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When Non-Catholics Tried to Save the Latin Mass

Above: Jacques Maritain added his name to a long list of non-Catholics who attempted to save the Latin Mass. 

Last month I launched a new book, The Latin Mass and the Intellectuals: Petitions to Save the Ancient Mass from 1966 to 2007. Many, if by no means all, readers will have heard of the “Agatha Christie Petition” which was presented to Pope Paul VI in 1971, stimulating him to given the first “indult” in favour of the Traditional Mass, for England and Wales. The story is much more complex and interesting than this, however.

For many years the main public source of information about the petitions was a 1999 article by Alfred Marnau, that had appeared in the Latin Mass Society’s Newsletter and was subsequently made available online. English-language references to the 1971 petition since then, up until now, have invariably used this as their sole source. It hasn’t helped that the UK Catholic press at the time of the petition and indult observed a substantial, if now quite complete, news blackout about them. The Latin Mass Society had to feed the news to The Times newspaper in order to get it into the public domain at all, and the text of the Indult was not made available to them by Cardinal Heenan for many months. Readers may remember the inability of the archivists at the Dicastery for Divine Worship to find the indult (we sent Cardinal Roche a copy).

Alfred Marnau was a hero of the early movement; after the petition he became the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society, and later founded Pro Ecclesiae et Pontifice to campaign on orthodox doctrine and Catholic education. However, in 1999 he was dying, and his article gives a rather incomplete picture of the petition, its organisation, and its wider context. He doesn’t claim to have written the text, for example, but does not explain that the original was in Italian, and that in addition to the 57 names that were published in The Times on 9th July 1971 there were another 48, non-UK based petitioners, whose names later appeared in Italian and French publications. The whole list of 105 was finally published in Una Voce Italia in their newsletter, that December.

Unless some further sources emerge, we will never know to what extent the petition was Marnau’s idea, and how exactly he worked alongside others involved in the organisation. One person who has emerged from the shadows as an organiser is the writer Bernard Wall, to whose home address potential petitioners were directed to write by a letter of invitation to sign which has been preserved in the archives of Una Voce Italy. Another, almost certainly the composer of the petition, is the Italian poet Cristina Campo. The contributions to my book by Fr Gabriel Diaz-Patri set out the role and character of these two individuals in some detail.

Something else Marnau does not mention is that there had already been a petition, in 1966, signed by 37 writers and artists; a few had died, but 17 of them also signed the 1971 petition. In 1966 the chief concern was the use of Latin and Gregorian Chant; in 1971 the organisers realised that the entire traditional Mass was to disappear, Orations, Offertory prayers, Lectionary, Calendar, and all, leaving only fragments behind, which themselves would almost never be used in the original Latin.

Those familiar with the 57 UK-based names may recall that two Anglican bishops signed the petition, a Member of Parliament from each of the UK’s then three main political parties, a senior Catholic judge, a couple of important Catholic aristocrats, and great number of actors, artists, musicians, and writers, including Yehudi Menuhin and Vladimir Ashkenazy. William Rees-Mogg signed, the then Editor of The Times and the father of the politician Jacob Rees-Mogg; the lapsed convert novelist Graham Greene; the non-Catholic writer Robert Graves; the philosopher Iris Murdoch and her husband John Bayley; Harold Acton; the Catholic convert poet David Jones; Malcolm Muggeridge, Nancy Mitford, Kenneth Clark, and of course Agatha Christie—with her husband, the lapsed Catholic archaeologist Max Mallowen.

Four Britons had previously signed the 1966 petition: the Catholic convert novelist Evelyn Waugh, and, perhaps more surprisingly, the homosexual composer Benjamin Britten, the communist Philip Toynbee, and the Anglican poet W.H. Auden. Also of note in the 1966 petition are the Argentinian writer Jorge Borges; the film directors Robert Bresson and Carl Dreyer; the anti-feminist Gertrude von la Fort (aged 90: she lived another six years); the pacifist Lanzo del Vasto; the writer Francois Mauriac and the theologian Jaques Maritain. Yup, Maritain, the great influence on Pope Paul VI.

The extra names on the 1971 petition included three Americans: the writer Julien Green, the poet Robert Lowell, and the writer Djuna Barnes, author of The Book of Repulsive Women. Many others are very distinguished, if less well-known in the Anglosphere, such as Marcel Brion, Nino Rota, Andrés Segovia, and Augusto del Noce. Romano Amerio, later author of the massive critique of Vatican II, Iota Unum, also signed, and for some reason the British biographer of Evelyn Waugh, Christoper Sykes, turns up in this section of the list. Between the two lists we find four winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature (one also won the Peace prize), and four members of the L’Académie française.

Why, though, did they sign? Many of these individuals are not even Catholics; some were quite out of sympathy with the Church. The answer is that as people of culture, they saw the ancient Latin Mass of the Catholic Church as a great work of art. There is nothing to be ashamed about in this motivation: the Mass is the greatest production of the Western artistic tradition, and the inspiration for so much else. Vast quantities of the greatest and most famous music and painting in the Western tradition were not just inspired by it, but composed to adorn it, from the Dies Irae to the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

If you saw this monument of the history of art, hitherto a living cultural practice still inspiring composers and painters, not to mention giving spiritual comfort to hundreds of millions of Catholics, about to slip into oblivion, would you not, too, reach out your hand to save it, if you could? Would you not, likewise, regret some mad plan to demolish the Taj Mahall, or the actual destruction of the great Buddhist monuments by the Taliban?

Bernard Wall explained the motivation of the petitioners, in terms which will strike a cord with traditional Catholics today:

Some literary and artistic signatories view a prohibition of the old Mass rather, say, as one views pollution in cities or the destruction of landscapes. Roman Catholic signatories felt that both their spiritual and cultural lives were being destroyed.

They were not protesting against the various kinds of new Masses put forward during the last ten years, they were protesting against a prohibition of the old Mass. They felt that the prohibition would weaken both culture and religion at a time when they are desperately needed. They welcomed the support of their Anglican, Orthodox, Jewish and agnostic brothers and sisters who, living in a plural society like them, felt that a liberal and plural approach to church ceremonies was in harmony with our age where all are allowed to do and think what suits them best, and that a totalitarian prohibition of the old Mass involved an out-of-date approach.

The Latin Mass and the Intellectuals: Petitions to Save the Ancient Mass from 1966 to 2007 ed. Joseph Shaw, with a Foreword by Martin Mosebach, is published by Arouca Press.

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