Former UK prime minister Tony Blair has given a double-page interview to Osservatore Romano, the papal newspaper, in which he talks of his conversion to Catholicism and how faith is at the heart of his life and work. Both Osservatore and the Guardian, which reports the interview, headline Blair's amusing recollection that his Irish Protestant great-grandmother told him never to marry a Catholic.
"In one of her rare moments of lucidity, during an illness, my great-grandmother – who was in many ways fantastic – told me, 'Do whatever you want but don't marry a Catholic.' Which is exactly what I did."
It was his wife Cherie -- "extremely active", he says, in the Catholic student organizations at university, where they met -- who was the driving force behind his decision to become a Catholic two years ago, a few months after resigning as prime minister. But the decision to be received by the Catholic Church, says Blair, was the fruit of a long process:
"My spiritual journey began when I began going to Mass with my wife. And when we decided to baptize our children in the Catholic faith. It's a path which has taken 25 years, and maybe longer. Over time, emotionally, intellectually and rationally it became clear that the Catholic Church was the right home for me. But it happened after a very long period of time. When I left my political post, and no longer had all the tensions linked to being prime minister, it was something I wanted to do."
But I was interested to see that he also cites a 2003 Mass celebrated by John Paul II for the Blair family in the Pope's private chapel. "It remains even now a very vivid memory," he says, "an event which touched me deeply. Of course, very probably I was very close at that point to converting, but it was undoubtedly an important stage in the process which ultimately confirmed my decison." It seemed at the time a highly signficant event, not least because of reports (from English-speaking priests present) that Blair received Communion from the Pope -- despite being, at that moment, a member of the Church of England. (It was never denied by the Vatican.)
Blair makes clear that one of the most attractive features of the Catholic Church is its universality.
"If you are Catholic you can go anywhere in the world and take part in Mass in any country ... The fact that, wherever you are in the world, you're in communion with others, that really fascinates me. The universal Church is itself an important model of a global institution".
He says his conversion did not alter life at home:
"My three eldest children, now grown up, are practising Catholics still. We had them baptized, they went to Catholic schools -- Leo, too, is studying in a Catholic school -- and continue to be Catholic. Faith has always played a very important part in our life as a family. In that sense, therefore, my conversion didn't change things."
He goes on to lament, as he has done before, the inability of the British media to grasp the significance of faith, unlike the US, and to define his Faith Foundation as working to help the recognition of the role of faith in international public policy. He saus he "totally agrees" with Pope Benedict XVI's Caritas in veritate and describes the encyclical as "a brilliant text which deserves to be read and re-read".
There are other interesting tit bits -- but nothing, I'm relieved to see, that contradicts my conjectures about his conversion in a January 2008 America article, and quite a lot that repeats it.
His charm certainly has worked on Osservatore, which describes him as "a gentleman: educated, smiley, courteous in a way few know how to be" -- and as a future president of the European Union.
But with such strong Vatican endorsement, that's looking less likely now.