Media: Appealing to catholic tastes: A former PR executive and 'Times' diarist is preparing to bring controversy to a traditional newspaper. Liz Hunt reports

The traditional view of the Roman Catholic press is that it exists to puff up prelates and to pummel Protestants. The new editor of the Catholic Herald, a weekly newspaper with a circulation of 25,000, disagrees: 'Most prelates are puffed up enough and they don't need us. As for pummelling Protestants - well, there are distinct traditions between Catholics and Protestants which I hope will always be preserved.'

Instead, Cristina Odone, a 31- year-old Italian who has previously been a Times diarist and a public relations executive, says she is serving up a 'spaghetti' theory of the faith. 'Catholicism is like a bowl of spaghetti, full of different strands. It is only if you eat them all together that it will do you any good. The problem is that it is up to the Catholic to find the different strands, and they won't find them just by sitting in church and listening to a priest. The Herald is there to help.'

The analogy reflects her Italian heritage and a strict convent- school education in Rome, where she gained a thorough grounding in her faith, now being put to the test. In recent days she has been in great demand, popping up on the Today programme to offer her tips on who the next pope might be.

Ms Odone knew what she was taking on when she swapped a plush office in Washington, where she advised European firms seeking contracts with the World Bank, for an old school building on the fringes of the City of London.

After a brief spell on an American newspaper in Rome, freelancing for glossy magazines and the Times Educational Supplement, she joined the Herald in 1987 as a reporter. Former colleagues remember her well: 'She once hurled a typewriter at an editor who wanted to publish a letter from Victoria Gillick (a prominent Catholic) describing Cristina as that 'silly young woman' with the wrong attitude towards birth control.'

The editor didn't bear a grudge and earlier this year suggested Ms Odone as his successor. She returns with 'adjusted' attitudes, masses of enthusiasm and an ambition to 'shake up' the paper and win it a new audience among the 'Catholic yuppies who are repentant of their excesses in the Eighties', she says. 'They are married, they have the house, the car and the baby, and now they are finding they need God.'

She believes that her strength as the Herald's editor for the Nineties is that she shares many of the experiences and feelings of this audience. As a young woman, reconciling her Catholicism and her lifestyle were not easy, and at university she stopped practising. 'I became one of those random Mass-goers. Guilt featured prominently in my life.'

She intends to capture attention with 'good controversial writing', drawing first on the rich pool of British writers who are Catholics. Forthcoming articles include a survey of psychiatrists, to find out if Catholics are the most 'screwed up of all', and a discussion on what it is really like to be a convent girl. Mary Kenny asks 'whither Catholic womanhood', while Alice Thomas Ellis, the novelist, will contribute a regular column on family life. Other new columnists include Clare Boylan, the Irish novelist, and Christopher Monckton, late of the Evening Standard, who has already made it to Pseuds Corner in Private Eye as a result of his ponderings in the Herald.

Among other prominent Catholics whom she will be trying to woo are Piers Paul Read, Lord Rees-Mogg, Auberon Waugh, David Lodge, Paul Johnson and Richard Ingrams, some of whom have agreed to contribute (for a standard fee of pounds 40). She is dispensing with the articles written by people 'whose reason for appearing on the pages was their 'goodness', or the fact that they belonged to a religious order'.

The Herald is also seeking new readers away from its traditional point of sale in churches. From the end of this month, it will be available for the first time in selected newsagents, preferably those near a church. It is joining the Church Times (circulation 44,437), the Methodist Recorder (27,080), the Baptist Times (circulation figure unavailable) and the Tablet (16,421) in a co- ordinated circulation drive that represents an ecumenical effort to reach new audiences.

Tony Richardson, the Herald's circulation manager, says: 'We stand or fall together.' A working party of representatives from each of the titles has identified areas of common interest, he says. 'For example, the South-east has a goodly mix of all denominations and so that is a likely starting place. In the West Country, for example, the Baptist Times would be strong and we would be weak, but stronger in the Liverpool and Manchester areas.' Encouragement from local churches will be sought, he says. 'A 2 or 3 per cent increase would be a real achievement in our terms.'

The 'church' titles deserve a wider readership, Ms Odone says. 'They can bring a new angle, a fresh dimension to a lot of news stories.' All today's major issues have a religious angle: environment and population, legal issues, divorce and family break-up, abortion. 'There is a devil and God component in all of them, but national newspapers are only interested in bonking bishops.'

Some issues, however, are not up for debate: abortion, for example, is 'murder' in the eyes of the Catholic Church. 'Personally, it goes against the grain: as a journalist my hackles are raised by any whiff of censorship, but it would be as blasphemous as Anita Roddick (of Body Shop fame) extolling the virtues of a fur coat,' Ms Odone says.

The subject of women priests is another matter: it is being vigorously debated by the Church and the news pages will reflect that. Another thorny issue is contraception, the subject that most perturbs young Catholic couples. She is reluctant to be drawn on the issue.

The new-look Herald will attract readers whose requirements are not being met by rival Catholic titles, Ms Odone believes. The Universe (circulation 106,104) is 'like the Sun without page 3 girls', while the Tablet 'deals only in words of three syllables or more. What we have to do is capture the bit in between. We won't talk down, but we won't be afraid of well-expressed opinions, however controversial.'

(Photograph omitted)

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