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These are the hands making your Missal

Mark Greaves travels to Italy to witness the astonishing skills involved in the creation of the new Missal that will stand on Britain’s altars

By on Friday, 22 July 2011

A worker painstakingly places leather tabs and ribbons into each chapel missal (Photo: Pierpaolo Finaldi)

A worker painstakingly places leather tabs and ribbons into each chapel missal (Photo: Pierpaolo Finaldi)

In a bindery outside Vicenza, Italy, the new altar missals are picked off a conveyor belt, checked carefully and placed on a stack. They are almost ready, but not quite: ribbons and leather tabs are still to be added. After that, they will be wrapped in paper, packed in a box and sent by lorry through Europe. By December, every parish in Britain will have one.

Watching the missals emerge is Pierpaolo Finaldi, commissioning editor at the Catholic Truth Society (CTS). For a year and a half he has overseen everything to do with their production: from artwork and design to the thickness of paper and the type of grain in the leather cover. Seeing the result, he says, is like watching a baby being born. “Except it’s taken a lot longer than nine months.”

Chugging away in front of us is the machine that glues the cover on to each big block of paper. It is a key moment in the production. Inside, a swirl of wheels, rollers and hammers presses the book together and moulds the spine into shape.

Giulio Olivotto, the head of Lego, the printers, is showing us around. His great-grandfather founded the company in 1900; it now prints Bibles, Jamie Oliver cookbooks, and high-end editions of anything (it printed Andrew Morton’s book on the royal wedding).

The production of the missal, says Giulio, has been unique: a mixture of hand-made and machine-made. Such high-spec books are not unheard of, he says, but they tend to have print runs of about 50 – not, as with the altar missal, 10,000.

The missals, which cost £230 each, are meant to be beautiful, but also fantastically sturdy: they will be used by priests every day and are expected to last decades. For months Pierpaolo has been tormented by seeing old missals falling apart, the ribbons frayed, the endpaper ripped: cautionary tales for a publisher.

Giulio boasts, half-jokingly, that he has been involved in book binding since he was born – the family workshop, he says, was his playground. He is a thorough guide, and tells us that the key to a well-made book is the spine. “If the spine is strong, the book will last,” he says, gravely. “If it is not, it won’t.”

Stacked across the factory floor are missals at various stages of the process: from seemingly finished books to gilded blocks without a spine to thin clumps of paper. There is a smell of ink, hot paper and glue.

The paper arrived here with the text printed on it already. It was chopped from forests in Finland and the Czech Republic and printed in a factory in Trento (the site of the 1545 Council) about 40 miles away.

In Vicenza, the first task was to glue all the picture pages in by hand. Normally, the glue would be sprayed on by a super-thin nozzle in a machine. But the machine could only stick pages to the edge of existing sections (these are single pieces of paper folded to make up to 64 pages) and CTS wanted the pictures on specific pages, to accompany feast days. So instead it took eight people approximately four weeks to glue in every page. (Each worker glued 1,000 pages a day.)

Then, a special kind of paper made out of PVC is placed on either side of the 1,500 or so pages that make up the missal. The paper, called Skinplast, will connect the block of paper with the cover: it is tear-resistant.

Next, the sections of paper are sewn together to form a block. This is done mechanically: we watch through a dusty window as needles jerk backwards and forwards and thread pulls the pages tight.

Thread, though, is not enough: the blocks must be glued twice and then coated with a thick lining to make sure they stay together. This means feeding them into another machine which pushes them under a glue roller.

After that, they are left to rest. The next stage is the gilding of the paper edges. A machine does all the work: it sands down the edges, making sure they are flat, dusts them with a mechanical brush, and then stamps them with a heated piece of gold foil.

At this point, the gilded blocks of paper are ready to be glued to a cover. First, workers wearing white gloves must check the gilding for scratches and other defects. They can only do this for two hours at a time, “otherwise their eyes go like this”, says Giulio, pointing his fingers crossways. The gloves, he explains, are to protect the gilding, not people’s fingers.

The blocks and covers are then placed separately into a machine that welds them together. But the machine does more than that. Powerful metal contraptions inside it round and press the spine into its correct shape. It is a very delicate operation, says Giulio. “There must be a balance between the strength of the spine and its roundedness,” he explains.

