Fr Paul Stenhouse MSC (1935-2019) – Catholic Editor Extraordinaire

Fr Paul Stenhouse MSC (left) at Campion College Australia in Sydney in June 2009

Stenhouse respected his readers' interest in important subjects, but he never talked down to them or took refuge in professional jargon

Father Paul Stenhouse MSC, who died in Sydney on November 19 at the age of 83, was the doyen of Australian Catholic editors. His reputation, in Australia and more widely, stemmed in part from the extraordinary length of his editorship of a Catholic monthly, Annals Australasia – a period of 51 years – but more crucially from the richness of his scholarly knowledge and the unerring quality of his literary and editorial contributions. His lifelong mission was to manifest the creative interaction between religious faith and cultural tradition.

A certain providential symmetry has marked his passing for it coincided with the closure of the journal with which he was signally identified. Annals was Australia’s oldest Catholic journal. Its final edition appeared in November 2019, the very month of its 130th year of publication as well as of its editor’s death. There was a simultaneous completion of the life of a Catholic publication and the personal apostolate of a devoted priest.

Annals was launched in 1889 by the French religious order to which Paul Stenhouse belonged, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC). During his years of editorship it never lost its missionary character. It retained its prime purpose of supplying religious and cultural formation for people at large, including many non-Catholics, while yet extending its scope and attractiveness in imaginative ways.

Paul Stenhouse grew up in the historic New South Wales town of Camden where he benefited from an apprenticeship in local newspapers. There he learnt the arts of typesetting and compositing that he later applied in producing an appealing harmony of words and pictures in the pages of Annals.

A skilled photographer, he captured exquisite images on his overseas travels. A typical cover of Annals would feature a photo that he had taken – of the spire of an ancient basilica in Italy or Poland or Syria, or a statue of Our Lady in a Parisian church, or the icon of a saint blessing the people of Ireland or Lebanon.

Paul Stenhouse was a gifted linguist and a consummate scholar. He acquired his love of words from his mother, embracing European languages such as Latin, Italian, Spanish and French, but also Arabic which he had picked up from an Australian Maronite family. At Sydney University in the 1960s, he studied Semitic languages, which gave him scholarly entry to the cultural world of the Middle East. It inspired his lifelong interest in the ancient sources and modern movements of religion and culture in this crucial part of the globe. His last book, Islam: Context and Continuity (Australian Scholarly Publishing), published just before his death, exemplified his capacity to draw on an historical understanding of Islam to shed light on present-day political and religious realities.

During the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), he served as a foreign correspondent for the national newspaper, The Australian, as well as Italian and Arabic newspapers. Always mindful of the plight of persecuted Christians in the Middle East and other regions suffering religious oppression, he played a leading part in the recovery mission of the international Catholic charity, Aid to the Church in Need, serving as chairman of its Australian board for many years.

Paul Stenhouse’s editorship of Annals showed a distinctive balance of serious learning and popular presentation. The articles in the journal were at once scholarly and readable. Like any faithful priest and pastor, he understood the needs and capacities of his people. He respected their interest in important subjects and their desire to learn, but he never talked down to them or took refuge in professional jargon. The enduring quality of Annals throughout his five decades as editor reflected the approach of the Catholic publishing firm of Sheed and Ward, as defined by its Australian founder Frank Sheed – that their books were pitched “just above the middle of the brow”.

Annals was notable for the quality of its writers from overseas as well as Australia. While it was published mainly for an Australian audience – and its editor had an intuitive sense of the cultural style and sensibility of Australians – it attracted many international contributors, in particular from the United States, such as the philosopher, Jude P. Dougherty, the editor and anthologist George J. Marlin, and the president of the Faith & Reason Institute, Robert Royal.

Paul Stenhouse blended to a marked degree the “high” and the “low” traditions of religion and culture. He was immersed in the tradition of intellectual probing and aesthetic appreciation – in philosophy and theology, art and architecture, literature and music – but he did not allow this to form a barrier to the experience of private prayer and popular devotion. He knew that the life of intellectual penetration needed to strengthen and validate the spiritual intuitions and habits of ordinary people, and he would publish excerpts from early and later authors – from the Church Fathers to John Henry Newman and G.K. Chesterton – who fused these traditions of insight and experience in illuminating ways.

His educational vision was steeped in the history of Christian culture – the sub-title of Annals being “Journal of Catholic Culture”. In one of its last issues, he commented: “Not to know and appreciate one’s Catholic past is to distort the present, and vitiate the future for those who come after us.”

Twenty years ago, I sought his support for Campion College as a new Australian venture in the liberal arts. He was immediately responsive, speaking frequently at the College and serving on its board of trustees. He recognised the organic relationship between a continuing exposure to the Catholic liberal arts provided by Annals and a systematic education in the Catholic liberal arts supplied by Campion.

Paul Stenhouse could have lectured in any of the College’s core subjects of history, literature, philosophy and theology, studied across the centuries – and, for good measure, he would have translated a Latin passage into Hebrew or Greek during the lunch break!

Karl Schmude is a co-founder of Australia’s only liberal arts college, Campion College, in Sydney and a former director of libraries at the University of New England in the rural city of Armidale, New South Wales.