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Two Unpastoral Indults: A Protestation of Non-Gratitude

The traditional Roman rite of the Mass was never abrogated, whatever His Eminence the finora Vescovo di Leeds may think to imply. Deo gratias. One shudders to imagine the alternative, which may it please God will never come to pass. That the traditional Missal was never abrogated—though one might have been forgiven for believing it had in fact been forbidden—we have on the authority (and still at least on the force of the arguments) of the watershed 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum by the much-blessed Benedict XVI.[1]

And indeed, despite all episcopal expostulations, expectorations, and imprecations to the contrary, the Mass that our fathers handed on to us as they had received it from their ancestors time out of mind did abide. Its light may have flickered but it kept shining through the cracks of the pontifical bushel set on it by prelates less pastoral in deed than in oft-canted incantations. Today again, the Low Mass continues, louder than lupine ecclesiastical barking.

Older readers—oh you Nestors of our struggle, never forget!—will remember these cracks in the bushel, by the flickering light of which they sought to warm their Novus Ordo numbed souls: though the1984 and 1988 indults did provide a mitigated hope of sorts, before then one had principally to rely on the heroic efforts of the sons of Archbishop Lefebvre and their contra legem celebrations.[2] There were also the odd two or three irreducible priests in most dioceses of Europe who were quietly left undisturbed to remain faithful to the Mass of their vocation so long as they did not make a fuss nor attract too many of the faithful. Fr. Brian Houghton, the eccentric and wealthy English priest who left his parish to settle in France the day the new thing went into effect, deserves his own presentation in this regard. So much discretion was then required that the timidly hopeful news that the “real Mass” had not quite died out, that it was still to be espied behind the hedge and beyond the bog, could spread only by whispered word of mouth. The dim reports of a Brazilian bishop opposing his nolle prosequi to the 1969 thing barely reached our ken.

But in those very early days, how did Rome confirm the brethren? A new book had been prescribed—was the old one for all that proscribed, cast over the Tarpeian rock, its corpse dragged onto the Gemonian stairs for perennial ridicule and abuse in liturgy workshops and graduate programmes? No! Somehow the Holy Ghost did spare us, though the men He kept from the utmost monstrosity—actual abrogation—did their delicate best to grant the traditional liturgy only by letting drop from their recoiling fingertips the meagrest of ‘indults.’ Of these there were two, stingy in scope; in pedigree, crooked.

The better known of the two was the so-called “Agatha Christie” indult. It bears her name, although of course it was not she who granted it, because hers was the nobler name, and the nobler cause, the nobler and doubtless the more convincing for being quite precisely not Catholic. Her noble plea was signed by a constellation of noble names of men and women—Jews without guile, selfless atheists, generous heresiarchs—unconstrained by the blinders and mental fetters of a century of the grotesquely metastatic ultramontanism that had by now all too naturally produced in Papists the cancerous tumour of ultraMontinism, to coin a term as macaronic as the reality it denotes is chimerical.[3]

This Miss Marple indult (they say that Saint Paul VI was especially impressed by Christie’s name on the petition) was officially granted on the 5 November 1971 and bears the signature of the secretary of the Sacred Congregation for Divine worship, Annibale Bugnini, who had a good five more years of pastoral mansuetude to go before taking his tea with Khomeini. But in order to avoid the public loss of face incurred by so openly granting to heretics, schismatics, Jews, and atheists what was so cruelly denied to poor Catholics, the indult was presented with a brazen dissimulation: it was made to look as though its actual redaction went back to 14 April 1971, to make it seem as though this mercy, far from being prodded in July by the literary prestige of Hercule Poirot’s creatrix or the admittedly more substantial musical prestige of a Yehudi Menuhin, was granted motu proprio, before Cardinal Heenan respectfully presented the plea.[4]

But the Miss Marple indult constitutes a slap in the face of all that is holy and all that is pastoral: nowhere does one read that the Mass of Ages renders a superior, or even compared to the new thing equally good, cult to God; nowhere does one detect a hint that it more clearly expresses the Church’s teaching on the sacrificial nature of the Mass or the ineffable miracle of Transubstantiation that takes place within it. Oh no: it is because—according to the terms of the noble appeal made by people one might be tempted, on this single occasion, to call ‘anonymous Catholics’ and who called themselves “the educated – whatever their personal beliefs” rising up “in horror to oppose” the equivalent to the destruction of cathedrals and basilicas—it is because of its artistic contributions to human civilisation writ large. Indeed they specified—as if to reassure their addressee that their concern was nothing as vulgar as religion or the spiritual—that in this petition they were “not . . . considering the religious or spiritual experience of millions of individuals.”[5]

