19 July 2017
Every week, The Tablet was a reminder to me of Catholicism at its best
Six years ago Catherine Pepinster called me to ask if I’d like to have a go at being part-time editor of The Tablet’s books pages. I was living in Youghal, County Cork, at the time; I’d left my job in publishing a few months earlier and was helping my mother to nurse my Dad, who was dying at home. “My bags are packed,” he told me, with perhaps a hint of presumption about his next destination. He died a few weeks later and after the funeral I came back to London and started work in The Tablet’s offices in Hammersmith. I loved the paper and knew some of the writers and the journalists. I felt like the cat that had got the cream.
Like so many Tablet readers, I had a close emotional relationship with the paper. Every week, it was a reminder to me of Catholicism at its best. It knew what to be serious about and it knew the things that don’t matter a jot. It was intelligent, compassionate, and interested in everything and everyone, particularly the things going on in the corner of the picture. There was no bossy shepherding of people into heaven along tightly prescribed routes. There was a sense of being plugged into one of the great streams of human civilisation.
The Tablet has its line, of course: it is said to be “progressive”, it is “liberal”. Well, fair enough: no one likes to be confined by labels but these are a part of the Tablet virtu. The Tablet combines deep attachment to the Church with fierce independence. It is sometimes a wasp at the picnic. It is not a tidy manifesto; it’s a living personality: faithful, honest, generous, inquisitive and irrepressibly reform-minded. I look up at the row of postcards on my bookshelves opposite, a personal parapet of icons: Dorothy Day, the anarchist who went to Mass every morning; Thomas Merton, the bold peacemaker who (mostly) did what he was told by his abbot; Jean Vanier and his “revolution of tenderness”; Oscar Romero, whose defence of the poor cost him his life. The teaching of the Church was their indispensable map; not their destination. Its precepts are not electric fences to prevent us from straying into wickedness but springboards to propel us towards happiness and flourishing. We need the rules; we need the referee with his whistle, but it’s the game that matters. The genius of Catholicism is precisely that is not seeking to find rest in one register or settlement. It lives in the flashes of movement between them. This is the exuberance and profligacy of God. Whatever sort of Catholic we are, or think we are, we need the other sort. As Charles Péguy pointed out, if we arrive at heaven alone, God may look at us and ask, “But where are the others?”
I’ve been acting editor since the end of last year, when Catherine stepped down after 13 years; and now I’ve been bumped up to editor. It’s lovely of course, but it’s a little like being given a train set for Christmas, when you’ve been playing with it for six months. Like everyone in newspapers, we are a little frightened about the future. Readers abscond, advertisers elope, platforms collapse. But people will always want to know what’s going on, and what it means for them. There will always be an appetite for intelligent entertainment, for good writing, for great stories. And we have the greatest story of them all. The readers are there. The trick is, to make sure we reach them. Increasingly, The Tablet is a flickering presence on an electronic display, its news and features and reviews shredded and hurled around the internet like confetti, to be blinked at for a split-second on a smartphone or a laptop. The founder and first editor of The Tablet, Frederick Lucas, was one of those energetic and forceful Victorians who saw a newspaper primarily as a tool for getting his message over to as many people as possible. He was determined that his paper would be read not just in London and Dublin and Rome, but in far-flung mission territorities and remote corners of the Empire. Back then, 177 years ago, it took railways and steam boats and diplomatic bags – and several weeks – for copies of Lucas’ newspaper to be lugged around the world to his readers overseas. Quite suddenly, something extraordinary has happened that changes everything. His successor can transmit an editorial or a feature to a reader in Toronto or Lagos at the touch of a button, at almost zero cost. It’s a stupendous opportunity, and we must seize it.
Brendan Walsh is editor of The Tablet.
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