History in the Hall


Benedict arrives at the spot where Catholic worship was once a beheading offence.

A pope was welcomed yesterday at a spot where fidelity to the Holy Father was once a beheading offence. Sometimes words are inadequate to the moment, and this moment, carrying in itself nearly a thousand years of history, brought an abiding and expectant silence to Westminster Hall as Britain's political establishment waited for Pope Benedict XVI at the site where St. Thomas More and other martyrs were condemned to death for their Roman Catholic faith.

Led by all the former living British prime ministers – with a frail Margaret Thatcher making a grand entrance, preferring to walk up the long aisle rather than using the discreet side entrance the others used – the political class of Britain knew that a truly singular moment was at hand.

Being in an immense hall, utterly silent on the threshold of history, brought to mind only one other occasion: St. Peter's basilica before Pope John Paul II arrived to open the holy door for the great jubilee of the year 2000.

The peers and powerful of British politics, accustomed to the usual parade of princes and prime ministers, knew that receiving the Pope was something on an altogether different plane.

Westminster Hall is the most ancient part of the Palace of Westminster, the place where sovereigns lie in state, and where a grateful nation came to pay its respects to Winston Churchill. It was here the institutions of crown-in-parliament developed, providing the foundation for democratic government the world over.

"Allow me also to express my esteem for the Parliament which has existed on this site for centuries and which has had such a profound influence on the development of participative government among the nations, especially in the Commonwealth and the English-speaking world at large," said Benedict, in words that were characterized as "extraordinarily generous" by his host, the Speaker of the House of Lords.

Calling the British common law tradition "an inspiration to many around the world" Benedict then turned to the dominant theme of his visit, namely that law without an ethical foundation could easily descend into tyranny.

It happened here on July 1, 1535, when Thomas More, former lord chancellor and speaker of the House of Commons, was condemned to death for his refusal to recognize Henry VIII as head of the Church.

One of the saddest moments in British history, the trial of More is commemorated with a plaque before which Benedict paused, accompanied by the current Speaker of the House.

Another pope, another speaker, another time – it all seemed remarkably present.

Benedict came to ask Britain's ruling class if there was room today for men of conscience like Thomas More, or whether religious believers had to leave their faith behind in order to contribute to public life.

The words were not new, but to pronounce them in Westminster Hall, at the birthplace of parliamentary democracy, gave them unusual gravity.

"The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found?" Benedict asked.

He argued faith and reason must work together to provide that foundation, lest there be no ultimate limit on what power might do – whether it be tyranny in 16th century or the totalitarianisms of the 20th.

"Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation," Benedict said before addressing the problem of aggressive secularism in Britain.

"Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation," Benedict said before addressing the problem of aggressive secularism in Britain.

"In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance.

"There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none.

"These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square."

Westminster Hall was once the great public square of British life. Yesterday there was respectful room there for religion's voice. Whether such voices are welcome tomorrow is the question Benedict thinks is very much in doubt.

Westminster Hall address



Father Raymond J. de Souza, "History in the Hall." National Post, (Canada) September 18, 2010.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.

The text of the Holy Father's address is available here.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2010 National Post

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