With estimates that more than four billion people tuned in to watch the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II—more than twice as many as were alive in 1926, when she was born—it is clear that her loss has been keenly felt right around the world. Reigning for more than 70 years, always with grace and dignity, she leaves a legacy that we will continue to reflect on, discuss and cherish for many years to come.

Dr Miles Pattenden, a Senior Research Fellow with the Australian Catholic University (ACU) at the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry, specialises in the history of the Catholic Church and the papacy. He spoke with Melbourne Catholic about some aspects of Queen Elizabeth’s legacy, and especially what she meant to Catholic Christians.

In the wake of her death, Dr Pattenden wrote a short article for ABC Religion & Ethics called ‘What the Queen meant to Christians’, a beautiful reflection on her ‘quiet Christianity’, the humility with which she carried the office of monarch, and why Christians will mourn her passing. Some of the questions we put to Dr Pattenden expand upon points made in that piece.

The example of Queen Elizabeth II

Melbourne Catholic: Queen Elizabeth was not only a government figurehead but a religious figurehead, too. It is said that her legacy is an ‘ecumenical’ one, much broader than the Church of England. How did she come to be so beloved and significant to Christians? What was it she did?

MP: Queen Elizabeth strived throughout her reign to set an example of moderation, tolerance and inclusiveness towards people of all denominations and all faiths. She was limited by convention in what she could say publicly, but she had a mastery of the power of symbolism and gesture. Hence, for instance, her deliberate inclusion of non-Christians in her annual Christmas Broadcasts to the Nation and Commonwealth. When she did speak, she was always careful to stress what unites Christians rather than what divides them, openly discussing the love that Jesus had for, and inspires in, all humanity.

Melbourne Catholic: In your ABC piece, you mention briefly that her style and that of Pope Francis are perhaps closer in kind than we think. That might not be obvious to a lot of people. How is this so?

MP: Like Pope Francis, Queen Elizabeth had a mastery of the power of symbolism and gesture. Hence the significance when she spoke in Gaelic on a visit to Dublin Castle or when she shook the hand of Martin McGuinness. In both case cases, these gestures conveyed more about her sincere commitment to repairing relations with Irish Catholics than words ever could. Her sartorial choices were another important resource she drew on, on many occasions—for instance when she wore orange, a holy colour in India, during a visit to Amritsar, carefully removing her shoes before approaching the monument commemorating the 1919 massacre there.

Melbourne Catholic: From a Catholic perspective, what might some of the highlights of her reign be?

MP: Besides her famous meetings with Martin McGuinness and the Irish presidents Mary McAleese and Michael D Higgins in 2011–14, Queen Elizabeth met with five popes during her lifetime. The first was Pius XII, whom she greeted in the Vatican in 1951, shortly before her accession to the throne. The most significant encounter, however, was surely that with John Paul II, who in 1982 became the first reigning pope ever to visit the traditionally Protestant United Kingdom. The Queen personally escorted him around Buckingham Palace before His Holiness renewed his baptismal vows jointly with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie.

Melbourne Catholic: You mention that she chose not to abdicate because such an act would violate her oath to a ‘higher power’. Is this sentiment an uncommon one for the monarchy in the modern era? Was it unique to Queen Elizabeth?

MP: A spate of abdications amongst European royalty since the start of the 2000s, and indeed the decision of Pope Benedict XVI to resign his office, had led many to speculate that perhaps Queen Elizabeth would also chose to step down when her physical frailty began to impede her capacity to perform her role. But Queen Elizabeth let it be known that she remained steadfast to the oath she gave at her coronation, and also in a now famous radio broadcast from the time of her 21st birthday. She believed that she had made a vow not only to her peoples but also to God that she would dedicate her life ‘be it long or short’ to her role. To her, this vow, sealed with the chrism oil with which the Archbishop had anointed her, was simply inviolable.

Melbourne Catholic: Defining the legacy of an empire is no easy thing, and the legacy of the British Empire is a complicated one. You write that Queen Elizabeth ‘sought to construct something positive from the embers of exploitation.’ Could you elaborate a bit on how exactly she sought to do this?

MP: Queen Elizabeth oversaw one of the most remarkable peaceable renunciations of political and military power in history when the British Empire was wound up and replaced by the equal, communitarian structures of the present Commonwealth. For Queen Elizabeth, this was very much a personal project and it is doubtful that it would have survived and flourished—to the point that even countries which were never British colonies have now joined—without her. She achieved this through tireless diplomacy, making the leaders and representatives of different nations feel listened to and included.

Melbourne Catholic: Within the Catholic Church, there is a swathe of political positions one might be inclined to take. What lessons can we learn from Queen Elizabeth’s reign, no matter what our political persuasions are? What about her can unite us instead of dividing us?

MP: Queen Elizabeth can be an inspiring figure for Catholics who see the value of modesty, toleration of difference, and calmness in the face of turbulent events. She was a person to be admired because of the enormous self-sacrifice that it required to sublimate her opinions and concerns to the task of embodying ideals for a nation (indeed, fourteen nations). She held her composure for over seventy years under constant public gaze and, whatever our political persuasions, we ought to recognise her unique success in creating a common ground for friendships to form and civilised debate to flourish.