Prince Charles will meet Pope Francis in Rome this week

When Prince Charles meets Pope Francis at the Vatican on Tuesday it is likely that there will be plenty of discussion about issues dear to them. One of those is climate change – Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, was emphatic that climate change is real and he has accused sinful mankind of turning the planet into a “polluted wasteland full of debris, desolation and filth”, while the Prince in his foreward to a book on climate change he co-authored has called it the “wolf at the door” and urged that action must be “urgently scaled up, and scaled up now”.

The two also share a similar sense of urgency about the persecution of Christians, particularly in the Middle East, and both have spoken out about the disaster befalling the part of the world where Christianity was founded. The Prince of Wales has become a keen supporter of Aid to the Church in Need, making generous donations to support its work, hosting refugees at his homes in Scotland and London, and speaking frequently about the plight of people uprooted from their homes in Iraq and Syria in particular. Both he and the Pope have publicly regretted that the persecution of Christians is not dominating public discourse: in January the Pope complained that the media doesn’t speak about the persecuted because they are not newsworthy, while a few weeks later the Prince told guests at a Lambeth Palace reception that people cared more about Brexit than the plight of those fleeing ISIS in the Middle East.

That the two men are meeting is more than happy coincidence or a moment for theological dialogue. It is about diplomacy, and the Royal Family is one of the Foreign Office’s key assets when it comes to engagement with other states, including the Holy See. While at home the royals are expected to be neutral and mostly engage in charitable endeavours, abroad they are regularly deployed to represent the interests of the government of the day. And this has involved regular encounters between the Holy See and the Queen, far more than any other royal head of state.

Encounters with popes began when the Queen was still Princess Elizabeth when she met Pius XII in 1951 (just a year before her accession). Then there was John XXIII in 1961; John Paul II in 1980, 1982 (during his pastoral visit to Britain) and 2000; Benedict XVI in 2010 (during the state visit to Britain) and Francis in 2014. The encounters between the Holy See and Britain’s royals have grown as the Foreign Office has started to understand the influence the Catholic Church can have worldwide on issues that form part of the British Government’s agenda.

The reasons for Britain’s relationship with Rome were highlighted clearly in both the speeches of the Queen and of Benedict XVI as he began his visit to Britain at Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh in September 2010. The Queen emphasised the role of the Holy See in peace and development issues and addressing common problems such as poverty and climate change. And she also made it clear that Rome has played its part in Northern Ireland: “In this country, we deeply appreciate the involvement of the Holy See in the dramatic improvement in the situation in Northern Ireland,” a sentiment which might not have been uttered 30 years earlier during tensions over interventions by John Paul II during the Troubles, especially over the Maze hunger strike.

While diplomacy is the key issue in these royal encounters with popes, there is another highly important issue too. The relationship between England and Rome broke down during the reign of the first Elizabeth as the division caused by the Queen’s father, Henry VIII over his divorce from the Spanish Catherine of Aragon and his marriage to Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, was consolidated. It took 400 years to be fully repaired, initiated by emancipation of Catholics and freedom of worship happening in the 19th century. But the greatest rapprochement has taken place during the second Elizabeth’s reign. And while much of that is down to the opening up of the Church following the Second Vatican Council, the quiet influence of the Queen has been hugely important in the process, not least because of the respect Rome has for her own unwavering Christian faith.

Now the Holy See will be curious to see whether that faith is shared by her heir. British monarchs still hold the title Defender of the Faith, first bestowed on Henry VIII, and 10 years ago the Prince of Wales indicated that he would like that title to be amended to Defender of Faiths, as if Christianity is but one faith among many. But with his championing of persecuted Christians, Rome may well breathe easier as the Prince comes calling.

Catherine Pepinster’s book, The Keys and the Kingdom – the British and the Papacy, will be published this autumn by Bloomsbury/T&T Clark