Tony Blair’s low-key conversion

At the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, attendants present a towel to you after washing your hands in the bathroom. It’s the kind of place where journalists cover events, but don’t bother to look up room rates.

Catholicism on his mind? Tony Blair arrives to speak at the annual Al Smith dinner in New York. (CNS/Paul Haring)On Oct. 18, the ritzy Al Smith dinner was held at the hotel, and the guest of honor was former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Photographers from AP and Reuters mentioned that Blair, an Anglican, might announce his conversion to Catholicism during his speech to the black-tie crowd. As he began speaking in the elegant ballroom, it seemed as if Blair might be leading up to make the big announcement. The wire shooters, a New York Times photographer and I had our long Canon glass trained on him during his speech, ready to seize the moment of the big announcement. We were stationed on a balcony overlooking the vast room, lit as for an evening dinner in a fancy restaurant.

When CNS freelance writer Beth Griffin sent her story by e-mail to the office, she said she thought Blair sounded a bit nervous. But that seemed to fade as Blair launched into a speech about how America and Europe must stand together against terrorism. It seemed a speech that Blair had given many times, and he was comfortable giving. As is customary at the Al Smith dinner, Blair interlaced funny remarks with serious content. Al Smith, the first Catholic presidential candidate, said that “if you can make a man laugh, you can make him think and make him like and believe you.” The idea at the dinner is to say something funny in recognition of that statement.

As Blair continued his speech, it seemed less and less likely that he would drop the bombshell of his conversion to Catholicism. Last week, The Tablet, a Catholic weekly newspaper in Britain, reported that Blair will formally be received into the Catholic church in the next few weeks. The news spread like wildfire throughout the media, with major news organizations crediting The Tablet for the story. Blair has already regularly attended Catholic Mass with his wife Cherie and their four children, all of whom are Catholic.

So did Blair choose to reveal his conversion in a low-key way to a relatively small Catholic paper and just let the news spread? While we haven’t be able to confirm the news of Blair’s conversion, it seems likely. As for the fancy New York hotel room, maybe this wasn’t the right spot for Blair to reveal something so personal and meaningful. Plus, as one CNS editor said, he would essentially have been revealing the news to a roomful of New York socialites. (By the way, we have nothing against New York socialites, if you happen to be one.) Maybe it made more sense to break the news to The Tablet in London. This clearly would have been the more modest choice, in keeping with what has likely been a very low-key road towards Catholicism.

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