Tony Blair is expected to convert to Catholicism, but the Pope has not been a fan of his premiership. 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".
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 on Saturday, 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 formalize 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.
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 peace in the Middle East and 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.
For the purposes of protocol, Blair, his wife Cherie, and an entourage of eight were on an official visit to the Vatican. 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."
Source: China Daily/Agencies