In a recent article in The Tablet, journalist Catherine Pepinster suggested that the  nation’s mourning for Princess Diana may demonstrate atavistic catholic symbolism buried deep in our UK history. Whether true or not, Diana herself, I believe, certainly was aware before her tragic death of personal catholic connections.

When she was experiencing criticism for a high profile anti-landmine campaign, my friend Austin Smith decided to write her an “imaginary” letter and pp it as from her great, great, great uncle.  George Spencer converted to Catholicism, was ordained a priest and joined the Passionists taking the name Ignatius. Father Ignatius Spencer died as the second Provincial walking in the footsteps of Blessed Dominic Barberi. 

Austin wrote his letter to Diana, as if from her “Great Uncle Ignatius”.  His “Ignatius letter” described her ancestor too experiencing disapproval from 19th century establishment figures. The letter described how Ignatius used his aristocratic pedigree and contacts to articulate the unheard voices of the poor: how he comforted the afflicted by afflicting the comfortable.  His letter encouraged Diana not to be distracted by opposition: it urged her to continue with her evident empathy on behalf of those innocents lacking power but suffering effects of decisions made by the powerful. Austin “signed” off the letter as from “your great, great, great uncle – Father Ignatius (George) Spencer CP”.

Not expecting a response, sometime later there was a surprising outcome.  His phone rang in Steve Biko Close, Toxteth; and a woman’s voice asked to speak to Fr Austin:  “Who is calling?” he asked.  “Diana” was her reply.  “Diana who….?  – was Austin’s surprised and somewhat naïve response! 

Subsequently, Austin would immediately recognise Diana’s voice each time in her frequent phone calls further exploring the story her Passionist relative had lived a century before, building his life focus around a Catholic heritage rooted deeply in principles of the Common Good.  

Whatever underpinned expressions of national mourning at her death in 1997, certainly in months leading up to it, Princess Diana demonstrated her own personal search and personal  commitment to the fundamental Gospel challenging question: “…and who is my neighbour?”.