Four days till deadline and there is plenty still to do. I’ve put the pagination up from 84 to 88 pages to squeeze in extra news items on a priest and three nuns who have just been beatified by the Pope, the death of Cardinal KÃ¶nig of Vienna, and the appointment of a new bishop of Hexham and Newcastle. I spent the previous week in that neck of the woods, covering the spring meeting of all the English and Welsh bishops at Ushaw College, Co Durham. As well as reporting on the bishops’ discussions, the Briefing team interviewed their guest of honour, Czech bishop and former dissident Vaclav Maly, who spent years working as a toilet cleaner in a Prague tube station when the authorities banned him from publicly serving as a priest. “It was a brutal way of life,” he recalled cheerfully. I stay late at work laying out that article and other pages.
Good news on the sales front. Sales have soared by more than 15 per cent since our relaunch in January, helped by extensive marketing to British Catholics, enhanced content and livelier use of pictures. Acting director of communications Ollie Wilson and I sift through the latest batch of Press Association pictures of the Pope to pick out the back cover poster – a crucial decision. After much debate, we plump for one of the Holy Father praying in his private chapel in the Vatican. It is like a little peek into his personal spiritual life. I work late, trying to finish as many pages as possible.
The issue has to be proofread and sent to the printer by Monday lunchtime.
Proofreading begins. It’s a bumper edition with almost as much content as the weekend papers! However, the News of the World and the Sunday Mirror are unlikely to be chasing our exclusive lead story – a 3,000-word interview with Father Timothy Radcliffe, former MasterGeneral of the Dominican Order and a man once described as “Britain’s top monk” by The Sun. Not that Briefing never makes the headlines. When former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith chose to speak out for the first time about his sacking in the January edition of Briefing, all the quality dailies followed up the story, prominently plugging us for breaking it.
As I continue to check the proofs, I’m pleased by the wide variety of features and columns. The Bishop of the Forces, Bishop Tom Burns, is reporting from the Falklands, Bishop John Crowley of Middlesbrough has written about his pilgrimage through north-west Spain, and there are diary columns by British priests working in the Shetlands and the South Atlantic.
There is even a feature by Ann Widdecombe MP, fresh from her success as an agony aunt in The Guardian, on her journey of faith. After going to mass, my mind turns to the next issue and I arrange to interview the oldest surviving First World War veteran. He’s 107 and keen to talk about the spiritual dimension of life in the trenches.
That terrible Monday feeling! There is a flood of last-minute corrections from the three other proofreaders.
Most pernickety is my wife. I just manage to get the last correction done when the courier comes to whisk the files down to Hastings Printing Company -Briefing’s equivalent of Westferry. What a relief. The team celebrate with a couple of beers at our local and knock about some ideas. We decide to launch a column called Poetry from the Parishes, urging priests and parishioners to submit their best rhymes for publication. And we start to think about our internet edition, Virtual Briefing, which has some unique content and a more tabloidy approach. I kindly ask its editor not to nick my readers.
In the morning, I am delighted to learn that Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien, Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh and president of the Scottish Bishops’ Conference, is soon to take possession of his own church in Rome – the right of every cardinal.
Cardinal Keith is one of our most enthusiastic writers, and I make a mental note to ask him to pen an exclusive account of his experiences on his return. I read the national newspapers looking for stories that Briefing might follow up – sadly, there’s nothing today – and discuss a few marketing ideas with my colleagues. In the afternoon, I lock myself away to start writing up my recent interview with Cardinal Godfried Danneels, Archbishop of Malines-Brussels – one of the most prominent, yet controversial, figures in the College of Cardinals. In the interview I quizzed him about comments he had reportedly made on the Church’s position on condoms.
I have been working on Briefing for a year today. I cannot believe how quickly the time has flown. For one assignment, I flew to Rome to interview the Pope’s head of social communications, Archbishop John Foley, an extraordinary ex-journalist from Philadelphia, in the inner confines of Vatican City. On the same trip, my wife and I got togged up again in our wedding gear to have our marriage blessed personally by the Pope, one of the proudest moments of our lives. As I draw up a list of ideas for our editorial meeting, I reflect that Briefing is no ordinary publication. It is not full of attacks on people and does not even have leader articles. Instead it is truly a journal of record at the service of the Catholic Church in Britain.