement between All Saints and the Catholic Parish of Ognissanti – the titular church of Cardinal Walter Kasper, former president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The service was planned to conclude with an exchange of gifts. But what do you give the world’s most important religious leader? The people of All Saints gave him chutneys, marmalades and a simnel cake – beautifully appropriate in my opinion.
It was a truly wonderful weekend for All Saints Rome and for our Diocese in Europe. Pope Francis conveyed humanity, warmth, humility and grace. In our final exchange he requested: ‘pray for me’. I will. He is a most remarkable man and a great world leader. He needs and deserves our prayers.
You can find a high quality film of the entire papal visit to All Saints here, courtesy of the highly professional Vatican News Service.