Men in suits making speeches at lecterns, scientists giving interviews on their webcams: these have become the familiar images of the official response to coronavirus. Last Friday, in a deserted and rainswept St Peter’s Square, there took place a very different kind of scene. An 83-year-old man, robed in white, walked haltingly between the pillars of the basilica and faced the empty city. After years of sciatica, each step with his right leg takes an extra effort; he has fallen before, and he looked a little unsteady as he carried the monstrance which displayed the Eucharistic Host, God Himself. The police cars, their blue lights blurred by the rain, set off their sirens to mingle with the church bells. It all felt a bit like some dystopian sci-fi film. And then the Pope raised the monstrance and blessed the world, and – for those disposed to receive it – the graces of the plenary indulgence fell like manna.
This has been one of the most controversial pontificates in history. But even as Catholics have disagreed about what Pope Francis is doing, we have been able to agree on what he is: the Vicar of Christ, the foundation of unity, the shepherd of the whole Church. And that has never been so obvious as last Friday. Lifting that monstrance into the air, he could have been any of the popes, bishops and saints down the ages who have raised the Eucharist as a defence against plague or invading armies. And yet it felt utterly timely, the most plausible response that any of our world leaders have come up with: to face down the desolation and to raise our prayers to God. The Church is always most up-to-date when it is most firmly grounded in its traditions.
On Sunday, there was another example of that principle. The re-dedication of England as Our Lady’s Dowry was originally meant to take place in cathedrals around the country. Instead, Catholics at home printed off the prayers, or tuned into web broadcasts, to take part in this renewal of England’s devotion to the Mother of God.
It was a timely consolation: whatever one thinks of the lockdown, the absence of the sacraments is a great source of suffering. We can hope that life returns to normal as soon as possible. But in the meantime, as last week showed, God continues finding ways to reach us.
As the reader will have noticed, there is a new editor: I have followed Luke Coppen, who departs to become Europe Editor of the Catholic News Agency. In his 16 years as editor, Luke earned the affection of everyone he worked with, and the admiration of fellow-journalists everywhere for his professionalism. And he earned the gratitude of so many readers for the magazine he shaped: a serious, and seriously enjoyable, publication, with the faith at its heart.
In four years of working with Luke, we have constantly talked about how to make the magazine as good as it can be: a combination of accurate news, intelligent analysis, brilliant features and helpful spiritual writing. It has seemed to me for some time, and even more so in light of the pandemic, that we might be even better able to bring these things to readers if we were a monthly – twice as large, less expensive to subscribe to, and with an expanded website. I was relieved, when I put this to Luke, that he said it had been on his mind too, as he thought about how the Herald could best respond to the pandemic.
And so from next month the Catholic Herald will be a monthly magazine: April 10 will be the last weekly edition. The reasons are laid out in more detail in the enclosed letter to subscribers – which also explains why existing subscribers will not lose out.
With any change this significant, one can think of arguments in both directions. Some readers may ask whether this is a retreat from the field. Not at all: the aim is to increase our instant coverage through the website, and to improve our monthly output. Others may wonder whether this is a case of what the philosopher Peter Kreeft calls “the fidgets”: that habit of pointlessly tinkering with things which were working fine. Well, we are confident that this change is right for the print magazine and right for the website. But you are the judges: see what you think. And please do get in touch with your thoughts.