For members of the Ordinariate, and indeed for Anglo-Catholics still holding on in the Church of England, he has a most significant meaning. His visit to the UK in 1982 represented what we would consider to have been the very highest point for hopes of some kind of corporate reunion between the Church of England and the Catholic Church. "The successor of St Peter greets the successor of St Augustine" is what Blessed John Paul II said to Robert Runcie, then the Archbishop of Canterbury. The two prayed before the shrine of St Thomas of Canterbury, and knelt together before the nave altar of Canterbury Cathedral.
These words from Blessed John Paul II's homily that day :
My dear brothers and sisters of the Anglican Communion, “whom I love and long for” (Phil. 4, 1), how happy I am to be able to speak directly to you today in this great Cathedral! The building itself is an eloquent witness both to our long years of common inheritance and to the sad years of division that followed......I appeal to you in this holy place, all my fellow Christians, and especially the members of the Church of England and the members of the Anglican Communion throughout the world, to accept the commitment to which Archbishop Runcie and I pledge ourselves anew before you today. This commitment is that of praying and working for reconciliation and ecclesial unity according to the mind and heart of our Saviour Jesus Christ. On this first visit of a Pope to Canterbury, I come to you in love - the love of Peter to whom the Lord said, “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Luc. 22, 32). I come to you also in the love of Gregory, who sent Saint Augustine to this place to give the Lord’s flock a shepherd’s care (Cfr. 1 Petr. 5, 2). Just as every minister of the Gospel must do, so today I echo the words of the Master: “I am among you as one who serves” (Luc. 22, 27). With me I bring to you, beloved brothers and sisters of the Anglican Communion, the hopes and the desires, the prayers and good will of all who are united with the Church of Rome, which from earliest times was said to “preside in love” (S. IGNATII ANTIOCHENI Ad Romanos, Prooem.).Was reunion as likely as was thought and hoped by Anglo-Catholics at the time? Well, possibly not, there were many who would have been very against it. Yet it was not impossible: no-one thought it would be easy, but no-one thought it was beyond reach.
Time has moved on, and the high point of that meeting Canterbury Cathedral was countered by various decisions of the General Synod of the Church of England that mean few now believe that corporate reunion is likely in any of our lifetimes. When the current Archbishop of Canterbury received Pope Benedict XVI at Lambeth Palace in 2010, there was much expression of tremendous and genuine mutual good will and respect, but no sentiment that we were possibly on our way to corporate reunion.
In some of the first posts on this blog, for example Pope Benedict XVI at Westminster Cathedral and Blessed John Henry Newman, pray for us, we highlighted how much of a role the visit of the current Holy Father to these shores had on those of us who have joined the Ordinariate. Apart from all the various reasons mentioned in earlier blogposts, perhaps some of us compared the visit of 2010 with the visit of 1982, and compared the hopes for Catholic Unity. The landscape was very, very different.
Might an Ordinariate have been created earlier, perhaps in the 1990s after the first of the major changes in the Church of England? Quite possibly. We referred in a recent blogpost to discussions between Monsignor Graham Leonard, Cardinal Hume and the then Cardinal Ratzinger on what to do about the wave of Anglicans joining the Catholic Church at the time. Blessed John Paul II famously asked Cardinal Hume to make sure that the Catholic Church "was generous" in this context, and so it was in welcoming many hundreds of clergy and many thousands of laity : but we would have to wait a little longer for an Ordinariate.
Whether through the Ordinariate or through parish and diocesan channels, those of us who have become Catholics give thanks that we have been able to contribute in our own very small way towards that objective of which Blessed John Paul II spoke, the Unity of the Church.
It is easy to remember only the last years of Blessed John Paul II's papacy. The agony of that Holy Week in 2005. The slow and obviously painful decline of a man determined to perform all his duties. The perseverance of one who felt that his suffering showed a "witness for the vulnerable", in the words of Eamon Duffy. As strong as these memories are, we shouldn't lose sight of that vibrant character and presence, who even in his final years fulfilled monumental tasks (who can forget the solitary, hunched figure at the Wailing Wall?).
Here is some footage of the new Pope John Paul II in 1979, visiting the USA. Full of energy, blessed with a tremendous gift for communication, not least with the young : this is also part of the man that we must not forget.
Blessed John Paul II, pray for us.