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Speaking plainly of prelates

30 August 2011

Bernard Palmer recalls a charismatic figure in the religious press


Holy Smoke?
Otto Herschan
TAF Publishing £11.25*

IN THE opening chapter of his fascinating memoir, Otto Herschan (who died last July, aged 84, shortly after its publication) warns the reader that the book is both untidy and informal. “I do not aspire to write a history; it is more like the gossip column of a newspaper or a peep through a keyhole.”

Readers who prefer a more ordered and chronological approach are unlikely to warm to a gossipy volume like this. But those who share the author’s relaxed attitude will enjoy the personal memories that he recalls as managing director for many years of the Catholic Herald group of newspapers. And it is a rewarding challenge (especially as the book lacks an index) to work out the details of his life from the references to key facts and dates as they are revealed at random in the course of the book’s 167 pages.

Herschan’s father had been an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army. Of Jewish ancestry, he had become a Catholic at the age of 18; Otto’s mother was born a Catholic. In November 1938, his parents bravely decided that Otto and his mother should emigrate, so that the 11-year-old boy should cease to be educated in what was by then part of Nazi Germany. They left Austria for England, where Otto enjoyed a happy education at the Benedictine Belmont Abbey School, just outside Hereford. In 1943, his father was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, where he died of typhus in June 1945.

On leaving school, Otto opted first for a career in stage manage­ment. After six months as a student at the Boltons Theatre in Kensing­ton, he became its manager at the tender age of 21. But stage manage­ment soon gave way to journalism. In 1953, he met the then chairman of the Catholic Herald, Vernor Miles, who asked him to take over the management of the Herald. Her­schan told Miles that he knew nothing about newspapers. “I think that may be a very good start,” Miles assured him. He began work at the Herald in November 1953, becoming its managing director in 1961, four years after I had been appointed to a similar position on the Church Times.

Meanwhile, he had married his first wife, Mary. They adopted one son, Patrick, and fostered another, James. Sadly, Mary died in 1984, but three years later Otto married again. He and his second wife, Marie, later lived in Ireland.

As managing director of the Cath­olic Herald, Herschan also managed the Herald’s sister papers in Scotland and Ireland, and his memoir therefore ranges widely throughout the British Isles. He was a charismatic character whom I always enjoyed meeting when our paths crossed. We shared a printer at High Wycombe, and also found ourselves closely involved in the af­fairs of the Religious Weekly Press Group, long since defunct, but back in the 1950s and 1960s a significant ecumenical body; we were each chairman of the Group in successive years.

The memoir is rich in stories of notable events and personalities in the Roman Catholic Church. Her­schan pulls no punches, and makes it quite clear who in his view are the goodies and who the baddies. Archbishop O’Hara, Apostolic Delegate in the 1950s, definitely belonged in the latter camp. He is described as both “stupid” and “incompetent”, and his failings are illustrated by the story of how he attempted to discipline the Herald for allegedly not informing its readers about a particular papal dispensation.

The editor was away, but the news editor was summoned to the Archbishop’s house in Wimbledon. “O’Hara demanded that he kneel before him and apologise for the insolence to the Holy See by the Catholic Herald. . . Fifty years later the story sounds as if it went back to the Middle Ages!”

Herschan is an unashamed name-dropper — but then he had known some big names, ranging from Archduke Otto von Habsburg, son of the last Emperor of Austria-Hungary, down to recent Presidents of Austria. (He now, incidentally, boasted two nationalities, having successfully reapplied in 2006 for Austrian citizenship.) He was on Christian-name terms with many cardinals both here and abroad.

He strongly disapproved of the ap­pointment of the “non-lamented” Cardinal Groer of Vienna to succeed Cardinal Koenig. “One of the worst appointments made — he was totally unsuited to the job.” But, in spite of his outspokenness, Her­schan was still sufficiently persona grata in Vatican circles to be created a Knight of St Gregory by Cardinal Hume in 1978.

He considered that his work at the Catholic Herald formulated his religious philosophy. “You are just a liberal,” Vernor Miles once told him dismissively. “You always insist on seeing the other person’s point of view.” Miles’s unwitting tribute was well merited.

Herschan’s memoir would have been improved by some vigorous editing. This would have cut out errors of spelling and punctuation, besides unnecessary repetitions. Nevertheless, the book remains, in spite of its limitations, an extremely rewarding read.

Dr Palmer is a former editor of the Church Times.

*This title can be ordered from the publisher’s online catalogue: www.theauthorsfriend.ie

*This title can be ordered from the publisher’s online catalogue: www.theauthorsfriend.ie

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