BY TRACY-JO SMITH
WAS the dream of many a Catholic family: a private audience with the Pope, followed by a guided tour of the Vatican's immense treasury of artworks.
When Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie, and three of his four children — Euan, Kathryn and Leo — met the Pope last Saturday it was an important moment in their lives.
The meeting took place after the Pope's discussion with Mr Blair on the Iraqi crisis. After the private audience in the Vatican, the Pontiff handed the family medallions of his pontificate. The Blairs gave their own gifts to the Pope: a vase depicting the Prime Minister's office entrance at 10 Downing St and a small bronze statue of St Margaret of Scotland.
A few hours later, the Blair family returned to the Vatican for a long private tour of the Vatican Museums and St Peter's Basilica, after they had been closed to the public.
Mrs Blair wore a full-length black dress and black mantilla for the Papal audience, a tradition on such occasions. She was then allowed to use the Santa Marta residence, occupied by cardinals when in conclave, to change into something more comfortable for sightseeing.
Early the next morning, the Blairs were back in the Vatican's inner chambers for a private Mass with the Pope, according to Church sources. The only other people present were two English and two Irish seminarians. Mrs Blair and her children are understood to have received Communion.
During their two nights in Rome, the Blairs stayed at the Pontifical Irish College, a seminary open to any visitor for a modest sum. The college, founded in 1628 by an Irish Franciscan, is situated today on a hill behind the Colosseum. At mealtimes, the Blairs reportedly shared the same simple fare as the resident priests and seminarians.
The attention lavished on the family of a British politician was, said a Vatican insider, due not to Mr Blair's position, but to his wife's charitable activities. Mrs Blair is understood to have arranged her family's audience with the Pope months ago. Eighteen months ago she became the president of Barnardo's, the children's charity — the first person to hold the position since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. According to the Vatican source: "With its invitation to the Mass, the Vatican's message is not a political one connected to Tony Blair. The political messages stopped on Saturday, when the Pope and Blair discussed Iraq. Instead, this last invitation was a personal message of respect for the signora."
Mrs Blair's piety stems from her childhood. She was educated at St Edmund's Catholic Primary School in Waterloo, Liverpool, and then at Seafield Convent Grammar School. The Blairs' two sons go to the London Oratory, a Catholic comprehensive school.