During his long exile in Normandy, the Saxon prince who would become known as Edward the Confessor vowed that he would make a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Peter once he returned to England. After his coronation as king, the pope released Edward from this vow -- if he built a monastery dedicated to the first bishop of Rome. Thus, St. Peter's Abbey was rebuilt in Westminster.
Pope Benedict XVI gently stressed this history in the first words of his address during his recent visit to Westminster Abbey, where he prayed with the archbishop of Canterbury.
"I thank the Lord for this opportunity to join you ... in this magnificent Abbey church dedicated to St. Peter, whose architecture and history speak so eloquently of our common heritage of faith," said Benedict. "Here we cannot help but be reminded of how greatly the Christian faith shaped the unity and culture of Europe and the heart and spirit of the English people. Here too, we are forcibly reminded that what we share, in Christ, is greater than what continues to divide us. ...
"I thank the Lord for allowing me, as the successor of St. Peter in the See of Rome, to make this pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Edward the Confessor."
Benedict's historic visit to England's national shrine received little coverage, in part because his remarks there were intensely spiritual. Meanwhile, journalists had to notice that his Westminster Hall address on the role of reason and faith in politics drew a secular flock that included, as an Associated Press report noted, "former Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, who recently converted to Catholicism."
Speaking in the hall in which the Catholic martyr Sir Thomas More was convicted of treason for his loyalty to Rome, Benedict warned that the modern world -- take Europe -- is increasingly hostile to those who try to act on their beliefs.
"There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere," he said. "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. And there are those who argue -- paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination -- that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience.
"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."
The abbey visit created no sparks, in part because earlier that day the pope told Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams that there was no need to "speak of the difficulties that the ecumenical path has encountered and continues to encounter. Those difficulties are well known." Thus, there were no clear references to tensions about female priests, gay bishops in America's Episcopal Church and the Vatican's controversial decision -- after many appeals by Anglican traditionalists -- to make it easier for members of the Church of England to enter the Church of Rome.
Instead, Benedict repeatedly stressed that unity must be found in scripture, creeds and moral doctrines that date back to the early church. These words, however, are controversial in an age in which the global Anglican Communion is divided over teachings as central as the resurrection of Jesus and claims that salvation is found through Christ, alone.
"Our commitment to Christian unity is born of nothing less than our faith in Christ, in this Christ, risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father, who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead," he said. "It is the reality of Christ's person, his saving work and above all the historical fact of his resurrection, which is the content of ... those creedal formulas. ... The church's unity, in a word, can never be other than a unity in the apostolic faith, in the faith entrusted to each new member of the Body of Christ."
Finally, Benedict stressed -- yet again -- that he was speaking and acting in "fidelity to my ministry as the bishop of Rome and the successor of St. Peter, charged with a particular care for the unity of Christ's flock."