Fr Seed's latest visit to Downing Street fuels rumours about conversion, reports Freddy Gray THERE was renewed speculation this week that Tony Blair is a Catholic "in all but name" after it emerged that the Prime Minister had attended a private Mass in Downing Street on his own.
Fr Michael Seed, a Franciscan Friar of the Atonement who is well-known for bringing senior politicians into the Church, is reported to have Celebrated Mass for Mr Blair before the leader went out to join his family on holiday in Barbados last month.
Francis Beckett, co-author of The Maim and their Court, said on Monday that Church sources had hinted the Prime Minister might have already converted to Catholicism in private.
He said: "We can't say whether he has formally converted, but I know that he privately regards himself as a Catholic and those who know him, including Catholic priests who know him, also feel that he is a Catholic."
Leading political commentator Anthony Howard, who has written a biography of Cardinal Hume, told The Catholic Herald this week that Mr Blair was a Catholic in "all but name".
"In his own mind he probably thinks of himself as a Catholic, but I think that the situation in Northern Ireland holds him back," he said, But Mr Howard dismissed the idea that Mr Blair might have converted in private.
"I think that highly unlikely," he said. "He has to be very careful. It would be a pretty bad blow for the improving situation in Northern Ireland. The stakes are too high."
Mr Blair, generally regarded as a liberal High Church Anglican, usually attends a Mass each Sunday in Downing Street with his wife and four children who are all practising Catholics. But he spent six days alone last month, delaying his summer holiday in an attempt to resolve the Middle East crisis.
It is widely expected that Mr Blair will formally convert to Catholicism when he steps down as Prime Minister.
Details of last month's Downing Street Mass remain unknown. Fr Seed, who prepared Conservative MPs Ann Widdecornbe and John Gummer for reception into the Church, declined to comment. "It is no secret that I go [to Downing Street], but the Blabs are parishioners and I can't say anything more than that," he told the Sunday Telegraph: However, the Labour leader has been spotted at Mass on his own before, at Westminster Cathedral in the 1990s. The then Anglican leader, Dr George Carey, wrote to Mr Blair urging him to make more of an effort to appear at Anglican services.
The politician replied that he was not about to "defect" to Rome and explained that he had not intended to worship alone in the Cathedral. He was expecting to join his family for Mass, he said, but they had arrived late.
But Francis Beckett this week reasserted his claim, originally made in The Blairs and their Court, that Mr Blair's excuse was untrue, "We know from our sources that he frequently turned up at the Cathedral without his family on Sunday afternoons," he said.
Mr Blair has so far evaded questions about his closeness to Catholicism. "Surely being a Christian is what is important'?" he replied when asked about converting in April 2002.
But visitors to Downing Street have said that there is a well-thumbed copy of Humanae Vitae, Paul VI's encyclical on human reproduction, in the Prime Minister's study.
Mr Blair has flouted Canon Law on many occasions. Before he became Prime Minister he regularly received Holy Communion during Masses at the church of St Joan of Arc, Islington.
In 1996 Cardinal Basil Hume, then Archbishop of Westminster, wrote to Mr Blair asking him not to present himself for Corrimunion at the North London church.
Mr Blair accepted the request but made it clear that he did not agree. "I wonder what Jesus would have made of it," he wrote in reply. In an interview with a British tabloid at the end of 1996 he said the controversy over Communion was the low point of his year.
However. it is understood that Cardinal Hume had indicated to Mr Blair that it was acceptable to receive Communion when on holiday in Tuscany as there were no Anglican churches nearby.
In 2001, the Blairs were advised to stop attending Mass at the cathedral for security reasons after the terror attacks of September 11.
The family then attended different churches in "random rotation" to avoid potential assassins. But heightened security following the invasion of Iraq in 2003 meant that the Blairs organised private Masses at home, celebrated by Fr Seed. The services are thought to be celebrated in the drawing room of Downing Street, with family members giving the readings.
The family has made similar arrangements at Chequers, the Prime Minister's country residence in Buckinghamshire, where Canon Timothy Russ celebrates Mass.
Two years ago, Canon Russ revealed that he had discussed conversion with Mr Blair. "If you ask me do you think he wants to become a Catholic, I would say yes," he said.
But pro-life campaigners are baffled by reports of Mr Blair's Catholic sensibility, given his consistent siding with the most hard-line proabortion lobbyists in Parliament. He has always voted for abortion in the House of Commons. He even voted in favour of abortion up until birth in 1990.
Downing Street press office this week refused to comment on last month's Mass with Fr Seed.
Canon Law forbids the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice unless at least one member of the faithful is present "unless there is a good and reasonable cause for doing so".
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