According to my calculations, this is the 817th issue of the Catholic Herald that I’ve edited. It is also the last. After almost 16 years as editor, I’m passing my swivel chair to the talented Dan Hitchens.
I’ve often wondered what this moment would be like. I had expected it to come much sooner. When I became editor in 2004, I thought I would be lucky to last two years. My predecessors, after all, were known for their brilliance, not their longevity.
How did I survive so long? It still puzzles me.
I arrived at the Herald from journalism school in 1998, wearing an ill-fitting three-piece suit and eager to begin my new life as a junior reporter. Back then the office air was grey with cigarette smoke: my colleagues would puff away frantically as deadlines approached. If we wanted to check a fact, we had to use the phone or join the queue to use our one dial-up connection to the “World Wide Web”.
By the time I became editor, we had gleaming iMacs. And the air was breathable.
In recent days, of course, the coronavirus pandemic has forced us to work from home. This week will be the first in our 132-year history that we have produced a whole issue remotely. There have been many technical obstacles, but we’re praying it works.
I was clearing out my files when I came across a letter with an episcopal coat of arms dating from 2005.
“Dear Luke,” it began. “What a splendid article! You made me appear so very nice and pleasant and I am very grateful!”
The author enthused for several paragraphs about an interview I had conducted with him, assuring me that he would be sending copies to his friends.
He signed off: “Yours devotedly in Christ, Theodore Card. McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington.”
One of the hardest lessons of Catholic journalism is that people aren’t always what they seem. Obviously I regret writing a glowing profile of the now ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick (and an equally rose-tinted one of Jean Vanier). I like to think I wouldn’t make a similar mistake today. But how can I be sure?
Our then managing director Otto Herschan was quick to spot my naïvety. Shortly after I arrived, he summoned me to his office: a dimly lit room decorated with nautical drawings. Sitting behind an imposing desk, pipe in hand, he warned me that I would face some unpleasant realities as a Catholic reporter. Then he peered over his spectacles and said: “I hope this job won’t destroy your faith.”
After that, I resolved to try to distinguish between the Church and its erring members. That was a great help in the years that followed.
One of the great privileges of my editorship has been to see the Catholic community in Britain grow in strength and confidence. In 2004, morale was low. Catholics felt besieged by aggressive secularism and betrayed by sinful clergy. But now British Catholicism is thriving. Our numbers remain small, but the distinctive expressions of our faith – our music, our reverent liturgies, our revitalised shrines – are appreciated around the world.
What’s changed? I think the turning point was Pope Benedict XVI’s visit in 2010. The trip was preceded by an explosion of anti-Catholic rhetoric. But as soon as the Holy Father set foot on our soil, the hostile voices began to fall silent. By the end of his visit, activists from “Protest the Pope” were complaining (absurdly) that no one could be expected to compete with the “Catholic media machine”. The headline on our commemorative issue was “Four days that changed Britain”. I will always be proud of that edition.
Journalism at its best is a team game, not a solo sport. I couldn’t have produced a single issue of the Herald on my own. While the editor often gets the credit, my colleagues work with such dedication to ensure that the magazine arrives each week through your letterbox.
I have a long list of people to thank for helping me over the past 16 years. So long, in fact, that it would take up the whole of this column if I were to name them all. I owe a great deal not only to the living, but also to many now dead. Their memory has given me strength to keep going through hard times.
Editing the Herald is undoubtedly challenging. Walking wearily to the train station before dawn, I’ve sometimes asked myself: “Why am I doing this?”
The answer has always come back: “For the readers.”
From the beginning I’ve felt that our readers deserved nothing but the best from us. Forgive me for where I have fallen short and thank you for always holding us to a high standard.
So. Farewell then. I’m not sure how you’ve put up with me all these years. But it’s been an honour to share them with you.
Luke Coppen edited the Catholic Herald from 2004 to 2020. He has been appointed Europe editor of the Catholic News Agency