April 28th, 2011
05:10 PM ET
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor
(CNN) – Have you heard about the historic event this weekend that's drawing hundreds of thousands to one of Europe’s leading capitals for a long day of pageantry?
No, not Friday’s royal wedding in London. I’m referring to Sunday’s beatification of Pope John Paul II in Rome.
It’s hard to deny that international media coverage of William and Kate’s nuptials is overshadowing preparations for Sunday’s beatification, the last step before sainthood.
A spokesman for the BBC said he didn't know how many of its personnel will be on hand for Sunday’s beatification but estimated that 550 BBCers are covering Friday’s wedding festivities: "It's likely to be the most watched event of the century so far.”
This isn’t the first time a royal happening has eclipsed a Roman Catholic one. In fact, it turns out to be the latest in a series of strange confluences of big events within the two camps, whose relationship has been famously frosty for centuries.
The last time around, it was the church that trumped royalty. Pope John Paul II died days before the last royal wedding - Prince Charles’ marriage to Camilla Parker Bowles in April 2005.
Then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, both of whom were scheduled to attend the wedding, also were expected at the pope's funeral.
“There was a crisis meeting between the Vatican and the British royal family,” says Mark Saunders, a royal biographer and contributor to CNN's royal wedding coverage. “And it was pointed out that it would be easier to put off Charles and Camilla’s wedding than to put off the pope’s funeral.”
“You can imagine that relations are going be strained between those factions during the best of times,” he added.
Relations between the monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church have been tense since King Henry VIII broke with Rome in the 16th century and formed the Anglican Church.
With less than a week till Charles and Camilla's wedding, their ceremony was postponed a day, from Friday to Saturday, to make room for the pope’s funeral.
Eight years earlier, leading lights of the royal family and the church vied for international attention, this time both in tragedy: Princess Diana and Mother Teresa died within a week of each other in 1997.
“Many lamented that Mother Teresa, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and ‘living saint’ if there ever was one, was overshadowed by Diana's death and funeral,” says David Gibson, a Catholic journalist and Vatican expert.
The tragedy of Diana’s death in a car accident at age 36 garnered more media attention than Mother Teresa’s passing at age 87.
“But there were connections between those two women as well,” Gibson notes. In 1992, Diana met with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, a reported high point of the princess’ trip to India, and the two met again in New York just months before they died.
On the 10th anniversary of their deaths, in 2007, the two were featured together on a British postage stamp - an unusual sight in a country where the monarch heads a competing church.
Centuries after Henry VIII broke with the Vatican, a law barring a Roman Catholic or someone married to a Roman Catholic from taking the throne is still on the books in Britain. Prime Minister David Cameron denounced the law this month.
If royal-Catholic tensions continue this weekend - with some Catholics no doubt miffed about the beatification playing second fiddle to the royal wedding - Gibson says he doubts John Paul would have minded.
“He would certainly have loved the focus on the royal marriage as an event undergirding the importance of the family,” Gibson says.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.