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Pope Brings Sense Of History To Britain

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

DAVID GREENE, host:

And I'm David Greene.

It was an eventful day for Pope Benedict, who's on a state visit to Britain. London police arrested at least six people on suspicion of planning an attack on the pope. However, there was no direct threat to Benedict, and his staff played down the news. Later, the pope addressed the troubled history of English-papal relations as he visited the seat of British power.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES: Many extraordinary scenes have played out within London's Westminster Hall during the 900 years since it was built. Today, it formed the stage for another drama as the 83-year-old pope walked into the hall

(Soundbite of horns)

REEVES: And came face to face with the leaders of modern Britain.

(Soundbite of horns)

REEVES: Pope Benedict, representative of 1 billion Catholics, is the first pontiff ever to enter this ancient hall, which stands within the palace that houses Britain's parliament. He brought with him a sense of history.

Pope BENEDICT XVI: As I speak to you in this historic setting, I think of the countless men and women down the centuries have played their part - and has remained as evidence that has taken place within these walls.

REEVES: Some of these momentous events have been a lot less pleasant than today's ceremony. Three-and-a-half centuries ago, King Charles I was tried in this hall and sent off to be executed. So - a few decades before that - was a Catholic called Guy Fawkes, for plotting to blow up parliament. But the pope singled out another figure from the past.

Pope BENEDICT XVI: In particular, recall the figure of Sir Thomas More.

REEVES: Sir Thomas More, philosopher, writer and personal adviser to King Henry VIII. Henry was the king who split the English Church from the Vatican 500 years ago because it refused him permission to get a divorce. The pope today was on the same spot where More was tried for refusing to accept Henry as head of England's church - a stance that cost More his head.

Many hundreds of British dignitaries gathered to listen to the pope - leaders from a largely secular land that still, at times, has uneasy relations with his church. Among them were four former prime ministers, including Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, a recent convert to Catholicism.

The pope's main theme concerned the role played by religion in policymaking, or lack of it. He cited the recent global financial crisis as an example.

Pope BENEDICT XVI: There's widespread agreement that the lack of a solid ethical foundation for economic activity has contributed to the grave difficulties now being experienced by millions of people throughout the world.

REEVES: No government can afford to ignore the ethical dimension of policymaking, the pontiff said.

Pope BENEDICT XVI: In this light, I cannot but voice my concern it's increasing marginalization of religion - particularly of Christianity - that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance.

REEVES: The pope is a very poor performer in public, but he spoke firmly enough - and ended on a flourish.

Pope BENEDICT XVI: Thank you, and God bless you all.

(Soundbite of applause)

REEVES: The applause was warm, but not ecstatic.

(Soundbite of music)

REEVES: Evening prayers with the archbishop of Canterbury in Westminster Abbey brought an end to the second day of his visit. So far this has gone smoothly, but there has been one scare. Before dawn today, armed, anti-terrorist police raided a depot and arrested a group of London street cleaners. They're being questioned about an alleged threat against the pope, though they haven't yet been charged with any offense.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.