Applauded in the heart of secular Britain
Pope Benedict XVI received sustained applause from Britain's political establishment last night after he chided them for "the increasing marginalisation of religion".
In an historic address delivered in London's Westminster Hall, where no previous Pope has ever set foot, the 83-year-old Pontiff insisted that it was possible, through dialogue, to live harmoniously in a society of many faiths as well as people of no faith.
Referring indirectly to recent legislation giving equal rights to homosexuals, the Pope said Catholic organisations should be free to act according to their own principles.
Among other concerns expressed by the Pope was how the celebration of Christmas was being discouraged because it might offend non-Christians.
On the second day of Pope Benedict's four-day visit, he took in three national locations embodying British democracy and the established Church of England.
These were Westminster Hall, Lambeth Palace (the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams) and Westminster Abbey, where kings and queens have been crowned since 1066.
But the high point was his keynote address in Westminster Hall, where a previous speaker, St Thomas More, lost his life for his adherence to the Pope, rather than to the British sovereign, Henry VIII. Pointedly, the Pope praised the saint because he "chose to serve God first, even if it upset the king".
In his Bavarian-accented English, Pope Benedict said: "Religion is not a problem for legislators to solve, but is a vital contributor to the national conversation."
Referring to the financial crisis, the Pope argued the case for "an ethical foundation for economic activity", and pleaded for more aid for the Third World.
After praising the long history of democracy in the UK, the Pontiff likened it to Catholic social teaching, which taught the duty of civil authority to foster the common good.
Among those he greeted afterwards were former prime ministers Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, John Major and Margaret Thatcher.
After staying overnight on Thursday at the papal nuncio's residence in Wimbledon, following his flight down from Scotland, he spent yesterday morning at St Mary's University College in Twickenham, meeting teachers and students, as well as representatives of religious congregations.
During an address to schoolchildren, he told them that the contemporary "celebrity culture" of aspiring to be either sports or entertainment stars would not be enough to make them happy.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who missed yesterday's proceedings because he was attending the funeral of his father, will meet the Pope for talks today.