Ask Vatican officials and others here in Rome which of Benedict XVI’s speeches will be the most important during the papal trip, and the answer is the one in Westminster Hall.
The Holy Father’s address to the Queen in Edinburgh will perhaps be equally historic, but it’s the one at the Palace of Westminster which is designed to have a lasting impact.
Freedom of conscience, faith and reason, and the positive contribution to society of the faith are the expected themes of the speech the Pope will deliver in the ancient chamber, perhaps most famous for being the place where St Thomas More was tried and condemned in 1535.
Westminster Hall has also been the site many other historical events, highly significant to British Catholics and to the nation as a whole. Originally constructed by William II (Rufus) in 1097, it was the venue for the coronation banquets of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and Elizabeth I. Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot conspirators were tried there, as were Charles I and Sir William Wallace.
More recently, it was where Edward VII, George V, George VI, Queen Mary, Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother all lay in state. It is also reserved for the most important addresses: Charles de Gaulle delivered a speech in the Hall on a visit to Britain in 1960, and Nelson Mandela did so in 1996.
For the government, Westminster Hall will be a crucial event, but so too will be the working dinner at Lancaster House on the Friday, attended by officials although not the Holy Father. “It’s not the point of the visit, but they [the government] are very interested in this [dinner],” one Vatican official told me. Common issues of concern will be international development, the environment, disarmament, education, HIV/Aids care and interreligious dialogue.
In his speeches, Benedict XVI will also raise matters which might make political leaders wince, namely those relating to marriage, life and the family, but he will apparently do this in a “delicate way”.
Whatever happens, expectations are “very high”, according to the official who’s been involved in some of the visit’s preparation. “Everything is well prepared, and it will be a very special moment. True, there have been difficulties, some people are not so happy with the visit, but it’s very important that ordinary people recognise he’s not just going for Catholics but for everyone, and with an important message to transmit.”
He predicted that it will in fact be “better than expectations” and hoped that “prejudices will fall”.
“It’s about the presence of the Pope,” he said, “and that changes everything.”