Status of the papal delegate in Britain

Status of the papal delegate in Britain Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich.

Echoes of the past from the Archives

At the end of October 1980, Frank Coffey, the Irish Ambassador to the Holy See, was approached circumspectly at a reception by the British minister to the Holy See with some dismaying news that he immediately communicated to Dublin in a dispatch marked “secret”.

The minister wish to reply to a query he had had from the British Embassy in Dublin about remark made by Cardinal Tomas Ó Fiaich to a journalist that there would “one heck of a row” if the intended Apostolic Delegate to London, Archbishop Bruno Heim, was accredited to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Ambassador Coffey reported that he told the minister that an Irish journalist in Rome had heard a rumour about this appointment and had rung up the cardinal for his comment.

“I understood that the cardinal had, in fact, uttered the phrase ‘one heck of a row’, but had assumed the journalist would not quote him verbatim.”

The matter was from the Irish point of view not a trivial one. The Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland were organised on an all-Ireland basis. “The nuncio in Dublin,” the ambassador went on in his report, “had jurisdiction over all the Irish dioceses; hence the cardinal’s objection to any change in the nuncio’s jurisdiction.”


The British diplomat revealed to Coffey that the British cabinet was divided on the matter. The Vatican was not pushing the issue. “However, some pressure for elevating the status of the delegate was being brought to bear on the government by the Duke of Norfolk and other upper-class Catholics. He doubted if the average Catholic in Britain was very concerned one way or the other.”

But the Foreign Office was unhappy with the present arrangement, finding it quite anomalous.

The delegate, the minister continued, “a very accomplished diplomat”, had recently been invited to a diplomatic reception in Buckingham Palace and “had to be hidden behind a curtain”.

Later the ambassador reported that he understood that it was the British, in the person of Lord Carrington, who were to bring the issue on. Archbishop Heim, who had been sent to Britain in 1973, was appointed the Apostolic Pro-Nuncio, the Vatican’s first fully-fledged ambassador to the Court of St James’ since the Reformation.

This was done just before the visit of Pope John Paul II to Britain.

Heim, who was also an accomplished expert in heraldry, was popular with journalists and said to be very much persona grata with the Queen Mother.

When he retired as a diplomat in 1985, the London Times referred to him as “tact personified” – a term which not all those in London would have applied to Cardinal
Ó Fiaich.