Today was the most intense and historically significant of the Pope's visit to Britain.
It was also highly successful despite being marked by the arrests of six people suspected of plotting to attack the pontiff.
Benedict XVI made six speeches that addressed teachers, students, inter-faith and ecumenical leaders, and civil and political leaders at the Houses of Parliament.
His much-anticipated address at Westminster Hall will form the core of this visit. Crowds cheered him on as he made a short journey by popemobile to the entrance to the Palace of Westminster.
The pageantry matched the historical weight of the occasion, and state trumpeters heralded the Pope's arrival in the chamber.
The speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, reminded those present in his welcome speech that this was the first-ever visit by the successor of Peter to the British parliament — a fact which on its own holds historical significance and would have been “inconceivable” not long ago.
The Pope delivered his speech in front of Britain's four former prime ministers, including Tony Blair and Baroness Thatcher, as well as Church leaders and heads of other faiths.
He revisited a theme close to his heart: the importance of faith and reason. He spoke of “worrying signs” that the faith is being marginalized in society and stressed the role that religion plays in helping lawmakers discover “moral principles.” It was, as one commentator put it, "a rallying call, and a plea for religion not to be squeezed out by secular society."
He praised Britain's role in international development, but recalled how some financial institutions were “too big to fail,” leading to the spending of vast resources to prevent them from doing so.
Benedict stressed that human development of the world's peoples was no less important — an “enterprise, worthy of the world's attention, that is truly 'too big to fail'.”
His speech was a reminder that “every economic decision has a moral consequence,” but taking it further and applying it to the political sphere.
His reception by politicians in Westminster Hall took some by surprise. “No one could have guessed the warmth they showed him,” said Father Christopher Jamison, a former Benedictine abbot. “His speech was very significant for the country.” It was also well timed.
After years of gradual secularization by the previous Labour government, the newly elected coalition is embracing the role of faith in society, with one minister saying recently that the new administration “does God.”
The Pope's first day in London began with a private Mass at the papal ambassador's residence where Benedict XVI is staying.
He first made a visit to St. Mary's University College in Twickenham, a respected Catholic teacher training college, where he was greeted by a large number of excitable schoolchildren.
He spoke of the importance of wisdom in teaching, and that children must be taught in an environment of trust. He invited students of Catholic schools to enter into a relationship with God rather than follow a celebrity culture, fame or merely wealth.
The Pope then met interreligious leaders, during which news broke that six people had been arrested by London police on suspicion of hatching a plot to attack the Pope. Benedict XVI was informed of the news during the morning. Father Federico Lombardi played down the news, saying the situation wasn't “particularly dangerous.”
The day closed with a final moment of history: In a gesture of friendship, the Pope prayed with the archbishop of Canterbury at the tomb of St. Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, the patron saint of the royal family.
The atmosphere around Westminster was lively throughout the day, with Catholics voicing their support for the Pope.
A few protesters tried to drown out the cheers with boos. Around 30 campaigners for women priests had gathered at Lambeth Palace while Benedict XVI was meeting the archbishop of Canterbury.
Among them was homosexual rights campaigner Peter Tatchell who has been at the forefront of the "Protest the Pope" campaign — a group of secularists opposed to the Pope's visit. After all the media attention they have attracted, Tatchell was playing down talk of large protests saying he now only expected small groups.
Tomorrow the Pope will sit down for talks with government leaders including Prime Minister David Cameron and Harriet Harman, the leader of the opposition.
Harman was a chief proponent of equality legislation during the last government, some of which led to the forced closure of Catholic adoption agencies. The Pope took the unusual step of speaking out against the legislation earlier this year.
The general feeling among Catholics is that this has been an emotional visit which has proceeded very well so far. The turnout has been high and the enthusiasm is greater than many were expecting. It may also herald a new beginning for British society, one in which religion sees a comeback.
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