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Giving thanks for the life of Prince Philip

‘A wonderful gift’ is how Archbishop Malcolm McMahon described the life of the Duke of Edinburgh whose death on 9 April was marked by a Requiem Mass at the Metropolitan Cathedral.


By Simon Hart


It was two days after the death of the Duke of Edinburgh that Archbishop Malcolm McMahon offered BBC Radio Merseyside listeners the story of a fondly remembered personal encounter during a royal visit to Liverpool.


It occurred a few years ago when the Archbishop and his Anglican counterpart, Bishop Paul Bayes, attended a lunch for the Queen and Prince Philip at Liverpool Town Hall – and Archbishop Malcolm got a taste of the latter’s famous sense of humour. He recalled: ‘I was on the table with Prince Philip while the Bishop was on the table with the Queen, and Prince Philip said to me, “Oh, you must be the Catholic because you’re on the second table with me”. That was typical of him, I believe, because he put everyone at ease.’


Archbishop Malcolm’s tale is just one of the countless told among the tributes that followed the death of Prince Philip on Friday 9 April, two months before his hundredth birthday. The passing of the longest-serving consort of any British monarch was marked by a Requiem Mass the next day at the Metropolitan Cathedral which served, in Archbishop Malcolm’s words, to ‘give thanks to God for the wonderful gift of this quite remarkable person’.


There were messages of condolence too from Pope Francis and Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. ‘At this moment of sadness and loss, I pray for the repose of the soul of Prince Philip, Her Majesty the Queen’s faithful and loyal husband,’ said Cardinal Nichols. ‘How much we will miss Prince Philip’s presence and character, so full of life and vigour. He has been an example of steadfast loyalty and duty cheerfully given. May he rest in peace.’


From Pope Francis, who received the Queen and Prince Philip at the Vatican in April 2014, his ‘heartfelt condolences’ came in a telegram sent by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State. In it, the Pope praised Prince Philip’s ‘devotion to his marriage and family, his distinguished record of public service and his commitment to the education and advancement of future generations.’


Prince Philip, who was laid to rest at St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle on Saturday 17 April, had been married to the Queen for 73 years and in this time performed 22,000 solo engagements. Speaking at the Requiem Mass at the Metropolitan Cathedral, which the prince had visited with the Queen in 1977, Archbishop Malcolm said of him: ‘We will all miss this intelligent, caring, humorous and thoughtful man who gave back to his family, the nation and the world much more than he received, but our grief can only be a shadow of that felt by Her Majesty the Queen, their children and all their family. It is to them that I extend my sincerest condolences at their loss.’


One immediate consequence of Prince Philip’s passing was the belated discovery of the remarkable life of a figure whom many Britons had only known of as an old man. It was a life which began in extraordinary circumstances with his birth on a dining table in a villa in Corfu. Born into the then Greek royal family, as the son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and Princess Alice of Battenberg, he was a toddler when the family were forced into exile.


As a young man, Philip was a Royal Navy officer in World War Two and was present in Tokyo Bay for the Japanese surrender. After marrying the future Queen Elizabeth II in 1947 he would become a modernising force in the Royal Family whose traditions still included footmen wearing powdered wigs when he and the Queen moved into Buckingham Palace after her coronation in 1953. In 1956 the prince founded the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme which has, to date, given five million young people a valuable sense of mission. He was president of the Council of Engineering Institutions and later helped set up the Royal Academy of Engineering. He served also as president of the World Wildlife Fund UK and, from 1996, was its president emeritus.


Archbishop Malcolm added: ‘The Duke of Edinburgh award scheme ingrains in young people ideals of service and commitment as well as recognition of personal achievement that stay with a person throughout their lives shaping them as future citizens. Remaining faithful to the World Wildlife Fund has made the world a better place, respecting the love which God has for us in the world He created. His understanding of ecology and his work in drawing together different parties went far beyond saving the giant panda to offering hope for the future of the planet to us all. He had an enquiring mind which explored ideas in theology, philosophy, and science and technology – as witnessed by his collection of books. He was ahead of his time.’


Prince Philip only retired from public duties in 2017, aged 95, and Archbishop Malcolm observed: ‘Fidelity or faithfulness is not a popular idea because it doesn’t follow fashion, doesn’t allow for whim or fancy but it is based in duty and lasting love. But it goes in hand in hand with another characteristic of Prince Philip which was humility. He was often self-effacing and slow to claim credit for his achievements and did what he did because that was the way he was made.’


Cardinal Nichols, speaking is the homily at the Requiem Mass celebrated at Westminster Cathedral, gave his own thanks for Prince Philip’s life of service. ‘His long, long life is marked by many achievements,’ he said. ‘They are being gratefully recalled in these days – achievements for young people, for engineering, for the environment, in the defence of our nation, for so many charitable causes. Yet it is for his selfless loyalty to the Queen and his tireless, generous sense of duty and service for which we give the most heartfelt thanks.

‘Inspired by his Christian faith, and, I believe, by the example of his extraordinary mother, Princess Alice, the service given by Prince Philip will long be an inspiration to us all. Little wonder that, as they celebrated their Golden Jubilee, Her Majesty spoke of him as her “constant strength and stay”.

‘An abiding memory of mine is the sight of Prince Philip, standing for hours on end, upright and alert, in the cold and pouring rain on that long celebratory pageant on the River Thames, marking the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. How he must have longed to take shelter. But he did not. A steadfast and indomitable spirit marked every one of his 70 years of service. For this we thank God and pray that he may now rest in peace.’


‘A strong individual, full of character and humour’


Bishop Paul Bayes, the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, paid his own tribute to the Duke of Edinburgh when he said: ‘Prince Philip was a strong individual, full of character and humour, who chose for the whole of his life to use that strength and character to serve and support – to support the Queen and to offer service to the nation as a whole. He accompanied the Queen many times on visits to Liverpool and our region over the years, on each occasion enriching and encouraging our communities here. We thank God for his life, and commend him now to the mercy of our Lord.’