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The pope’s man in London: Anglo-Vatican relations, the nuncio question and Irish concerns, 1938-82

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 April 2020

Daithí Ó Corráin*
School of History and Geography, St Patrick’s Campus, Dublin City University, Drumcondra, Dublin9, Republic of Ireland. Email:


Although a British mission to the Holy See was established in 1914, the diplomatic relationship was not on a basis of reciprocity. From 1938 the pope was represented in London not by a nuncio (the Vatican equivalent of an ambassador) but by an apostolic delegate whose mission was to the hierarchy alone and not the British government. The evolution of the nuncio question sheds light on the nature of Anglo-Vatican relations, the place of Catholicism in British public life, inter-church rapprochement and British foreign policy considerations. This article assesses the divergent positions of the Foreign and Home Offices. The former was sympathetic to a change of status, whereas the latter was cautious due to the opposition of the archbishop of Canterbury and concerns about anti-Catholicism. The nuncio question was also of great interest to the Irish government. It feared that a nuncio in London would exert jurisdiction over Northern Ireland and undermine the all-island unity of the Irish Catholic Church. The Northern Ireland Troubles and the support displayed by the apostolic delegate for British policy hastened the restoration of full ambassadorial relations between London and the Holy See in 1982, ending a diplomatic breach that had existed for more than four centuries. It paved the way for Pope John Paul II’s historic pastoral visit to Britain which helped to consolidate the position of Roman Catholicism in British national life.

Research Article
© Trustees of the Catholic Record Society 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press

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I am grateful to the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Dublin City University (DCU) for funding research in The National Archives, London for this article.


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120 Note of a meeting between the secretary of state and the Apostolic Delegate on 15 February 1978, FCO 33/3791, TNA.

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124 J. G. Pilling (private secretary to secretary of state) to Dennis Pehrson (press secretary apostolic delegation), 6 December 1978; Pehrson to Pilling, 21 December 1978, CJ 4/4530, TNA.

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128 Crossley to FCO, 15 January 1979, FCO 33/4251, TNA.

129 Crossley to Goodall, 11 December 1978, CJ 4/4530, TNA.

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132 Irish Independent, 9 May 1979.

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136 Crossley to FCO, 25 August 1979, FCO 33/4252, TNA.

137 Crossley to FCO, 24 August 1979, ibid.

138 Crossley to FCO, 25 August 1979, ibid.

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145 An exception was Conor Cruise O’Brien in the Observer, 30 September 1979.

146 Statement, 1 October 1979, PREM 19/128, TNA.

147 J. H. Callan (Crossley’s deputy) to S. Hilton (FCO), 15 October 1979, FCO 33/4252, TNA.

148 The Times, 13 November 1979.

149 Éamon Kennedy (Irish ambassador to the UK) to secretary DFA, 24 December 1979, DFA/2014/33/8, NAI.

150 Confidential minute by Carrington to prime minister, 27 October 1980, CJ 4/3837, TNA.

151 Atkins to Carrington, [?] July 1980, FCO 33/4536, TNA.

152 ‘Obituary of The Most Reverend Bruno Heim’, Daily Telegraph, 24 March 2003.

153 Report of a conversation with Monsignor Giovanni Tonucci of the Council for the Public Affairs of the Church, 1 December 1981, DFA/2014/33/8, NAI.

154 Irish Press, 20 October 1980.

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157 Secret minute on diplomatic relations between Britain and the Holy See, 12 January 1982, ibid.

158 Coffey to David Neligan (assistant secretary DFA), 18 Jan 1982 enclosing note of interview with Monsignor Achille Silvestrini on 15 January 1982, ibid.

159 Magee was ordained for St Patrick’s Society for the Foreign Missions and was one of Paul VI’s two private secretaries. He retained this position under John Paul I and John Paul II until 1982 when he became master of pontifical ceremonies.

160 Vatican Press Release, 16 January 1982, DFA/2014/33/8, NAI.

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162 Longley, ‘Hume’

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165 Ibid., 601.

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