London ~~ Sunday June 24, 2007
Inside the Vatican as Blair maps his road to Rome
Pope and PM have a 'frank exchange of views' at Vatican meeting
John Hooper in Vatican City
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'There he is,' whispered a beaming Vatican official. 'The great convert.'
In front of the visitors to Rome, on a table in Pope Benedict's vast study, was the gift that the pontiff had just received from Tony Blair - a frame containing three photographs of Cardinal Newman, the most famous English convert to Roman Catholicism. So far, at least.
In his last official foreign engagement before leaving office, Blair could scarcely have made clearer his intentions on conversion. And the Vatican could equally scarcely have made clearer its misgivings about the Prime Minister's record in national and international politics, and its refusal to endorse his premiership.
A statement issued after more than an hour of talks between Blair and the Pope said they had a 'frank exchange of views'. The Vatican almost never uses the term 'frank' and when it does it means there has been an argument.
The statement said the Pope and his advisers had 'reviewed certain significant contributions by Prime Minister Blair during his 10 years in government'. The 'frank exchange of views' had been about 'the present international situation, not omitting to tackle particularly delicate questions, such as the conflict in the Middle East and the future of the European Union after the Brussels summit'.
But despite the frank talks it seems inevitable Blair will convert, ending years of speculation over the Prime Minister's faith, a matter about which he has never felt comfortable talking. When asked whether he would be converting in an interview for the Times magazine, published yesterday, Blair replied: 'I don't want to talk about it. It's difficult with some of these things. Things aren't always as resolved as they might be.'
But those around Blair have not felt so reticent to talk about his path to Catholicism. His decision to formalise his Catholic beliefs was hinted at earlier this year by Father Michael Seed, a regular visitor to Number 10.
Seed, a popular, charismatic figure close to the rich and powerful, is a friend of Cherie Blair, and his influence over her husband is thought to have been considerable. In addition, Blair has regularly attended Catholic services in recent years and visited Pope Benedict XVI's predecessor, John Paul II in Rome.
Perhaps what is most surprising is that Blair has not converted sooner. While opposition leader, he often took communion at a Catholic church in Islington north London, only to stop doing so in public on the instructions of the then leader of Catholics in England and Wales, the late Cardinal Hume.
Ultimately it may have been that Blair felt unable to resolve the tension between his faith and his political convictions, one that could only be confronted after he had left Downing Street.
Pope Benedict, like his predecessor, was vehemently opposed to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq and dismayed by the EU's refusal to incorporate into its new treaty a reference to Europe's Christian roots.
And there were further hints in yesterday's statement that there were other issues where the Pope was at odds with Blair. The statement said there had been an 'exchange of opinions on certain laws recently approved by the Parliament of the United Kingdom' - apparently a reference to Catholic hostility to stem-cell research and gay adoption.
The Vatican added that Blair had been wished well as he prepared to leave office 'taking into account that he has expressed a strong desire to commit himself in particular to [seeking] peace in the Middle East and [promoting] inter-religious dialogue'.
But yesterday leading Catholics said such tensions should not prevent Blair from joining their faith. 'Anyone who wants to join the Church should be welcomed,' said Austen Ivereigh, ex-deputy editor of the Tablet and a former spokesman for Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, the head of the Catholic church in England and Wales.
'The Church gives a lot of leeway to conscience and the Holy Spirit in this. And if the Church accepts him, which it surely would after a process of instruction, then all other Catholics should open their arms and say, "Welcome."'
For the purposes of protocol, Blair, his wife Cherie, and an entourage of eight were on an official visit. But the fact that some of the party were friends rather than officials gave the occasion a more informal air than is normal.
Nearby, open on lecterns in the papal apartments, there were copies of the two volumes of the great Borso d'Este bible, commissioned by the then Duke of Ferrara in the 15th century. The New Testament was opened at a page showing the baptism of Christ.
'Who knows?' said an official. 'It may have been done on purpose.'
Who's who at the Vatican meetingBernard and Hélène Arnault
Who: boss of France's Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy luxury goods empire.
Why: He is a Catholic. But Bernard and his Canadian-born wife are also long-time friends of the Blair family.
Lady Carla Powell
Who: sister-in-law of Tony Blair's chief-of-staff, Jonathan Powell, and wife of Charles Powell, former aide to Margaret Thatcher.
Why: Italian-born, she has a villa in the hills north of Rome.
Who: an influential member of Blair's Downing Street team.
Why: among his roles is liaison with the Anglican and Catholic churches, particularly regarding appointment of bishops.
Who: key Downing Street aide.
Why: she is in charge of planning the PM's set-piece events and foreign visits.