‘Elizabeth and me!’ – An Irish Jesuit remembers
Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom died at Balmoral Castle, Scotland on 8 September 2022. Her death prompted a reflection by Irish Jesuit Fr Terry Howard SJ who was deeply moved by an encounter with her at Buckingham Palace, London in 2019. Read his reflection below.
Elizabeth and me!
Last Thursday, 8 September 2022, while out to dinner with my Jesuit community, I learned of the news that Elizabeth had just died. Instantly I felt very sad, muttering over and over again several long aaahhhs of release. I cannot recall another moment when I had so responded to the news of a death, such was the warmth and respect I had developed for Elizabeth.
Elizabeth was also known by her title – HM Queen Elizabeth II. I have been calling her Elizabeth (as if we knew each other well) ever since I met her in June 2019. She invited me and my Ulster University Chaplain companions, Gail Mercer and Rev Cheryl Meban, to visit her at Buckingham Palace (by the way there were also 300+ others invited – but never mind that trifling detail). When I first received her invite, I thought it was a wind-up and I ignored it for weeks till I was wised up by Gail.
The occasion was the celebration of the place that Beliefs and Faiths play in community cohesion within the UK. It had been hastily organised. A Brexit function had had to be cancelled and, at the specific request of HM, this was the event she herself chose to replace it. It’s an indication of the importance that faith played in her own life.
We arrived by taxi outside the Palace. The area was jammed with sightseers peering through the railings and taking photographs. We disembarked, made our way to a gate, produced our invite, and the guard said, ‘Come this way!’ And we left the crowds behind and walked unshepherded towards the Palace about 50 meters away. I’ll never forget the moment I looked back and saw the crowds outside the railings. And me, alone, and inside, in a place I never ever expected to be. It was a strange feeling.
Inside, we were guided to a building with a long hall, the walls of which were thronged with works of art. Looking closer I noticed myself noticing, ‘those are three Van Gogh’s… and that’s a Vermeer!’ If I had wanted to I could have touched the Vermeer.
Beside the Vermeer was the entrance to another room. To my surprise HM was already there, standing on her own inside the entrance just a few feet away. The moment came quickly. I gave my invite to a gentleman who announced my name, and I started walking towards her.
I had planned to say who I was, that I am a Jesuit, that I work at Ulster University Jordanstown, and that I am from the Republic of Ireland (ROI)… To thank her for her recent visit to the ROI and to say that the country is still in consolation after it. And… to tell her that the word in West Belfast was that she spoke better Irish than Gerry Adams! I was expecting a big smile and a chuckle in return.
It did not happen. None of it did!
In reality, I muttered something incoherent, so overawed was I at meeting her. We shook hands. She was surprisingly small, smaller even than my own small mother. My niece Bróna had an all-female rock band that was called Five Foot Nothing, for obvious reasons. Elizabeth was even smaller.
It was all over in a few seconds that will forever be a blur. But what I do remember most clearly, as I was approaching her, was the warm peace-filled smile on her face with which she greeted me. I think that’s when HM became Elizabeth!
Later, after she had greeted the 300+ others, I stood watching her as three other invitees spoke with her. They must have spoken with her for 10 minutes. What astonished and really impressed me was that Elizabeth, at 93 years old, stood motionless for those 10 minutes. She never shuffled a foot. Not once! I could not have done that myself, and I am 25 years her junior.
Next day, Buckingham Palace released a twitter feed which included a quadrant of photos. Surprise, surprise! One of the four photos on display was of Elizabeth and me (see above). And a second of the four photos was of Elizabeth with the three who stood talking to her. My bald head was also visible in that one!
Two photos out of four, not bad!
I am very fortunate to have two photos that are the record of my meeting with Elizabeth. I call them the Smile and the Handshake!
In the image above, you can also see my Ulster University (UU) Presbyterian colleague Rev Cheryl Meban next in line.
Thank you for being you, Elizabeth!
Rest in Peace!
You did Good!