01 March 2018
Christa Pongratz-Lippitt: On 30 years writing for The Tablet
By Christa Pongratz-Lippitt
On 3 February 1988 I received a letter from Christopher Herdon – an old friend from my foreign office days. Like me, Christopher had read Russian at Oxford. As he was three or four years my senior, he had gone on to do his national service by the time I got there, but we shared the same tutors and when we met one another in the Foreign Office in the early 50s, we often chatted about the fun we had had learning Russian from scratch.
I got to know Christopher and his wife Virginia well when we were posted to Vienna in the early 50s but lost touch with them when the allied occupation of Austria ended. I got married to an Austrian and the Herdons were posted to Baghdad, later to Aden and finally to the Holy See.
In his letter Christopher explained that they were now back in England – the letter was written from the house they had bought in West Sussex before they set out on their various postings – and that he was now a journalist.
“Forgive the typewriter, but I am now a journalist and like to think that the more I type the better I get as a journalist! I work for The Tablet, a Catholic paper that you probably know all about. The offices are in Victoria (46 Great Peter Street). We are looking for a correspondent in Vienna and I immediately thought of you. It won’t be much work – just 250 words a few times a year – perhaps when the Pope visits Austria again etc. Please think about it! I will come over soon to discuss this further. As you live near Schönbrunn, perhaps we could meet for dinner at the Schönbrunner Schloß Hotel and go back down memory lane to those years when it was the British headquarters during the Allied Occupation! It will be great to see you and I hope to hear from you very soon!”
I still had and still have a few copies of The Tablet from the 40s as my parents subscribed to it but I certainly didn’t “know all about it”. Very soon, however, a parcel arrived by post with a bundle of Tablets and another letter from Christopher announcing the date of his arrival.
We met for dinner at the hotel he remembered which had by that time been totally redecorated and become one of the best (and most expensive) hotels in town. I had gone back to university and was doing a degree in Oriental History but Christopher persuaded me to accept the Tablet offer. “It will take up hardly any time at all!”, he promised.
On that visit, I introduced him to Fr Paul Zulehner, a well-known Austrian pastoral theologian and then dean of the Catholic Theological Faculty at Vienna University, who later wrote several articles on Austria in The Tablet.
At the beginning I was just asked to send in background reports of what was going on in Vienna and it took a long time for Tablets to reach me regularly each week by post. One of the first things I was asked to do was check the translations of articles from the German or translate them myself. In June (1988) Zulehner wrote an article for The Tablet on the pastoral situation of the Church in Austria which The Tablet had translated into English – “at great expense” Christopher said – and I was asked to go over it.
I have no record of when I first went to the Tablet offices at Great Peter Street but it wasn’t long afterwards. I used to visit England quite frequently at the time. I clearly remember my first visit. Christopher asked me to translate a news report from a German paper. He couldn’t seem to find a chair so eventually produced an old cardboard box for me to sit on and handed me what seemed to me an almost prehistoric type writer. “I’ll hang that expensive-looking jacket you have on away safely – the cardboard boxes here are fairly dusty”, he said.
Things did not really get going until the following year when the Iron Curtain fell. Christopher came out to Vienna - bringing his wife Virginia with him to my great joy – and we hired a car and went on a fact-finding mission to Hungary and what was then still Czechoslovakia. The Tablet soon asked me to report on what I could find out about the former underground Churches in those countries where married men (and even one woman) had been clandestinely ordained. One of the underground bishops who was later recognised by Rome asked me if he could call me “Mrs Tab Vienna” as he found it so difficult to pronounce my name. The Tablet was also keen to know more about the controversial episcopal appointments in Austria under Pope John Paul II that began with Cardinal Groer and led to the Austrian church crisis and the foundation of “We Are Church”.
It was not long before the late Cardinal Franz König came up to me at a press conference and said how delighted he was that The Tablet now had a correspondent in Vienna. He had taken The Tablet since 1929, he said, and had “read every word each week” with the exception of the war years.
With his help I was soon able to build up a network of valuable contacts not only in Austria’s neighbours to the east but also in Germany and Switzerland.
Over the last thirty years, needless to say, I’ve often thought back to Christopher’s words – “it will hardly take up any of your time”!
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