My father Desmond Fisher edited the Catholic Herald in London’s Fleet Street in the mid-1960s at the time of Vatican II, which he reported on. I wrote the following obituary which is included in the latest edition of the new Catholic Herald magazine. My thanks to the current Editor Luke Coppen for suggesting a few changes at the start. I am glad to say that the rift between my father and the paper was put aside in recent times and that he was encouraged by Luke to contribute once again to this publication.
The Editor who brought Vatican II to Britain
It took half a century for a pope to address the need for reform of the Roman Curia. It was to have been tackled at the time of Vatican II, when many other changes were made in the Catholic Church. Days before my father Desmond Fisher died on December 30, I read him Pope Francis’s address to the Curia, outlining 15 ailments they suffered, including “spiritual Alzheimer’s”, which the Pontiff wanted to be cured. It was, my father said, the best news he had heard in 50 years. He was deeply involved with the progressive movement at Vatican II, where he made many friends, including Belgian Cardinal Leo Suenens and theologian Karl Rahner.
My father grew up in Ireland at a time when Catholic lay people were deferential to the clergy and especially the hierarchy. All that changed – or was supposed to – when Pope John XXIII summoned the Second Vatican Council to begin a reform of the Church. My father travelled to Rome before the opening and covered the later three sessions. He had been appointed editor of the Catholic Herald in 1962, in succession to Count Michael de la Bédoyère. Joining the Catholic Herald meant exchanging one Fleet Street office – that of the Irish Press, where he had been London editor since 1954 – for another.
In his first editorial he wrote that, as a lay-owned and independent paper, the Catholic Herald had “a freedom which is journalistically necessary if it is to carry out what it conceives to be its function and which relieves the hierarchy and the clergy generally of any responsibility for opinions expressed in these columns”. He built a team of new journalists around him, including John Horgan (later Press Ombudsman in Ireland) and future Tablet editor John Wilkins. He has left behind a large archive of articles spanning 70 years. He considered that some of his best writing was published in the Catholic Herald and elsewhere in 1962-65.
“Early in the Council,” he recalled, “some 15 English-speaking journalists … organised an informal group, mainly for friendship but also to pool information and ideas… Our group frequently dined together, occasionally inviting bishops (among them Cardinal Suenens) … to join us to explain Council issues and interpret what was going on.” Cardinal Franz König of Vienna wrote to my father that he had learned “more of what is going on at the Council from your superb reports” than he heard “while on the spot”.
My father reckoned he was probably the first working journalist to be admitted to St Peter’s during a Council meeting, carrying a one-day pass for a Protestant observer and dressed in a dark grey suit, white shirt and black pullover. His good knowledge of Latin (from secondary school and his short time as an Augustinian novice) came in extremely useful on that occasion. He remembered two English bishops inviting him for a coffee in Rome. When Bishop Farren of Derry, his former headmaster at St Columb’s College, entered, he was invited to join them but refused, saying he would have nothing to do with him. My father noted that this animosity was shared by some of the English and Scottish bishops because of his reportage on the Council. Archbishop McQuaid of Dublin thought his articles were “very objectionable”.
Halfway during the fourth session, in 1965, my father was criticised by Cardinal Heenan because of a Catholic Herald headline (not written by him): “Bishops clash at Council.” The cardinal claimed the Catholic bishops did not “clash” since the Holy Spirit guided their deliberations. His Eminence was very annoyed and contacted the main owner of the paper, a conservative in his religious views. My father was recalled from Rome on the grounds that the bulk of the Council’s work had been done. It was, he said, one of the bitterest blows of his life and led to his resignation as editor “without regret” in May 1966.
Archbishop Hurley of Durban expressed “terrible dismay at the bitter news” of my father’s departure. “You did a wonderful job on the Catholic Herald,” he wrote, “and produced perhaps the best reporting of the Council that appeared in an English-language newspaper.” Trevor Beeson, a Canon of Westminster Abbey, wrote in his 1972 book An Eye for an Ear: “Almost certainly the most able journalist in the religious field in the past two decades, Fisher was deeply influenced by the spirit of Vatican II and, not surprisingly, this found expression in the pages of his paper. But Fisher was too far ahead of those holding the reins of power in English Catholicism. He urged reforms, which they were not ready to accept or implement.”
During a year as a freelance, one of my father’s tasks was to handle the copious media enquiries he received regarding Charles Davis. In December 1966 Fr Davis, then the best-known Catholic theologian in Britain, announced he was leaving the Church. Our phone at the house in Wimbledon, where he stayed for a short while, never stopped ringing for three days, with enquiries from local, national and international media.
It was then that my father wrote The Church in Transition, published in 1967 by Geoffrey Chapman, a friend and neighbour. When he wrote it, he predicted it would take 100 or 200 years to decide whether Vatican II was a failure. By 2010, his view was that the Church, at least in Europe, would not get anything like that length of time for reflection and it seemed more likely the future structure of Christianity would be determined in Africa or Latin America. He wrote that verdict three years before an Argentine Jesuit was elected to the See of St Peter.
In his final years, when his mobility was limited, a correspondence by email with Dom Mark Hederman, the Abbot of Glenstal, as well as renewed contact with Fr Enda McDonagh, a well-known liberal, and the inauguration of the new priests’ conference in Ireland gave my father some hope that the spirit of Vatican II had not died. His final project, at the age of 94, was to finish a book on the Stabat Mater, including his own translation of the original Latin poem. He was still working on it on his laptop when he became ill. The work is due to be published later this year.