Here, Giulio admits there is a problem. “I will not make the truth better than it is,” he says. The smaller chapel missal does not have the right balance: its spine is too strong and is not sufficiently rounded. He shows a copy to Pierpaolo and me; neither of us can spot a defect.

Giulio has, I think, enjoyed the challenge of producing the CTS missals. Routine jobs, he says, “carry no emotion”. But a project like this “challenges your pride, your imagination, your professionalism. You look at yourself in the mirror in the evening and you think: ‘I couldn’t do what I wanted’ – but that’s a lesson. You learn.”

We walk over to a stack of leather covers nearby. The leather is genuine – that means it’s made out of cow hide only, and not mixed in with inferior materials. The hide, taken from cows in eastern Europe, is scraped and washed and dried at a tannery in northern Italy; it is also cut into thinner slices. It is then immersed in a vat of tannin (a chemical found in barks and leaves) for several days, which turns it into leather.

Giulio picks up a cover. The leather is wrapped around Dutch board and a thin layer of sponge to make it softer. A tube of card is also glued to the inside of the spine –it is supposed to stop the spine cracking. All of this, says Giulio, is put together by hand.

It arrives in the factory a plain red. Its elegant gold design is added by machine: a brass stamp presses a heated gold film on to each cover. (The design is an ornate Greek cross with a border around the edge and the letters “IC XC NI KA” – standing for “Jesus Christ conquers”.)

Once the covers and blocks of paper are united, another set of workers check they have been glued together properly. The books are shaken, pressed down on the conveyor belt and held upside down. They are then placed carefully on to a stack.

For the final stage of the operation the missals are taken by van to a small workshop nearby. Before we drive there, we take a break.

Over espresso, Giulio talks about the decline of quality craftsmanship. When he was younger, he says, the concept of the mass market didn’t exist. Now, “everything must be done at a higher speed, with more attention to cost”. Pierpaolo, meanwhile, is talking to Elisabetta Corbellini, the Lego sales manager, about a special-edition missal for Pope Benedict XVI. It will be presented in a custom-made white box by Bishop Arthur Roche of Leeds, chairman of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, together with representatives of the CTS.

The Pope is not the only recipient of a complimentary missal: every bishop in the English, Welsh and Scottish conferences will get one, too.

After lunch we head off to see the finishing touches being put to the chapel missal. On the way Pierpaolo explains the rationale behind CTS’s high-spec approach. Partly, he says, inspiration came from much older missals – “things of real beauty”. People at CTS thought that, since the new translation was more beautiful, more “out of the ordinary”, the book itself should reflect that. After all, it is part of the liturgy: it ought to be beautiful, too.

And anyway, CTS’s philosophy for a long time has been to make its books look good, he says. “The most beautiful thing in the world is the love of Christ for us, for his Church. So things presented for the Church should always be beautiful. They are made for God – to raise people’s spirits to God,” Pierpaolo says.

Before we see the missals being finished we stop off at a bungalow where two women are sewing up the ends of hundreds of ribbons. Each altar missal has six ribbons acting as bookmarks; to stop them fraying, their ends are sewn into a curl. The women here usually work for the fashion industry: in their catalogue are Versace purses, Armani fascinators and delicate lace coverings for wedding shoes. They are among half a dozen such groups sewing ribbons for Lego.

The boxes of all the sewn ribbons are sent to a small workshop nearby – the same workshop that all the altar missals in the Lego factory are being transported to. It is our last stop.

Here, the ribbons and leather tabs are added to the missal. It is painstaking work. First, the ribbons are laid on to adhesive tape, cut into sections of six, and pressed on to the inside of the missal’s spine. Then, leather tabs are picked out of boxes (each box has the page number they relate to scrawled on it), their sticky covering is peeled off and they are placed and folded around the correct page (that page has a marking on it to indicate exactly where the tab should go). The altar edition has 18 tabs: that means 180,000 tabs have to be added in total.

The workers here usually make high-quality leather products: desk sets for Italian MPs, bags, blotters, pen-holders. It is a small, family-run firm, with only a dozen or so employees. They are all in comfortable gym gear – shorts, a bandana, trainers – and focused intently on peeling, cutting, pasting, pressing. It looks horrendous to me, but the workers are all highly skilled, with at least 10 years’ experience in the industry.

