By Edward Pentin

LONDON, SEPT. 17, 2010 ( Today was the most intense and historically significant of the Pope's state visit to Britain.

The Holy Father made six speeches that addressed teachers, students, inter-faith and ecumenical leaders, and civil and political leaders at the Houses of Parliament.

His speech at Westminster Hall, delivered shortly after 5 p.m., will form the core of the state visit. Crowds cheered him on as he made this short journey by popemobile to St. Stephen' s Gate, the entrance to the Palace of Westminster, sometimes referred to as the mother of all parliaments.

On arrival he was met by John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, a position once held by St. Thomas More, the patron saint of politicians who was tried and condemned in Westminster Hall. A fanfare by the State Trumpeters heralded the Pope' s arrival in the chamber.

As the Speaker reminded those present in his welcome speech, 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.

In the Holy Father' s speech, delivered in front of Britain's four former Prime Ministers, Church leaders and heads of other faiths, the Pope 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."

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 essentially an application of his social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, a reminder that "every economic decision has a moral consequence," but taking it further and applying it to the political sphere. It was, as one commentator put it, "a rallying call, and a plea -- for religion not to be squeezed out by secular society."

His reception by politicians in Westminster Hall was impressive. "No one could have guessed the warmth they showed him," said Father Christopher Jamison, until recently the Abbot of Worth Abbey in Sussex. "His speech was very significant for the country." It was also well timed. The new coalition government 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 nunciature where the Pope is residing. 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; he invited students of Catholic schools to become saints, and to enter into a relationship with God rather than follow a celebrity culture, fame or merely wealth.

The Holy Father then met interreligious leaders, during which news broke that 6 people had been arrested by London police on suspicion of hatching a plot to attack the Pope. The Holy Father was informed of the news during the morning. Father Federico Lombardi played down the news, saying the situation wasn't "particularly dangerous."

A lunch at the apostolic nunciature and short rest was followed by a motorcade through London to Lambeth Palace, the official London residence of the archbishop of Canterbury. After the Westminster Hall speech, a final moment of history was made when the Pope prayed with the archbishop of Canterbury at the tomb of St. Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, a church he had had constructed.

100% with the Pope

The atmosphere around Westminster was lively throughout the day, with the faithful voicing their support for the Holy Father amid a few protestors who tried to drown out the cheers with boos. They didn't succeed. Too many well-wishers lining the barricades were voicing their support: One group of women from the Neocatechumenal way sang "Alleluia," while others held placards that read: "We Love U Pope" and "We Are With U 100% Papa."

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 one of the leaders of the "Protest the Pope" campaign. After all the media attention they have attracted, Tatchell was playing down talk of large protests saying he now only expected small groups.

But for all of Tatchell' s militancy, he is not completely closed to dialogue. He told me he understood where the Pope was coming from on issues he disagrees with; he just believes he' s wrong. Yet he says he supports religious liberty and even protested on behalf of the Church in favour of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia.

Arguably a harder group of protestors to deal with were the Free Church Protestants. A group of mostly elderly members of the Protestant Truth Society had gathered outside Westminster Abbey to shout at the Pope. To all my questions about whether they were willing to listen to the Pope, open to reading his works, or coming together on common values, the answer was a straight: "No."

But the mood was good-humoured with plenty of banter between them and passing Catholic priests. A large sign saying "No Popery" was unravelled to which an English priest gave a hearty cheer and took a picture. "Good to see good some old fashioned Protestants here!" he joked.

Many of the Catholics in the crowd holding flags and banners said they were delighted so far with how the visit has gone. The consensus is that the turnout has been good and there's been a great sense of enthusiasm among the faithful.

The kindness of Anglicans has also not gone unnoticed. "They have been extremely generous and gracious," said Father Jamison.