Such were the words to convince the first post-Tridentine pontiff to condescend to grant the old Mass. But how did he grant it? On frighteningly insensitive terms that will forever mar the memory of his pontificate. The shocking callousness of the indult’s terms becomes more painful yet when one considers that it treats of a liturgy that had never been juridically abrogated. This document of pastoral mercy, then, applies when “certain groups of the faithful . . . on special occasions” obtain permission from “local Ordinaries of England and Wales” to “participate in the Mass” . . .  of 1967. The terms further specify that such celebrations are not to take place “at regular parish and other community Masses”! And, in cauda venenum, the man whom Louis Bouyer dubbed the “despicable Bugnini” added in the cover letter that he judged it “very desirable that the permission be given without too much publicity.”[6] (Specifying bulletins seemed like an overreach back then, presumably). Clearly such an indult was not calibrated to promote the longevity of the Roman liturgical tradition; one catches the acrid whiff of begrudging reservations in the conditions attaching to it.[7]

Yet at least some Englishmen (and Welshmen), if they were very polite and avoided “too much publicity,” might eke a traditional Mass out of a local ordinary “on special occasions.” Woe is thee, O Ireland! Woe is thee, O France, O Germany! O World! O Rome! Where is your Mass now? It did not cross any of those pastoral minds to let fall a crumb of this thin Anglo-Welsh diet from the Englishman’s table. And so of all of Adam’s tribes, one race alone was officially spared the utter despoilment of its liturgical patrimony: the angelic race that had once moved an earlier, Greater, sainted pope to send it the light of the Gospel to match the fairness of its complexion. The rest of the world, however, could now go to the dark place under this new saint’s new dispensation.

And yet was there not some small concession granted even earlier by the pontiff who will forever be known as “The Promulgator”? There was, and to go back to this indult is to move from anger to sorrow, from clenched fists to bitter tears. It came in two documents of the same tenor. One has to read them to believe that any one with a care for souls could write them.

The first document is the fourth chapter of the Instruction Constitutione Apostolica “on the gradual (!) carrying out of the Apostolic Constitution Missale Romanum (3 April 1969),”[8] published on 20 October 1969; the chapter’s doleful title is: ‘Exception’:

Elderly priests who celebrate Mass without a congregation and who might encounter serious difficulty in taking up the new Order of Mass and the new texts of the Roman Missal and Lectionary for Mass, may, with the consent of their Ordinary, keep to the rites and texts now in use.

Special cases of priests who are infirm, ill, or otherwise disabled are to be submitted to this congregation.[9]

The next text is of the same brackish water; it appears in a Notification from the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship and is dated to 14 June 1971, just under a month before the best of England begged for the perennial Mass’s survival. This is the famous document that allowed only the new liturgical books to be used “even for those who continue to use Latin.” It too introduces an exception, in terms similar to the first such text:

Continued use, in whole or in part, of the Missale Romanum in the 1962 editio typica, as emended by the 1965 and 1967 decrees and of the Breviarium Romanum formerly in use is allowed, with the consent of the Ordinary and only in celebrations without a congregation (sine populo), for all those who because of their advanced years or illness find difficulties in using the new Order of Mass in the Roman Missal, the Lectionary for Mass, or the book of the liturgy of the hours.[10]

Ah! the mercy, the tender and coddling care with which the blind, the geriatric, the lame, the halt are granted, in the way that old folks are granted story-time and pudding, to continue to say the former Mass and Breviary, as though it were a shame, the sort of disgraceful behaviour that embarrasses relatives when granddad dribbles onto his tie or sings off-colour barracks songs remembered from his stint in the Great War.

