Liz Dodd meets the Oxford family behind the long-awaited British version of the Magnificat monthly prayer book
It was as ubiquitous a component of the papal visit as the kaleidoscope of flags and bright yellow pilgrim packs. Clutched by lay people and priests alike, Magnificat – the booklet distributed to parishes in the week before the papal visit – had as visible a presence on-stage as off. But this small monthly missal was more than just a companion for the Holy Father’s visit. The prayer book, containing meditations by spiritual writers, readings for the Mass of the day and prayer for morning and evening, was a glimpse of what will be available when the British edition of the publication goes live in November.
Compiling Britain’s Magnificat is an enormous project for one Oxford-based family – publisher Stratford Caldecott, writer Léonie and their daughter, Tessa. While Magnificat is already published in English for American Catholics, November’s edition will be the first edition produced specially for Britain.
“It’s exciting news,” Tessa says. “Translations of scriptural texts are different in England. Different countries have different liturgical calendars – different saints, memorials and feast days. Other countries have their own special version of Magnificat – now we do!”
The Caldecotts were fans of the journal long before they were invited to edit the new edition, with the support of the international Magnificat team and advisers in Britain. Léonie had been following Magnificat since its foundation in France by the visionary publisher Pierre-Marie Dumont in the early 1990s.
“I was given it as a Christmas present by my stepmother, who is French, and loved it,” she says. “When I heard it had come out in English in America I subscribed. I’ve always thought that it was amazingly helpful but wished it came in a UK edition.”
The choice of the Caldecotts for editors was informed by myriad factors, from Stratford’s work as an editorial adviser with the Catholic Truth Society to Léonie’s background in French, and in religious journalism. Tessa had recently graduated in Theology from Durham University and has a range of IT and admin skills. But the project was a daunting one for the family.
“It was a steep learning curve,” Léonie says, “and we had literally weeks to put together September’s papal visit issue. Luckily most of the content came from the Bishops’ Conference, and we had the help of the French team.
“It struck us forcefully that it was a brilliant idea to have the first UK edition come out of the papal visit. Once the Holy Father had left there was this feeling of ‘now what do we do?’ We were all on this great high afterwards. That had a lot to do with the fact that he is such a prayerful man. Magnificat is a way of prolonging that experience of communio around him as our spiritual father, the experience of prayer that he facilitated.”
Working as a family can be challenging – “it is quite surreal when we end up emailing each other from inside the house”, Léonie admits – but it is, at least, familiar territory. Stratford and Léonie have worked together for many years on the New Evangelisation and appreciate the importance of beauty in communicating the truths of the faith. Beauty is a keynote of Magnificat, which also features each month a spiritual commentary on a great work of religious art.
The team are motivated by their understanding of prayer as fundamental to the life of the Church. “There are sometimes disagreements within the Church – all kinds of variations in people’s interests and alignments,” Stratford says. “What unites us is the liturgy and the love of Christ. Magnificat focuses on prayer and the spiritual life. It doesn’t look into theology or arguments about morality. It’s simply trying to help people to get close to Christ in prayer. That’s something all Catholics can share.”
Anna Maria Mendell, an American graduate who is doing an internship with the family and is part of the team, describes Magnificat as “a great defence against secularism”.
“There’s this saying,” Léonie adds. “The family that prays together stays together. I think the same applies to the Church: the Church that prays together stays together. However many disagreements we have amongst ourselves, the more prayerful we are, the more we are united in the Body of Christ. Prayer sustains us as Christians because it is a conversation with God. You can’t maintain a friendship with someone if you never take the time to sit down and talk to them. It’s the same with God. And if we deepen the conversation with Him, then we deepen our union with one another. That’s the only thing that’s going to make us cohere together as people.
“Cardinal Newman’s motto, cor ad cor loquitur, was adopted for the papal visit, and it’s a good motto for Magnificat in the UK as well. We speak heart to heart with God, in all sorts of ways. We have intimate contact with Him in the Mass. But we also hear the echoes of His people down the ages in the psalms; and if we use the morning and evening prayer we are praying together as a Church, for the same intentions.
“Whether we’re up a mountain on our own, or in a commuter train, even locked in the bathroom for five minutes to get some peace, we can be connected to each other in a very real and tangible way. We re-orientate ourselves by touching base with the day that the Church gives us.”
The family is also very aware – from different perspectives – of the challenges lay Catholics can encounter in their prayer lives. Stratford, whose work is mostly academic and who travels a lot, appreciates the fact that a structure for “living prayer” needs to be worked into his day.
“It’s easy, when you are thinking about theology, to forget to actually do the thing theology is about,” he says,
Tessa and Anna Maria, who are in their mid-20s, believe that Magnificat is an invaluable tool for young Catholics.
“It’s a struggle being a young Catholic in the world,” Tessa says. “You need resources to draw on and inspire you in your life. Magnificat is not an intimidating thing. It’s one of those resources we can draw on, connecting us to the Church across the world, and across time through her spiritual writers and traditions.”
Léonie, a writer, teacher and mother of three, empathises with Catholics engaged with the practical side of daily life, who struggle to find the time to pray.
She says: “I remember when I was a mother of young children: I really did not have much time, and having Magnificat in French meant I was able to carve just that little bit of space to read something prayerful, even if I was feeling semi brain-dead. “Magnificat is a tool that makes it possible to touch base with what matters. People say: ‘I can’t pray. I’ll be interrupted. One of the kids will want something. My mobile’s going to go.’ But if necessary, you can put Magnificat down and still pick it up again easily, where you left off. By the end of the month, it should look a little dog-eared. It should have gone places with you!”
November’s edition of Magnificat, which has a foreword by Bishop Malcolm McMahon of Nottingham on the theme of Christ the King, will be available to subscribers from the end of October. But the Caldecotts are already thinking ahead to the February issue, which has an article by Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster. Their commitment to the project – and overcoming the complicated difficulties it entails – is infectious. Stratford suggests a subscription would make a great Christmas gift, especially to a young person, or a friend who is housebound.
“Magnificat is a gift from the Church,” Léonie concludes. “It’s the first word Our Lady says when she speaks in response to the gift that she is given, and she speaks it in the context of a visit to another woman who has also been given an unexpected gift. It’s in the Holy Spirit, and in the communion between persons, that the word arises.
“Prayer, first and foremost, is an exclamation coming out of a relationship: ‘I am willing, as a human being, to let my soul magnify God.’ Magnificat is a small thing. It makes only modest demands of its readers, but it enables you to amplify, in yourself, the presence of God, just as everyone else in the Church has done before you, and does around you, and will do after you.”
A subscription to Magnificat costs £33 for one year (13 issues). If you subscribe before October 15 you can still get your first year’s subscription for £29. For more information and to subscribe please visit catholicherald.co.uk/popedeal