Geoffrey Chapman: Publisher who transformed the market for Catholic books

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The Independent Online

Geoffrey Chapman transformed Catholic publishing in the 1960s, combining business acumen with an ability to harness the winds of change blowing in the Church. Thanks to his skills, India and Anglophone Africa were able to benefit from the new liturgical and catechetical books he was able to produce at remarkably low cost.

Brought up as a Catholic in Melbourne, Geoff Chapman lost his father in a plane crash aged four. His student years at the University of Melbourne coincided with the rise of the French worker priest movement and brought him into contact with Joseph Cardijn's class-based teachings on the social apostolate. He was captivated by what reached him of the intellectual ferment in Catholic thinking in post-war France.

This passion for the "new theology" coming out of Europe accompanied skills as a glider pilot, skier, swimmer, and then accomplished yachtsman, competing in two Fastnet races. Newly married to Suzanne James, he wanted to get nearer to the intellectual action; this, and a love of travel, drew him from Australia to Britain in 1954 and to a career in Catholic publishing.

He began publishing under the auspices of the Young Christian Workers: a collection of Cardijn's writings and speeches and the Pastoral Letters of Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard, wartime Archbishop of Paris. His publishing education was acquired by spending a couple of months with FIDES Publishers in Chicago, sleeping in a bunk at the Notre Dame University Fire Brigade.

In 1957, with £1,000 from an English aristocratic businessman, Dermot de Trafford, Geoffrey Chapman Ltd, publishers to the Social Apostolate, got off the ground. Authors and books were chased in Paris, where on his first visit he slept rough under the Pont Neuf. By the time the Second Vatican Council opened in 1962, many of the thinkers and theologians who were breaking new ground were coming out under the Chapman imprint.

His best known coup was Pope John XXIII's Journal of a Soul. He was up in a glider when the significance of a phone call from a journalist friend in Rome hit him. Pope John had left a diary. He hastily landed, caught the next plane to Rome, saw Pope John's former private secretary, Monsignor Loris Capovilla, tracked down the Italian publisher and signed up for the English language rights on the spot.

During the Council he was frequently to be found in the Colombus Hotel near St Peter's, wining and dining periti, bishops and cardinals. Cardinal Augustin Bea, the German Jesuit biblical scholar who spearheaded the movement for Christian unity, took to him. A lifelong friendship began with Archbishop Denis Hurley of Durban, the Catholic anti-apartheid champion. The Council was his dream come true.

In 1969, Geoffrey Chapman Publishers, by now established but needing serious recapitalisation, was sold to Crowell Collier Macmillan. He retained an instinct for the sort of liturgical and catechetical books that would be needed after the Council, and a genius for finding solutions to the needs of the Churches in less wealthy countries. In the early 1970s, the Chapmans took on the colossal task of publishing the post-conciliar Missals, Breviary and Lectionaries for the Anglophone world outside North America. He also solved the problems of paper quality and cost needed to print and publish the Breviary in India at a price people could afford. In the 1980s the Anglican Communion benefited from the Chapmans' talents when they published in 12 languages the prayer book for the Church of the Province of Southern Africa, launched in 1989 by Desmond Tutu.

Geoff Chapman had a lifelong flair for predicting the needs of the religious book markets and meeting them. He never lost his passion for ideas, good theology and books. He was as adept in complex negotiations as in a gale at sea, in standing between angry ANC and Inkatha factions while part of the Ecumenical Peace Monitors' Team in South Africa in 1994 as in Las Vegas on holiday with one of his sons, placing a bet and winning.

During his later years, first impressions of Chapman were of a formidable appearance and an unwavering gaze. A father figure and a friend to a much wider circle than his six devoted children, and 12 grandchildren, he was the gentlest, kindest and most convivial of men with an Australian disregard for class or social standing. He was both entertained and appalled by the clericalism of the Church he loved. He only ever asked from it one thing: honesty. With the Catholic Church passing through its darkest days his was a light on the shore, undimmed even by the last months of a steadfast and serene struggle with cancer.

Geoffrey Robison Chapman, publisher: born Melbourne, Australia 5 April 1930; married 1954 Suzanne James (three sons, three daughters); died London 9 May 2010.