The outpouring of public grief over the death of Diana Princess of Wales marked the moment England returned to its Roman Catholic roots almost 500 years after the reformation, according to the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.
Acts such as showering the Princess’s hearse with flowers show that the public is reverting to a “Catholic” approach to death after centuries of protestant reserve, the Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols suggested.
He said that the Princess’s funeral in 1997 marked a watershed in British history and would be remembered as the “end of the Reformation in England”.
Catholic practices such as prayers for the souls of the dead and a belief in saints, which were dismissed by protestant reformers in the 16th Century, are now being rediscovered, he said.
The recent growth in unofficial roadside shrines commemorating people killed in accidents – often filled with flowers photographs and mementos – has also been widely interpreted as marking a change in the way the British respond to death.
Interviewed in a BBC documentary about shrines and other places of religious significance in Britain, the Archbishop said that English people were rediscovering their ancient Catholic “voice”.
“I remember vividly the cortege carrying the body of Princess Diana coming up the Edgware Road,” he said.
“The Edgware Road was crowded with people, and they were throwing flowers forward to catch them on the hearse as it went by.
“And somebody said to me ‘each of those flowers is a prayer for Diana’.
“The same man went on to say ‘I think this moment marks the end of the Reformation in England’.
“The English people are discovering again their voice: at the point of death we do pray for those who have died.
“And they are discovering again their vision of the future which is so vividly expressed in the lives of the saints.”