Once the tabs and ribbons are added the books are stacked on a miniature conveyor belt and transported to the other side of the room, where a woman wraps them in paper and packs them in a cardboard box. Finally, another worker seals the box inside a shrink-wrapped plastic film. Then, it’s done: the shrink-wrapped, cardboard-boxed, paper-wrapped missal is ready for the journey to Britain.

Later that afternoon Pierpaolo and I are, also, on our way home. At the airport I mention that he will soon see the product of his efforts at every parish. He looks a bit weary. “I hope I’ll be able to get over that quickly,” he says. “I just want to go to Mass without worrying about a priest turning a page. For a long while I’ve gone in to genuflect and then [straight away] looked at the missal to see what shape it’s in. You get obsessed. You forget you are there to just take part in the Mass.”

The design of the missal has at times been quite personal. Pierpaolo talks about how the cover did not look quite right until the letters “IC XC NI KA” were added around the cross. These were the letters, he explains, on a crucifix given to him and his wife on their honeymoon. The Greek shopkeeper who gave it to them said it was for their first child.
Pierpaolo says it will be hard, after this job, to work on more “run of the mill” stuff. He says that “DIY books are not going to do it any more”.

Just before we go to our gate, he says: “In the end, you hope you’ve been a small part of something that’s going to renew the Church and bring people to Christ. That’s the most important thing. It’s nice to produce a book and everything, but to think it’s going to bring someone to God, or to find the love of God in their own life… that’s the icing on the cake.”

  • Peter Douglas Clegg

    Absolutely wonderful – quite a price though for small Parishes.
    I hope that there will be a smaller edition that Priests can take with them or use for Meditation on the Liturgy of the Mass.

  • Peter Douglas Clegg

    Absolutely wonderful and such a beautiful work of art that reflects, in all its beauty the Mystery of the Mass.
    I do hope that a small edition will also be available that Priests can take around with them or use for Meditative purposes.
    The price tag is quite high for ordinary Parishes.

  • mitsy

    This is going to be the “New Coke” of the RCC….nobody likes it or wants it…And way too expensive..

  • Parasum

    What’s going to happen to all the current Missals, with the “wrong” Liturgy in them ? And who pays for the new ones ?

  • Joeski5651

    but its soooooo good !

  • Recusant

    I guess that makes me a nobody

  • bt

    Thank you for publishing excellent pieces such as this!  I don’t know where else I could read about the making of this missal.  What an interesting article!

  • Aisake

    A lovely book and nice looking, this will make Mass be a meaningful celebration and also the Eucharist be the summit and life of all humankind.Mother Theresa said as i quoted ( if only humankind knows that you Lord are present at the tabernacle, all Catholic Church will be full of people). The long history of the Eucharist but how often we Catholics follower really believe that the Lord really present in the Eucharist. only then we will be God’s faithful instrument here on earth  

  • Simon

    Excellent article, lovely story. Seems a fair price to me for such an important and time-serving book. Look forward to seeing our copy.

  • Archon1

    Too expensive? Why is it when it comes to the Church and money people enter a parallel universe. It is a scandel if a parish is so poorly supported by its people that £300 approx is too expensive. Such a purchase should not be expensive for a parish properly funded by its people. This would be petty cash to an evangelical church. What did you last buy for £300? A weekend away? The price of the Missal, which will last for the forseeable future, is positively trivial. If it is too expensive for your parish, why not give more realistically?

  • Charles Martel

    These may be designed to last decades, but who knows when the next revision will come along and they will all be thrown on to the tip? Let’s also remember that despite the superlative craftsmanship, between those red covers is what our Holy Father has called a ‘fabricated liturgy… a banal on-the-spot product’. Let’s all go back to the real “Roman Missal” which presents our Faith in its fullness, without compromise.

  • Archon1

    By ‘real “Roman Missal” I must presume you mean the Tridentine Missal of 1570. Other usages were allowed to continue if they were able to prove an antiquity of 200 years or more. Hence the Dominican and Carthusian rites continued. England had two rires of its own, that of Sarum in the south and York  in the north. The ‘real Roman Missal’ for which you long is a 16th century product made popular by the concenience of printing. In terms of the history of the Church the 16th century is as yesterday afternoon. If you wish to appeal to antiquity you need to go wasy beyond that late date.

    There is only ever one real Missal for a Catholic, that is the one formally approved by the Church, or several approved by the Church. Cheers.

