Prime Minister's wife breaks protocol by wearing white outfit at last-minute meeting with Benedict XVI
Di' CHRISTINA FARRELL
CHERIE Blair had a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI last Friday despite earlier denials from Downing Street and from Rome that any meeting was planned.
Mrs Blair, who was in Rome to attend a special meeting of the Vatican's Pontificial Academy of Social Services, had confirmed before leaving for Italy that no audience with the Pontiff had been arranged.
But in what appears to have been a very late change to the schedule she stayed behind to talk to the Pope. She is the most senior British lay person to have met Pope Benedict since his inauguration.
Cherie Blair was invited to Rome as an "outside expert" to speak al a Church conference entitled: "Vanishing Youth? Solidarity with Children and Young People in an Age of Turbulence." The mother of four children, she is a respected human rights lawyer with a keen interest in children's rights.
Fr Raymond de Souza, the organiser of "Vanishing Youth", had confirmed that the Pope might put in an appearance at the conference "hut there will be no private audiences" he said. He added that they were delighted to welcome Mrs Blair to Rome. The decision by Pope Benedict to meet the wife of the British Prime Minister at this time is a sign. say Vatican observers, of the Pope's respect for Britain. A spokesman declined to reveal the nature of their discussions which he said were private.
When news of a possible meeting between Cherie Blair and the Pope was first mooted in February this year, reports suggested Anglican disquiet that the Prime Minister's wife should have a private audience ahead of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams. At the time Lambeth Palace vehemently denied that any slight was perceived and a spokesman for the archbishop dismissed as "speculation" the idea that some Anglicans were irritated. Dr Williams, he said, had "already met Pope Benedict the day after his inaugural Mass".
It has since been confirmed that the archbishop will be meeting the Pope in Rome this autumn to discuss relations between their two communions. The meeting will also mark the 40th tmniversary of the historic discussions between Archbishop Michael Ramsey and Pope Paul VI.
All indications are that Mrs Blair was not expecting to meet Pope Benedict. She did not have a gift for the Pontiff and was also wearing white a privilege normally reserved for Catholic sovereigns.
But her attire has, nevertheless, caused some consternation in Catholic circles. Vatican etiquette is always that women meeting the Pope should wear black, preferably with their heads covered by a black veil or mantilla, and there have been no indications that Mrs Blair would have disregarded the convention. A devout Catholic, she has previously followed form and at Pope Julm Paul ll's funeral last year wore a mantilla.
Only three women in the world today are entitled to wear white when meeting the Pope: Queen Sofia of Spain, Queen Paola of Belgium and Josephine Charlotte. the wife of Grand Duke Jean of Luxembourg.
Although the dress code debacle appears to have been a product of circumstance, rather than premeditation, Mrs Blair's critics were quick to condemn what they regarded as further evidence of her imperious attitude.
Ann Widdecombe, a former Tory minister and Catholic convert, told the Telegraph newspaper that Mrs Blair clearly had a "very grand idea of herself'.
"Even the Queen wore black to meet the Pope." she said. "Cherie Blair is a Catholic. She knows what the tradition is when meeting the Pope. She obviously thinks she is the first lady. My message to her is: 'You are not a Catholic Queen, my dear, and you never will be.'" Meeting the Pope always poses sartorial difficulties for women. Former German premier Gerhardt Schroder's wife wore a mantilla but Angela Merkel, the present Chancellor, chose to welcome the Pope bareheaded.
Vatican Notebook: Page 4