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Pope to address MPs in Westminster during state visit

Pope Benedict XVI will preach to MPs and peers in Westminster Hall when he visits England next September, Vatican sources said today.

He will make an address from the spot where Sir Thomas More was condemned to death in 1535 for opposing the adultery of King Henry VIII.

Details of the four-day state visit are being negotiated in Rome between a delegation of Whitehall officials and their Vatican counterparts. A Vatican delegation has also visited London in an attempt to finalise the plans. But it is understood that the visit will begin on 16 September and that it will end after the Pope has personally presided over the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, possibly in Wembley Stadium, on Sunday 19 September. The Pope will also address academics at Oxford University.

The former Tory minister Ann Widdecombe, a convert to Catholicism who will be standing down at the general election, said it was “marvellous” that the Pope will be able to address parliamentarians from such a historic venue. She added: “He should remind parliamentarians of their duty to guarantee freedom and democracy and that includes Christians.”

Westminster Hall was built in the 11th century and is the oldest part of the Palace of Westminster. It is sacred to many Catholics because it was where many martyrs and saints were tried for high treason during the Protestant Reformation.

Most notably it was the scene of the trial of Thomas More, the lord chancellor who was beheaded after he refused to take an oath attached to the Act of Supremacy that made the king the supreme head of the Church in England. He was canonised as a saint by Pope Pius XI in 1935 and made patron saint of politicians by Pope John Paul II. A plaque marking the trial site was kissed by Mother Teresa of Calcutta on one of her visits to Britain. During the Elizabethan era, St Edmund Campion, the Jesuit missionary, was also tried in the hall and, in the reign on James I, it was the setting for the trial of Guy Fawkes, who had tried to blow up the building in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

In the same century, dozens of innocent Catholic priests falsely accused by Titus Oates of plotting to kill King Charles II and put his Catholic brother James on the throne were tried and sentenced to death there. Samuel Pepys, the diarist and naval administrator, was implicated in the plot, and also tried but was acquitted.

Monsignor Anthony Stark, master of the Guild of Our Lady of Ransom, a Catholic society set up to pray for the conversion of England, and who has led pilgrimages to Westminster Hall, said it was “wonderful” that Pope Benedict would be speaking from the spot where Thomas More was condemned to death.

“The Holy Father will reflect his own thoughts on the significance of this,” said Monsignor Stark.

“His appreciation of their stand and their condemnation in that place will be more than other popes. He is an historical theologian and he will speak with great insight and I am sure his words will be heeded by many.”

It is being rumoured in Rome that Pope Benedict is likely to use his Westminster Hall speech to address the subject of religious freedom at a time when Christianity is under pressure in the western world from aggressive secularism.

However, the occasion will signify a great personal achievement by a pope who is known to have a lifetime devotion both to Thomas More and to Cardinal Newman.

Benedict XVI is considered by theologians as one of the Church’s most authentic interpreters of Newman’s “theology of conscience” and he has publicly compared Newman’s teachings to the stance of Thomas More in defying Henry VIII.

Newman’s life and work, he said in a speech, “could be designated a single great commentary on the question of conscience” and that along with St Thomas More, Newman is Britain’s other “great witness of conscience”.

Monks led by St John Houghton, the Abbot of the London Charterhouse, became the first martyrs of the Protestant Reformation after they were condemned to death in the Great Hall and then hanged drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 4 May 1535.

St John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester canonised at the same time as More, was tried and condemned in the Hall and then beheaded on Tower Hill on 22 June 1535 – two weeks before More met the same fate.

The transcript of More’s trial in the Hall still exists, including his final testimony after he was condemned to death.

He told the court that it was not so much for the Act of Supremacy “that you seek my blood as for that I would not condescend to the marriage” (between Henry and Ann Boleyn), which he considered to be adulterous.

An official announcement of the papal visit is not expected until well into the new year.