But as insulting as these terms are for the priests who are told to be ashamed of their religion and to hide it as one might a repulsive and malodorous physical deformity, the pitiless worst of it resides in another facet of that negative expression: sine populo. It meant that no sheep of the flock, no matter how blind, geriatric, lame, or halt, was to receive the same pastoral mercy—oh no! The powerless are those who least are heard, and that iron principle, common to all tyrannies, found its expression here too. “Our old folks,” clerical Rome seemed to say, “our elders may continue to enjoy the glories of the rites that have existed for all of us time out of mind; on second thought we’ll even let their old chum the bishop grant the privilege—but your grandmother, your spinster aunt, your venerable Dames aging in their centuries-old convents (for Religious women too went unspared): they will be helplessly subjected to our Vandalic depredations, our iconoclasms, our libido delendi.”

That sinister phrase—sine populo!—wickedly shouts “Aha! But not for you! You do not count! Your desires must not be met! You may never again see, even from afar, the awesome Sacrifice as you have always seen it, on your knees and trembling before the majesty of God made present!”

Sine populo!: the phrase that gives the lie to the blandishments and false promises of a liturgy that dared to call itself pastoral but was unwilling, nay unable, to withstand comparison with an ancient and customary liturgy of which no layman had ever complained, that no layman ever asked to be changed, and that no layman now was ever supposed to behold again.

Such is the scandal of the pastoral-liturgical juggernaut: it cared only for the older Brahmins of its own priestly caste and for the artists without the gates as it effortlessly crushed the souls of the faithful within. Those who lived their faith in those days, even until the God-sent motu proprio of 2007, still bear their scars. For these two early indults, we express no gratitude, nor indeed any remorse for excoriating them. And we shall be no less caustic of the current attempts, whether they float down the Tiber or the River Aire, to return to the acrid vomit of that uncaringly destructive pontificate.


Photo from Unsplash.

[1] Long-time traditional Résistant Jean Madiran chronicles the illicit outlawing of the traditional Missal in France in his aptly titled Histoire de la Messe interdite (Versailles: Via Romana, 2007).

[2] The words of the Pastor: ‘The unlawful practice (usus non legitimus) of celebrating the “Mass of St. Pius V”,’ Paul VI, Epistle Cum te to Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, 11 October 1976, Notitiae 12.124/125 (1976): 423. English version: Documents on the Liturgy 1963-1979: Conciliar, Papal, and Curial Texts (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1982) no. 569.

[3] Among the fifty-six signatories, some of whom were Catholic (Member of Parliament Jacob Rees-Mogg’s father, Lord William, is there, along with Graham Greene, Malcom Muggeridge…), one recognizes Vladimir Ashkenazy and Yehudi Menuhin, Robert Graves, and the Anglican bishops of Exeter and Ripon.

[4] So reports the abbé Claude Barthe in his masterful La Messe de Vatican II: Dossier historique (Versailles: Via Romana, 2018), 122.

[5] ‘Appeal to Pope Paul VI,’ The Times of London, 6 July 1971.

[6] Indult of 5 November 1971, protocol n. 1897/71. This shameful indult did not even make it into the otherwise exhaustive collection of the Revolution’s documents (‘In memory of Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, C.M.’), Documents on the Liturgy 1963-1979, not to mention Notitiae. The extraordinary Canadian chapter of Una Voce, based in Vancouver, has made it available online along with the original petition: Alfred Marnau, ‘The 1971 “English” Indult – a Recollection.’  [accessed 22 October 2019].

[7] Msgr. John Humphreys, Secretary of the English hierarchy’s Liturgical Commission, was willing to entertain granting a stingy indult for a limited time only: ‘such special occasions as Mass in an old people’s home or a meeting of the Latin Mass Society would . . . be a reasonable concession for a five or ten-year period,’ ibid. The clock was meant to start ticking. The clock that Archbishop Roche has recently rewound must have been lying in a cupboard at the English Liturgical Commission.

[8] Documents on the Liturgy no. 209. The authentic text is in the Holy See’s Acta Apostolicae Sedis 61 (1969): 749-753 and the original in the the Consilium’s Notitiae 5 (1969): 418-423.

[9] DOL no. 209, sections 1751-52.

[10] SC Divine Worship, Notification Instructione de Consititutione ‘on the Roman Missal, the book of the liturgy of the hours, and the Calendar, 14 June 1971,’ DOL no. 216 section 1772. Authentic text: AAS 63 (1971): 712-715; original, Notitiae 7 (1971): 215-217.

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