Iron Lady to meet the Pope in a private audience at the Vatican

Pontiff and former PM to discuss inter-faith relations at meeting that was arranged by old friend Carla Powell

Margaret Thatcher is to travel to Rome for a private meeting with Pope Benedict XVI next week,
The Independent has learnt. The former Prime Minister will fly to Italy today with her daughter Carol and her week-long stay will include a private audience with the pontiff next Wednesday.

The 83-year-old will make a brief protocol visit to the Vatican and has been afforded time to see the Pope face to face. She did not seek the private audience, but agreed to its being arranged by her old friend Carla Powell, whose husband, Charles, was a key foreign policy advisor to her Conservative government. Lady Thatcher will be staying with Lord and Lady Powell at their villa on the outskirts of Rome.

Lady Thatcher's visit to the Vatican follows that of both Gordon Brown who met the Pope in February, and Tony Blair who saw him in June 2007. But Lady Thatcher can claim a certain one-up-manship in the Papal stakes: she has met two of Pope Benedict's predecessors as well.

Her first Papal visit was in 1977 when she was leader of the Opposition and met Pope Paul VI. But her relationship with his successor Pope John Paul II was politically – if not spiritually – closer. An arch anti-communist, her view was very much at one with the former Polish cardinal and their relationship was strengthened further on a visit to Rome in November 1980, when Pope John Paul II agreed to put pressure on inmates at the Maze prison who were on hunger strike. Irish Republicans had been protesting over the British government's policy towards Northern Ireland.

Sources said that a framework for discussions between the Pope and Lady Thatcher has not been agreed, but relations between different versions of the Christian faith are likely to feature.

The Pope frequently meets members of other faiths and denominations. While Prime Minister in June 2006, Tony Blair had a private audience with the Pope in the Vatican. Mr Blair, who remained reticent about his religious faith during his time as Prime Minister, converted from the Anglican church to Roman Catholicism in December 2007, six months after stepping down from the leadership of the government.

Gordon Brown, whose father was a Church of Scotland minister, met the Pope while still Chancellor in February 2007. In February this year he had a 35-minute private audience with Pope Benedict, after which the Pontiff appeared to snub a formal invitation from the Prime Minister to visit Britain.

In many ways Lady Thatcher's Methodist faith and Catholicism represent opposite ends of the Christian spectrum. Methodism, popularised in Britain in the 18th century by the Anglican cleric John Wesley, deliberately shuns the pomp and ritual of organised religion, emphasising the value of personal communion with God.

Last night Lady Thatcher's daughter Carol, who will not meet the Pope herself, said that her own role in arranging this week's visit had been very limited. "I'm just there as a passenger. All I've got to do is turn up at the airport with my passport. It's getting out of the television studio in time that I'm worried about", she said.

"I had nothing whatsoever to do with the itinerary, so I'm afraid I can't tell you what they'll discuss. I've just been invited along for the ride. I'm afraid you almost certainly know more about this than me," she added.

However she let slip the news of the visit to Rome while a guest on the Channel 5 show The Wright Stuff, saying: "I'm going with my mum, who's possibly going to see the pope next week."

Lady Thatcher's health has deteriorated slowly since she suffered a series of minor strokes in 2002, after which she was advised by doctors to scale back her public activities.

Nevertheless, The Independent understands that Lady Thatcher's diary remains crammed until August. On Tuesday evening she met the Queen, also 83, at the Goring Hotel at a garden party for the patrons of the Castle of Mey, the late Queen Mother's former Scottish home.

The Queen reportedly asked her: "Isn't it extraordinary about the Speaker?" Lady Thatcher is said to have responded: "Quite extraordinary, but I think it was the right thing to do. The Speaker needs to explain more thoroughly the reason behind his decision, however." On Wednesday evening, both were at a service in the Chapel Royal, St James's Palace, to honour recipients of the Order of Merit. Lady Thatcher was proudly displaying her own Order, a red cross surmounted by a gold crown, which she received from the Queen in 1990.

Lady Thatcher has spoken often before, during and after her 11 years in power about the influence of a Methodist upbringing on her politics. Her father Albert Roberts, who owned a grocery shop, served as an alderman and Methodist lay preacher in the family's home town of Grantham in Lincolnshire.

Officials from Lady Thatcher's private office refused to comment on the trip for security reasons.

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