After the apocalypse, enter Ms Jones

How do you follow feisty Odone? Andrew Brown on The Catholic Herald's new editor
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The Independent Online
Few people in Britain had ever heard of The Catholic Herald before Cristina Odone took it over four years ago. Even now, few people read it. The circulation of around 18,000 is the smallest of all the Catholic papers

But the name has become familiar to almost everyone in the chattering classes. Few can be the amusing writers who have not been approached by a whirlwind of flirtatious energy and propositioned to write something for absurdly small sums of money. Most have accepted, sometimes with noisy results.

A column by the Catholic traditionalist author Alice Thomas Ellis denouncing Archbishop Worlock of Liverpool and all his liberal works before he was cold in his grave, was only the latest in a series of outrageous, attention-grabbing stories to emanate from the Odone editorship.

That column came out after she had determined to resign, but before the news became public. Now her successor has been announced, and it seems that the owners of the paper were determined to find a candidate who was everything Ms Odone was not - except a woman. Deborah Jones is 48 and lives with her elderly mother in Newmarket.Brought up an Anglican she has been a Catholic since her teens, and for most of her life a professional servant of the Church - whereas Odone made a profession out of being a Catholic, but earned her money as a journalist and in PR.

For 16 years, Ms Jones has been in charge of adult education for the Catholic diocese of East Anglia. Basically, the job has meant involving lay people in the work of the Church. Such work must be part of the future of a church which is suffering from a chronic shortage of priests - each year fewer than 50 Catholic priests are ordained from England, one-tenth of the figure for Anglicans.

It gives Ms Jones an entirely different perspective on the work and function of the Church to that of a metropolitan journalist. "I shall have to get one of those eyeshades and take up smoking Gauloises," she says, contemplating her future.

She does not wish to be drawn into the controversies of her predecessor's editorship, but she did say one revealing thing about the Alice Thomas Ellis row: the novelist, she said "did not speak for anyone; she didn't work for a bishop or anything." This view of the Church as one in which criticism should only count if it is informed, is gloriously at odds with journalistic and political wisdom.

Ms Jones has also been involved in the Margaret Beaufort Institute, a body which was set up in Cambridge as a Catholic answer to the six Protestant theological colleges there. In her twenties, Ms Jones attempted to follow her vocation as a Franciscan nun. She wanted to be a missionary in Bolivia; after she learned that she was considered overqualified for this, and better suited to a teaching post in America, she withdrew. But her only journalistic experience has been on Priests and People, a thoughtful monthly published from the Cambridge Blackfriars (home of the Dominican order in the town) for the sort of professional Catholic that she is herself.

She sees a wider audience for these kinds of article: "I want to make the paper more influential," she says. "I want to take it into the mainstream and really pick up a readership. There are many Catholics who still don't buy a Catholic paper, and at the same time are asking for information and adult education."

This is not the perspective of the business she will be joining. One reason for the attraction of the Catholic press to mainstream journalists is the engaging bitchiness of almost everyone involved. The players are normally young, underpaid and eager for jobs in the wider world, or old, underpaid and despairing of escape. Neither condition makes for charity. "Cristina was The Cath-olic Who Does; so they replaced her with The Catholic Who Doesn't", a journalist observed.

Four publications now contend for a readership which is constantly diminishing when not actively dying. Only the unglossy magazine The Tablet is thriving, but a third of its 18,000 circulation is abroad. This may be fitting, considering it is the finest expression in print of the ethos of the BBC World Service. Of the remainder, the biggest by far is The Universe, which is, in reality, the newspaper of Irish diaspora Catholicism, and sells around 90,000 copies every week. Three years ago it launched The Catholic Times, in an attempt to siphon off some of the Herald's conservative readership.

Harry Coen, the engaging and experienced Fleet Street journalist who has been acting editor of the Herald for the past four months, and who will stay on to help Ms Jones, dismisses The Catholic Times as "a prayer mat facing Rome". The paper's brand of conservatism is best conveyed by the headline with which it announced that a referendum had given the go-ahead to divorce in Ireland: "Less than 9,000 votes succeed where Cromwell failed."

Ms Jones says that the Herald, under her editorship, will not be adversarial. "The bishops in this country are very mild, pleasant chaps, and they are not taking the Church into any lunatic culs-de-sac. I don't think the Herald should be about digging for worms. If we're broadly supportive of the Church, then the times when we will be critical will be seen as prophetic."

But it is clear that if Ms Jones does attack the hierarchy, it will be from the left. She says that plans being drawn up by Catholic feminists to hold a referendum among the faithful in this country are "very interesting". Such votes in Austria and Germany drew millions of signatures for demands including an end to priestly celibacy, an end to the ban on contraception, women priests, greater local influence over the choice of bishops and greater tolerance for homosexuality.

If the new Herald does back such a radical campaign, the Catholic press may once more lively up itself.