You might not expect the 87-year-old Queen and the 77-year-old Pope Francis to break an old convention, but they did
For sheer comedy value, “Queen meets Pope” was a big-hitter. She arrived late; he seemed bemused. She handed over her gifts – honey from the garden – while Prince Philip waved around a bottle of best Balmoral scotch. Then Pope Francis unveiled his own little pressie, for eight-month-old Prince George: a lapis lazuli orb decorated with a silver cross of St Edward the Confessor. Even the Queen, practised as she is in keeping a straight face, couldn’t resist a tiny joke. “He’ll be thrilled,” she quipped. “When he’s a little older.”
You got the impression neither of the main players was quite sure what to make of the other, and perhaps that isn’t surprising given how different their backgrounds are. But there was one common thread: age. The Queen is 87, Francis is 77. In a world where leaders have tended across recent decades to get younger, but also at a time when we’re re-evaluating the role of older people and doing more to combat ageism, there’s irony in the fact that it takes an oligarchy and a monarchy to come in on trend and provide the world with a couple of oldies as movers and shakers.
And make no mistake about it, the planet is better for them: our democracies don’t produce pensioners as leaders (and they haven’t tended to), so it’s up to us to redress that balance. In the meantime, it’s one good thing to be said for the British royal family and the throne of St Peter. At the very least, they give us continuity: can there be anyone else alive today who has met, as the Queen now has, five pontiffs?
And on this occasion, the meeting with the pope brought a hugely important symbolic difference from all her previous trips to Rome. Every time she has been there before, the Queen has worn a black dress and a black mantilla. For generations, that’s been the accepted attire for a female leader meeting the pope on his home turf: Argentinian president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, lunching with him last month, followed the usual tradition and covered herself in black, with a hat to match.
But for the Queen’s visit this week, soundings were obviously taken inside the Vatican about whether it would be OK for the Queen to wear one of her signature brightly coloured outfits, and the word came back that would be absolutely fine. Which is yet another of those subtle but hugely significant signs coming out of the Francis pontificate. Because while on the one hand it doesn’t matter a fig whether an elderly woman meeting an elderly man in Rome wears black or lilac, on another level it denotes a rethink on that ancient and pernicious mindset within the Vatican (a place that outdoes most other states on Earth in its almost medieval misogyny) that women are somehow “unclean”, “temptresses” and must be attired in black to “sanitise” them when they’re allowed into the presence of a saintly celibate churchman.
It’s nonsense, and we all know it – and even the fawning Vatican lackeys know it. But in making it clear that he’s happy to welcome a woman wearing ordinary clothes into his study, Pope Francis was telling us that, in his world, if not in the weird Vatican world around him, women are “normal” and can look and behave normally around him. That’s important, and it’s hugely cheering for anyone like me who’s still holding out some hope of positive change for women in the Catholic church. Sometimes it takes a couple of oldies to clean the lens and see the potential for a fresh frame and a new picture, and yesterday in Rome was one of those occasions !!!