MANILA, Philippines — Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair met Saturday with Pope Benedict XVI in a private audience at the Vatican, heightening speculation that the outgoing premier was on the verge of converting to Catholicism.
“There he is,” whispered a beaming Vatican official. “The great convert,” the British paper The Observer reported Sunday.
Britain’s dominant religion is the Church of England, whose followers are called Anglicans. Britain has never had a Catholic prime minister.
When contacted by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the British Embassy would not comment on Blair’s reported conversion.
Blair hands over the prime minister’s post to Finance Minister Gordon Brown on Tuesday after 10 years in office.
On a table in Pope Benedict’s vast study was the gift that the Pontiff had just received from Blair — a frame containing three original photographs of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the most famous English convert to Roman Catholicism. So far at least.
Newman, an Anglican prelate, converted in 1845 and was later made a cardinal of the Catholic Church. In 1991 he was declared “venerable,” putting him on the road to sainthood.
“Blair has been attending Catholic Mass, often with his family but also occasionally alone, since long before he became prime minister. His wife, Cherie, is a lifelong and practicing Catholic, and in accordance with church rules their four children have been brought up as Catholics and were sent to church schools,” The Guardian newspaper reported June 22.
His spiritual awakening goes back at least 30 years, to his time as an undergraduate at Oxford, but due to political considerations his conversion to Catholicism has been a long time coming.
The Guardian reported that more than 10 years ago, Blair was slipping into Westminster Cathedral and occasionally taking communion, until the late Cardinal Basil Hume told him to stop because it was causing comment as he was not a Catholic — an injunction that bemused him at the time.
Communion from John Paul
Blair is believed to have taken communion from the late Pope John Paul II during a visit to the Vatican in 2003, although the Vatican has never confirmed this.
In an interview with another British publication on Saturday, Blair indicated his conversion may not be just around the corner.
Asked if he would convert, Blair said: “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.”
He may have also been wary of doing so while playing a key mediating role in the Northern Ireland peace process between the province’s Catholic and Protestant communities.
The newspaper cited informed sources on Friday as saying Blair had been prepared for conversion by a Royal Air Force chaplain who had said private Mass for his family for the last four years.
A Filipino Catholic Church leader welcomed reports that Blair would soon be converting to the faith, seizing the occasion to invite Filipinos to ponder whether their own Catholic political leaders do fit that “brand.”
Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Oscar Cruz said Church history had shown that “adult conversion,” like the one being undertaken by one of the most powerful men in the world “is always a very sincere and firm judgment compared to being Catholics by birth.”
“Needless to say, this is something much appreciated in the belief that the Catholic Church is the true deposit of the Gospel truths,” Cruz said, in interview with the Inquirer in Manila.
Message to Filipinos
This conversion of a renowned government leader sends the message to Catholics in the Philippines that, “more than brand names, what is really important is the reality behind the brand,” he said.
“It’s not a secret,” Cruz noted, “that we have a good number of local and national leaders who bear the brand ’Catholic’ but in reality they can be anything but true subscribers to Catholic faith and morals.”
“It is not a question of being called a Catholic but rather the necessity of living the faith,” he added.
Cruz said there were countries led by non-Catholic leaders “known for their natural honesty and sense of justice — and therefore these countries do not get titles such as “First Placer in Government Corruption.”
The archbishop pointed out that Filipinos were governed, from the barangay (village) level to the national government, by politicians 95 percent of whom are Catholic.
On the final leg of his farewell world tour, Blair spoke privately with Pope Benedict for 25 minutes in the Pontiff’s study.
The talks were then enlarged to include Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, head of England’s Roman Catholics, further fueling the media speculation about Blair’s conversion.
A Vatican statement made no reference to the issue of possible conversion of Blair.
Cherie accompanied Blair to the Vatican and was introduced to the Pope with the British delegation at the end of the private talks. As is the custom for the Pope’s female visitors, she wore a black dress and a black veil.
The Pope and Blair discussed the international situation, Europe and the Middle East, the statement said. The Vatican welcomed Blair’s intention to work for Middle East peace and inter-religious dialogue after he steps down.
Lunch at Catholic college
After his visit to the Vatican, Blair had lunch at the British Catholic College in Rome, the first British government leader to do so.
Despite much speculation about his religious beliefs, Blair has rarely commented on the issue, with his press spokesperson Alistair Campbell once telling reporters: “We don’t do God.”
The Daily Telegraph, quoting Church sources and friends of the prime minister, said on Friday that Blair may announce his conversion soon after meeting the Pope, while also noting that his views on abortion, stem cell research and other moral issues are at odds with traditional Catholic teachings.
The Vatican also opposed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq in which London was Washington’s main ally. With reports from Volt Contreras and Agence France-Presse