Two weeks ago, we heard the news of the death of Queen Elizabeth II on the feast day of the nativity of Our Lady, the queen of heaven. As an Australian, she wasn’t just the queen to me; she was my queen. I looked up to her as a rare example of duty, grace and loyalty.
I also looked up to her as a woman of deep and quiet faith.
That is a side of Queen Elizabeth we didn’t often get to see. Although she had a formal role as the head of the Protestant Church of England, everyone who knew her said the same thing. She was a woman of faith who relied on God for guidance and strength in the difficult task of being sovereign in an ever-changing world.
Queen Elizabeth never saw her role as queen as just a job, even a very important job. For her, it was a vocation from God. When she was crowned queen in 1953, the most sacred moment of the coronation wasn’t actually the crowning, it was when she was anointed with the holy chrism oil. The cameras even panned away because it was a sacred moment between the young queen and the Lord.
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The queen described her faith in Jesus as the inspiration, the anchor and the framework of her life. During her Christmas address in 2000, she said, “For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life.”
And for her, they weren’t just words either. Every morning, the first thing the queen would do would be to kneel beside her bed and pray. She reportedly prayed by name for every country she ruled over. (And that’s quite a few!) She was also faithful in attending the Sunday service, whether at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, Sandringham or Balmoral.
Above all, she really tried to live a life of Christian virtue. She didn’t get it perfect, but who of us ever does? Even though she was the queen, she never made it all about her, but she always put duty first. The only way she could do that was by relying on God, day in and day out. She explained in her 2002 Christmas message: “I know just how much I rely on my own faith to guide me through the good times and the bad. Each day is a new beginning. I know that the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right, to take the long view, to give of my best in all that the day brings, and to put my trust in God. Like others of you who draw inspiration from your own faith, I draw strength from the message of hope in the Christian gospel.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t get to decree laws, advise politicians or make global speeches. Nor am I surrounded by cameras (thankfully) or curtseying courtiers (although I think I’d enjoy that!). So, you might think the queen’s unique role as monarch means that she doesn’t have much to teach us about living our faith, let alone evangelizing.
But actually, I think it’s the exact opposite.
Even though she was perhaps the most recognized woman in the world, the queen had to tread very carefully. She always had to be impartial, apolitical and a symbol of national unity.
We don’t have those constraints. But we also often have to tread softly as we witness to our faith. Maybe our family doesn’t practice the Faith. Maybe our classmates or work colleagues can’t stand “all that stuff” and even make us feel isolated and embarrassed. Maybe we’re encountering people who, for a variety of reasons, just don’t want to hear it.
Some Christians are called to very active roles in spreading the Gospel by their preaching. But most of us are called to witness to Christ by our actions, fulfilling our duties and aspiring to “live a tranquil life” at peace with our neighbors (1 Thes 4:11).
Queen Elizabeth shows us that we don’t always have to be shouting from the rooftops. As Ecclesiastes says, there is “a time to be silent, and a time to speak” (3:7). In his letter, St. Peter instructs us to “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet 3:15-16).
We must always be ready to give an answer and to preach the Gospel, but not every single occasion calls for a treatise on why Catholics don’t worship Mary — tempting as it can be!
Often, the most powerful form of evangelism is simply living out the duties of our vocation, whatever they may be, with diligence and joy. This is what the queen modeled for us.
But every year, at Christmas, Her Majesty got the chance to give a personal address. This was really the only time of the year when the queen spoke as herself, not as a representative of the nation or the crown. And each year, she took the chance to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in her own gentle and dignified way.
For example, in 2011, she focused on the person of Jesus Christ. She said: “God sent into the world a unique person — neither a philosopher nor a general, important though they are, but a Savior, with the power to forgive. … It is my prayer that on this Christmas day we might all find room in our lives for the message of the angels and for the love of God through Christ our Lord.”
When her small chance came, she was ready like St. Peter urges us to be, to give a defense and a reason for the hope that she had. If anyone ever wondered where the queen got her remarkable strength from or how she carried on all those years, unswerving in her devotion to duty, she told them each year.
It was Jesus.
That is the kind of evangelism we can all learn from. God calls us to follow Christ by serving him and others, rather than ourselves, and fulfilling the duties of our own vocations as best we can. And when we get our opportunities to speak, whether with one person or with millions like the queen, we can also give a reason and a defense for the hope that is within us.
And that answer will be all the more powerful because it won’t just be empty words.
It will be the truth expressed in our love.