As his posting draws to a close, Ambassador of Hungary Péter Szabadhegy outlines the activities surrounding Becket Week
A joint initiative between the Church of England, the Catholic Church and Embassy of Hungary in London brought the relic of St Thomas Becket – which had been kept in Esztergom, Hungary, for centuries – to the UK. The set of events called ‘Becket Week’ took place between 23 and 29 May 2016. During its time in the UK, the relic was displayed and celebrated at Westminster Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, Lambeth Palace and Mercer’s Chapel, along with Rochester and Canterbury Cathedrals. The events of Becket Week were attended by several highly ranked political and religious leaders from Hungary.
I can proudly state that Becket Week was certainly the largest scale and perhaps the most important event of my Ambassadorship, which is now drawing to a conclusion. I am pleased we attained our main goal: to highlight historical and cultural links between Hungary and the UK and to further improve the already excellent relationship between our countries.
Before summarising the events of Becket Week, allow me to draw your attention to the significance of this initiative. This was the first time the British public had the opportunity to see the relic of St Thomas Becket – after having been kept with great reverence in Esztergom, Hungary – for 800 years. It is important to add that in Hungary devotion to Thomas Becket was revitalised by the Roman Catholic Church under the Communist regime, when the Church suffered serious limitations to her liberty. Since 1977, a candle-lighting ceremony combined with a symposium has been held annually in Esztergom to honour the martyred saint on his feast day.
Turning to the events in the UK, let me start with the opening. The relic of Thomas Becket arrived in London on 23 May and was welcomed at a Holy Mass at Westminster Cathedral, celebrated by Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest and Primate of Hungary Cardinal Péter Erdő, along with Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Vincent Nichols, and in the presence of Hungarian President János Áder and his First Lady Ms Anita Herczegh.
During his visit to the UK, President Áder met Prime Minister David Cameron at 10 Downing Street, Lord Speaker Baroness D’Souza in the House of Lords and Lord Mayor Alderman Lord Mountevans at Mansion House. I also hosted a lunch in honour of President Áder with members of the Hungarian Science Club. This included a ceremony in which I presented the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of Hungary to Sir George Radda, an outstanding Hungarian-born chemist professor.
Meanwhile, the relic of Thomas Becket returned to the saint’s birthplace, now Mercers’ Hall in the City of London. Here, a service by Bishop of London Richard Chartres celebrated the saint, and was attended by Bishop of Szeged-Csanád László Kiss-Rigó.
The relic of St Thomas Becket was also warmly welcomed at Westminster Abbey. Before Solemn Evensong, the Presidential couple, accompanied by Dean of Westminster Abbey Dr John Hall, laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.
Following the President’s visit, Speaker of the Hungarian Parliament László Kövér arrived in the UK where he attended further Becket Week events and met with his British counterparts. The visit included meetings with Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow, plus members of the Parliament’s Hungary All-Party Parliamentary Group and the Hungarian community in the UK. The Hungarian Speaker also attended a Solemn Mass in the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft followed by a reception in Parliament.
The London events were concluded with a symposium at Lambeth Palace commemorating Thomas Becket. Minister of State for Hungary’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, István Mikola, welcomed the guests while the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Vincent Nichols and Bishop László Kiss-Rigó of Szeged-Csanád were among the lecturers commemorating the saint.
Together with the Hungarian delegation, Thomas Becket’s relic travelled to Rochester at the end of the week. Here, Dean of Rochester Cathedral Philip Hesketh and Bishop of Rochester James Langstaff welcomed the relic and the delegation.
On Saturday the relic finally arrived in Canterbury, its final stop in the UK before returning to Hungary. In a nod to the traditional historical pilgrimage, the relic was accompanied by Minister of State István Mikola, Bishop of Szeged-Csanád László Kiss-Rigó, Mayor of Esztergom Etelka Romanek and me – together with a multitude of pilgrims – on a one-hour walk to Canterbury Cathedral. Dean of Canterbury Cathedral Dr Robert Willis, Bishop of Dover Trevor Willmott and Lord Mayor of Canterbury Councillor George Metcalfe welcomed the Hungarian delegation to the Cathedral, after which a service of celebration was held.
On Sunday 29 May, Bishop László Kiss-Rigó of Szeged-Csanád, National Ecumenical Officer and Secretary for Dialogue and Unity at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales John O’Toole and Father Valentine Erhahon of Saint Thomas Roman Catholic Church concelebrated the Sunday Mass in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral. The Joyful Company of Singers, conducted by Peter Broadbent, sang Hungarian pieces during the Holy Mass, after which they gave an open-air concert of Hungarian classical and folk songs in Canterbury Cathedral’s Green Court Deanery.
Finally, I would like to close my enthusiastic summary on Becket Week by inviting Diplomat magazine readers to visit Hungary and Esztergom, where St Thomas Becket’s relic has now returned, and is back on display.