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These are the hands making your Missal

A worker painstakingly places leather tabs and ribbons into each chapel missal (Photo: Pierpaolo Finaldi)

In a bindery outside Vicenza, Italy, the new altar missals are picked off a conveyor belt, checked carefully and placed on a stack. They are almost ready, but not quite: ribbons and leather tabs are still to be added. After that, they will be wrapped in paper, packed in a box and sent by lorry through Europe. By December, every parish in Britain will have one.

Watching the missals emerge is Pierpaolo Finaldi, commissioning editor at the Catholic Truth Society (CTS). For a year and a half he has overseen everything to do with their production: from artwork and design to the thickness of paper and the type of grain in the leather cover. Seeing the result, he says, is like watching a baby being born. “Except it’s taken a lot longer than nine months.”

Chugging away in front of us is the machine that glues the cover on to each big block of paper. It is a key moment in the production. Inside, a swirl of wheels, rollers and hammers presses the book together and moulds the spine into shape.

Giulio Olivotto, the head of Lego, the printers, is showing us around. His great-grandfather founded the company in 1900; it now prints Bibles, Jamie Oliver cookbooks, and high-end editions of anything (it printed Andrew Morton’s book on the royal wedding).

The production of the missal, says Giulio, has been unique: a mixture of hand-made and machine-made. Such high-spec books are not unheard of, he says, but they tend to have print runs of about 50 – not, as with the altar missal, 10,000.

The missals, which cost £230 each, are meant to be beautiful, but also fantastically sturdy: they will be used by priests every day and are expected to last decades. For months Pierpaolo has been tormented by seeing old missals falling apart, the ribbons frayed, the endpaper ripped: cautionary tales for a publisher.

Giulio boasts, half-jokingly, that he has been involved in book binding since he was born – the family workshop, he says, was his playground. He is a thorough guide, and tells us that the key to a well-made book is the spine. “If the spine is strong, the book will last,” he says, gravely. “If it is not, it won’t.”

Stacked across the factory floor are missals at various stages of the process: from seemingly finished books to gilded blocks without a spine to thin clumps of paper. There is a smell of ink, hot paper and glue.

The paper arrived here with the text printed on it already. It was chopped from forests in Finland and the Czech Republic and printed in a factory in Trento (the site of the 1545 Council) about 40 miles away.

In Vicenza, the first task was to glue all the picture pages in by hand. Normally, the glue would be sprayed on by a super-thin nozzle in a machine. But the machine could only stick pages to the edge of existing sections (these are single pieces of paper folded to make up to 64 pages) and CTS wanted the pictures on specific pages, to accompany feast days. So instead it took eight people approximately four weeks to glue in every page. (Each worker glued 1,000 pages a day.)

Then, a special kind of paper made out of PVC is placed on either side of the 1,500 or so pages that make up the missal. The paper, called Skinplast, will connect the block of paper with the cover: it is tear-resistant.

Next, the sections of paper are sewn together to form a block. This is done mechanically: we watch through a dusty window as needles jerk backwards and forwards and thread pulls the pages tight.

Thread, though, is not enough: the blocks must be glued twice and then coated with a thick lining to make sure they stay together. This means feeding them into another machine which pushes them under a glue roller.

After that, they are left to rest. The next stage is the gilding of the paper edges. A machine does all the work: it sands down the edges, making sure they are flat, dusts them with a mechanical brush, and then stamps them with a heated piece of gold foil.

At this point, the gilded blocks of paper are ready to be glued to a cover. First, workers wearing white gloves must check the gilding for scratches and other defects. They can only do this for two hours at a time, “otherwise their eyes go like this”, says Giulio, pointing his fingers crossways. The gloves, he explains, are to protect the gilding, not people’s fingers.

The blocks and covers are then placed separately into a machine that welds them together. But the machine does more than that. Powerful metal contraptions inside it round and press the spine into its correct shape. It is a very delicate operation, says Giulio. “There must be a balance between the strength of the spine and its roundedness,” he explains.

Here, Giulio admits there is a problem. “I will not make the truth better than it is,” he says. The smaller chapel missal does not have the right balance: its spine is too strong and is not sufficiently rounded. He shows a copy to Pierpaolo and me; neither of us can spot a defect.

Giulio has, I think, enjoyed the challenge of producing the CTS missals. Routine jobs, he says, “carry no emotion”. But a project like this “challenges your pride, your imagination, your professionalism. You look at yourself in the mirror in the evening and you think: ‘I couldn’t do what I wanted’ – but that’s a lesson. You learn.”

We walk over to a stack of leather covers nearby. The leather is genuine – that means it’s made out of cow hide only, and not mixed in with inferior materials. The hide, taken from cows in eastern Europe, is scraped and washed and dried at a tannery in northern Italy; it is also cut into thinner slices. It is then immersed in a vat of tannin (a chemical found in barks and leaves) for several days, which turns it into leather.

