Culture and the Catholic Liturgy: remembering the “Agatha Christie” petition

by Joseph Shaw

Almost exactly fifty years ago, 5th November 1971, the reformer of the Catholic liturgy, Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, wrote to John Cardinal Heenan, informing him of the terms of an “indult”, permission, for the continued public celebration of the older Catholic liturgy, the Traditional Latin Mass, with the agreement of the local bishop. The reformed Mass had been in place for less than a year, and Catholics had been warned that the older Missal would become illicit at the end of the calendar year, except for private celebrations by older priests. Although the indult was applicable only to England and Wales, Bugnini was denied the complete victory of the reform he had wanted to see. In 1984 another indult for the Old Mass was signed, by Pope John Paul II, which extended permission for the Vetus Ordo to the whole world.

Paul VI believed that the reformed Mass was theologically accurate and rich, and he had high hopes that it would be pastorally effective. One argument which retained the power to move him was historical and cultural. Pope Paul had indeed indicated that he understood such arguments, speaking of the “expressive sacrality” of Latin and the “regret” which faithful Catholics might feel in the change. Heenan, who had attended the canonisation of the Forty Martyrs just days before his meeting with the Pope – forty men and women who had literally died for the Mass – was able to show Pope Paul a petition showing an astounding number of figures of the highest culture begging him to preserve something which, as the petition text expressed it, “belongs to universal culture”.

So said the President of the British Academy, the Director of the National Gallery, the Controller of BBC Radio 3, the British Poet Laureate, the Editors of The Times and the New Statesman… on and on the list goes, encompassing novelists, artists, conductors, poets, and a representative sprinkling of politicians, aristocrats, and academics, with a couple of Anglican bishops. It includes Agatha Christie the crime writer, alongside her second husband, the Catholic archaeologist Max Mallowen.

The story goes that Pope Paul remarked on Christie’s name, and indeed she was perhaps the most famous person on the list. But the list as a whole indicated something of greater significance. The complete banning of the ancient Mass would have gone down in history as an act of cultural vandalism, among even non-Catholics. The lapsed Catholic novelist Graham Greene, the communist writer Philip Toynbee, the Jewish violinist Yehudi Menuhin, the aristocratic novelist Nancy Mitford, the agnostic philosopher Iris Murdoch, and the young Russian pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy: all saw the threatened disappearance of the ancient Catholic Mass as a cause of profound regret.

To mark the half-centenary of the petition and Pope Paul’s response it, the Una Voce Federation made contact with Vladimir Ashkenazy, the sole survivor of the petitioners. The Federation has awarded Mr Ashkenazy the rarely-bestowed De Saventhem Medal in recognition of his contribution, and he, for his part, has gladly renewed his association with the cause. He wrote to the Federation:

“It is of great spiritual value and importance that the more ancient Latin Catholic Liturgy, with its associated cultural and musical traditions, be preserved for all those who are concerned with strengthening, or at least maintaining, our connection with the Divine; the ancient liturgies, be they Catholic or Orthodox (I am baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church) are, by default, bound to represent a much purer spiritual relationship with Christ in particular, and with the world in general…”

In this passage Mr Ashkenazy goes beyond the consideration of the merely aesthetic value of the Mass, and of the art inspired by it or made for it, to its significance as a cultural expression of the spiritual. I believe that even the more superficial signatories of this petition would have recognised this. Like all of us, but with the special sensitivity of men and women of education and culture, they would have been saddened by any cultural calamity, such as the burning down of a great art gallery. But the destruction of something of spiritual significance cuts much deeper: something again visible in the international outcry over the burning of Notre Dame in Paris in 2019.

The ancient Catholic Mass of the West has a significance for everyone. For those of us who believe in the theological presuppositions of this liturgy, and its spiritual power, the question takes on an even greater significance.

At this point some readers might want to object. The power of the Mass to re-present the Sacrifice of the Cross and make present, in substance, our Saviour on the Altar under the species of Bread and Wine, they might point out, is not affected by the aesthetic qualities, the historical authenticity, or the cultural value of the liturgical form being used. Those things are at best the icing on the cake, the wrapping paper of the Christmas present. At worst they can be a serious distraction from the supernatural realities of the liturgy.

This is a mistake. Subjectively, the beauty of the liturgy draws people to the Faith; objectively, it is appropriate to the worship of God. Behind both kinds of argument, however, lies another: all art is the expression of values, and the beauty of the liturgy is not a distraction from the core realities of the liturgy because, if it is good art, it springs from, expresses, and elucidates those realities. It conveys them to the viewer, making them easier to grasp and appreciate. 

Even non-religious art, if it is good, can have a spiritual significance, because it expresses the order and beauty of creation, and our place in it. The ceremonies and prayers of the Mass, if we want to call them art, are divinely inspired art. Just as God commissioned art for the Temple in the Book of Numbers, so His inspired words, above all in the Psalms, are set to music, in the Chant, in a style which is itself sacred in inspiration and hallowed by Tradition. The same is true of the sacred style of the prayers, and of the art of church buildings, decoration, images, and vestments.

Catholics are fortunate to have such an extraordinary heritage of beauty in the liturgy. This has over the generations moved sinners to repentance, stimulated conversions, brought peace to the weary and the persecuted, and inspired scholars and preachers. Even those who are outside the Church are frequently not indifferent to it, and we owe a special debt of gratitude to those of them who, like Vladimir Ashkenazy, defended the Church’s patrimony, even from the Church itself.

Domine, dilexi decorem domus tuae, et locum habitationis gloriae tuae:
I have loved, O Lord, the beauty of thy house, and the place where thy Glory dwelleth. (Ps 25:8)