THIS weekend marks the fiftieth anniversary of one of the truly epochal events in the history of culture. On 30 November 1969 the Tridentine Mass – the usus antiquior – was set aside by Pope Paul VI (Giovanni Battista Montini) following decisions made at the Second Vatican Council. Rites that grew organically for a millennium and a half were replaced by a committee. Montini is said to have been so heartbroken when he first offered the “novus ordo” Mass himself that he wept. The world’s Catholics were not consulted.
The “1971 Statement by Scholars, Intellectuals, and Artists Living in England” – signed by Catholics and non-Catholics alike (including two Anglican bishops) – decried what was obviously seen as impetuous iconoclasm. They asked special permission for the traditional Mass to be permitted in England and Wales (alongside the newly invented vernacular version). The stellar signatories included Malcolm Muggeridge, Graham Greene, Kenneth Clark, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Robert Graves, Cecil Day-Lewis, Yehudi Menuhin, William Rees-Mogg, Joan Sutherland, Philip Toynbee and Agatha Christie. Always erratic on the subject, Paul VI consented to the request on reading the petition. This is still known as the “Agatha Christie Indult.” According to folklore, the pope commented on the crime writer’s name as he signed an authorisation – hers alone.
“The rite in question, in its magnificent Latin text, has also inspired a host of priceless achievements in the arts – not only mystical works, but works by poets, philosophers, musicians, architects, painters and sculptors in all countries and epochs. Thus, it belongs to universal culture as well as to churchmen and formal Christians.”
– From the 1971 Statement.
For many, the attempt to kill the old Mass is a mystery worthy of Hercule Poirot. What was Montini thinking? In a drawing room finale, the little Belgian would have to address liberals, crypto-Masons, foolhardy dilettantes and gullible weaklings. Most agree that Paul VI came to believe the liberal European proponents of change were reading the signs of the times more astutely than anyone else, himself included. They were, in reality, fighting the last war – and the one before that; and even the one before that – against the hardline anti-Modernism of Pope St Pius X and the maximalist school interpreters of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus.
Officially, the revolution was meant to increase the participation of the laity and inspire a new evangelisation. What followed instead was catastrophe. Millions left the Church. The new dispensation’s diehards argue that erstwhile Catholics, like Westerners generally, were about to skive off, anyway. Possibly. But the so-called “New Order” didn’t bring them back. What is bringing them back is the old Mass. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI more or less took the Agatha Christie Indult global in Summorum Pontificum. This masterstroke ensures the reform of the ‘reform’ for centuries to come. It will be his most Benedictine and lasting legacy.