Giulio picks up a cover. The leather is wrapped around Dutch board and a thin layer of sponge to make it softer. A tube of card is also glued to the inside of the spine –it is supposed to stop the spine cracking. All of this, says Giulio, is put together by hand.

It arrives in the factory a plain red. Its elegant gold design is added by machine: a brass stamp presses a heated gold film on to each cover. (The design is an ornate Greek cross with a border around the edge and the letters “IC XC NI KA” – standing for “Jesus Christ conquers”.)

Once the covers and blocks of paper are united, another set of workers check they have been glued together properly. The books are shaken, pressed down on the conveyor belt and held upside down. They are then placed carefully on to a stack.

For the final stage of the operation the missals are taken by van to a small workshop nearby. Before we drive there, we take a break.

Over espresso, Giulio talks about the decline of quality craftsmanship. When he was younger, he says, the concept of the mass market didn’t exist. Now, “everything must be done at a higher speed, with more attention to cost”. Pierpaolo, meanwhile, is talking to Elisabetta Corbellini, the Lego sales manager, about a special-edition missal for Pope Benedict XVI. It will be presented in a custom-made white box by Bishop Arthur Roche of Leeds, chairman of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, together with representatives of the CTS.

The Pope is not the only recipient of a complimentary missal: every bishop in the English, Welsh and Scottish conferences will get one, too.

After lunch we head off to see the finishing touches being put to the chapel missal. On the way Pierpaolo explains the rationale behind CTS’s high-spec approach. Partly, he says, inspiration came from much older missals – “things of real beauty”. People at CTS thought that, since the new translation was more beautiful, more “out of the ordinary”, the book itself should reflect that. After all, it is part of the liturgy: it ought to be beautiful, too.

And anyway, CTS’s philosophy for a long time has been to make its books look good, he says. “The most beautiful thing in the world is the love of Christ for us, for his Church. So things presented for the Church should always be beautiful. They are made for God – to raise people’s spirits to God,” Pierpaolo says.

Before we see the missals being finished we stop off at a bungalow where two women are sewing up the ends of hundreds of ribbons. Each altar missal has six ribbons acting as bookmarks; to stop them fraying, their ends are sewn into a curl. The women here usually work for the fashion industry: in their catalogue are Versace purses, Armani fascinators and delicate lace coverings for wedding shoes. They are among half a dozen such groups sewing ribbons for Lego.

The boxes of all the sewn ribbons are sent to a small workshop nearby – the same workshop that all the altar missals in the Lego factory are being transported to. It is our last stop.

Here, the ribbons and leather tabs are added to the missal. It is painstaking work. First, the ribbons are laid on to adhesive tape, cut into sections of six, and pressed on to the inside of the missal’s spine. Then, leather tabs are picked out of boxes (each box has the page number they relate to scrawled on it), their sticky covering is peeled off and they are placed and folded around the correct page (that page has a marking on it to indicate exactly where the tab should go). The altar edition has 18 tabs: that means 180,000 tabs have to be added in total.

The workers here usually make high-quality leather products: desk sets for Italian MPs, bags, blotters, pen-holders. It is a small, family-run firm, with only a dozen or so employees. They are all in comfortable gym gear – shorts, a bandana, trainers – and focused intently on peeling, cutting, pasting, pressing. It looks horrendous to me, but the workers are all highly skilled, with at least 10 years’ experience in the industry.

Once the tabs and ribbons are added the books are stacked on a miniature conveyor belt and transported to the other side of the room, where a woman wraps them in paper and packs them in a cardboard box. Finally, another worker seals the box inside a shrink-wrapped plastic film. Then, it’s done: the shrink-wrapped, cardboard-boxed, paper-wrapped missal is ready for the journey to Britain.

Later that afternoon Pierpaolo and I are, also, on our way home. At the airport I mention that he will soon see the product of his efforts at every parish. He looks a bit weary. “I hope I’ll be able to get over that quickly,” he says. “I just want to go to Mass without worrying about a priest turning a page. For a long while I’ve gone in to genuflect and then [straight away] looked at the missal to see what shape it’s in. You get obsessed. You forget you are there to just take part in the Mass.”

The design of the missal has at times been quite personal. Pierpaolo talks about how the cover did not look quite right until the letters “IC XC NI KA” were added around the cross. These were the letters, he explains, on a crucifix given to him and his wife on their honeymoon. The Greek shopkeeper who gave it to them said it was for their first child.
Pierpaolo says it will be hard, after this job, to work on more “run of the mill” stuff. He says that “DIY books are not going to do it any more”.

Just before we go to our gate, he says: “In the end, you hope you’ve been a small part of something that’s going to renew the Church and bring people to Christ. That’s the most important thing. It’s nice to produce a book and everything, but to think it’s going to bring someone to God, or to find the love of God in their own life… that’s the icing on the cake.”