  • Charles Martel

    Dear Archon1
    By the ‘real Roman Missal’, I mean the liturgy of Rome as it was celebrated up till the wreckers got their hands on it in the 1960s. I am well aware of the Sarum Use, the Dominican Rite, etc., but the heart of the matter is the Roman Rite, which was not fabricated in 1570. At that time Rome simply published a definitive version of the Roman Rite as it then existed. Name me a single prayer that was fabricated in 1570!
    Pope Paul VI’s Novus Ordo Missae is clearly not the Roman Rite, and many experts have acknowledged that (Gelineau, for one: “The Roman Rite as we knew it no
    longer exists. It has been destroyed.”). Note that I didn’t say ‘real missal’; I said ‘Real Roman Missal’. I am not denying the validity of the Pauline liturgy; I am simply saying it is not the liturgy of Rome that developed over centuries.
    Here is a good introduction to the whole issue:

  • Aidan Coyle

    A lovely account of the artistry involved in the production process of the new missal. What a pity about the obfuscating, archaic content of the text…

  • Stan Harris

    Great article; I understand now as to the cost; quality, craftmanship and durability, not to mention beauty. However, my tiny mission  congregation of 30 had no trouble scraping together enough for both Altar AND Chapel copy.

  • Robert Kovacs

    And in such a poor economy, they will still rip you blind for the price of one. One can go to Barnes and Noble and get an equal quality bound book for 1/4 of the price. Check out their Literature Classics series, and tell me if they are not as quality bound. Picked up a nice gold guilded leather bound Complete Sherlock Holmes with ribbon marker, illustrations exc.. that will last a lifetime, for $29.99. Not $299.00, or even $59.99.

  • Robert Kovacs

    Agreed!. They should have just taken the 1962 Misalle Romanum and changed only the language, with everything else unchanged. Would have saved them allot of years producing a completely new Mass, that only caters to charismatics, liberals, and progressives. And would have been perfect for continuity, with it being said in Latin.  But then again this isn’t the same Roman Catholic Church of the Saints. 

  • Robert Kovacs

    “Just before we go to our gate, he says: “In the end, you hope you’ve been a small part of something that’s going to renew the Church and bring people to Christ. That’s the most important thing. It’s nice to produce a book and everything, but to think it’s going to bring someone to God, or to find the love of God in their own life… that’s the icing on the cake.”
    Not if you keep altar girls, priest facing people (magic circle), EMHC, when not needed, guitar music, and communion in the hand. Will see in 5 years, if it was worth it.

  • Robert Kovacs

    The Novus Ordo as a whole is the “New Coke”, this is just a different sweetner added. “Classic Coke” is the 1962 Misalle Romanum.

  • Robert Kovacs

    From Wikipedia  “The proportion of Italians that identify themselves as Roman Catholic is 87.8%,[135] although only about one-third of these described themselves as active members (36.8%)”
    One Third as active!  Hope they do a good job!!.

  • Robert Kovacs

    “People at CTS thought that, since the new translation was more beautiful, more “out of the ordinary”, the book itself should reflect that. After all, it is part of the liturgy: it ought to be beautiful, too.”
    They also say don’t judge a book by it’s cover.

  • Robert Kovacs

    “(The design is an ornate Greek cross with a border around the edge and the letters “IC XC NI KA” – standing for “Jesus Christ conquers”.)”
    Would only be relevant if this were for a Greek Divine Liturgy book. This product is not even remotely Greek!.   

  • Robert Kovacs

    Quote “But a project like this “challenges your pride, your imagination, your professionalism. You look at yourself in the mirror in the evening and you think: ‘I couldn’t do what I wanted’ – but that’s a lesson. You learn.”

    Yeah you really wanted to put the 1962 Misalle Romanum text in between those Dutch boards!. And that will be a lessen the Church will learn.  

  • Aunt Raven

    The Kyrie is in Greek.  Much of the New Testament is in Greek. Sign over the Cross on Golgotha was lettered in Greek, as well as Latin and Hebrew.  The Missal is indeed “remotely Greek”.  

  • Aunt Raven

    But in this case you can.  (“Truth in labeling” or, “Does what it says on the tin”)

  • Anonymous

    I pray for the defeat of modernism from WITHIN and outsde the Roman Catholic Church

  • Enginpiskin

    Which  machine is the best for book edge gilding?Thank you

  • John Vianney

    ah it’s lovely. even the free masons of Vatican City are using the new missals