updated 12/22/2007 9:24:44 AM ET 2007-12-22T14:24:44

Tony Blair, who often kept his religious views private while serving as Britain's prime minister, has converted to Catholicism, officials said Saturday.

Blair, who had long been a member of the Church of England, converted to the Catholic faith during a Mass held on Friday night at a chapel in London, the Catholic Church said.

"It can be confirmed that Tony Blair has been received into full communion with the Catholic church by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor," the head of the church in England and Wales, the church said in a statement.

"I'm very glad to welcome Tony Blair into the Catholic Church," the statement quoted Murphy-O'Connor as saying.

"For a long time he's been a regular worshipper at Mass with his family and in recent months he's been following a program of formation for his reception into full communion. Our prayers are with him, his family and his wife at this joyful moment in their journey of faith together," Murphy-O'Connor said.

Feared being a 'nutter'
There had long been speculation that Blair planned to convert to Catholicism. His wife, Cherie, is Roman Catholic, the couple's children have attended Catholic schools, and Blair had regularly attended Catholic, rather than Anglican, services.

Blair, who is now a Middle East peace envoy, met Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican in June.

The former prime minister told the BBC this year that he had avoided talking about his religious views while in office for about 10 years for fear of being labeled "a nutter."

In England's last census, 72 percent of people identified themselves as Christian. Many are Anglicans affiliated with the Church of England, which was created by royal proclamation during the 16th century after King Henry VIII — who married six times — broke ties with the Roman Catholic Church in a dispute over divorce.

The Church of England has said that less than 10 percent of its members are regular churchgoers.

Britons often are surprised by people who openly and fervently discuss their religious views, and the degree to which faiths such as evangelicalism can influence U.S. politics.

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