Undone by the “Permanent Workshop”
A Bitter Trial: Evelyn Waugh and John Carmel Cardinal Heenan on the Liturgical Changes
By Alcuin Reid
Publisher: Ignatius Press
Pages: 124 pages
Review Author: Philip Blosser
Most readers acquainted with English novelist Evelyn Waugh know him for his magisterial Brideshead Revisited (1945). Many know that he became a Catholic in 1930. Few, however, are familiar with his great love for the Traditional Latin Mass and how painfully he was afflicted by the liturgical changes throughout the last decade of his life.
A Bitter Trial is a collection of the personal correspondence between Waugh and John Carmel Heenan, the archbishop of Westminster, along with some of their other writings, during the tumultuous 1960s. It is significant, not chiefly because of what it adds to our understanding of the Second Vatican Council or its aftermath, but for the light it sheds on the raw and conflicting emotions felt by so many of the Catholic faithful and their spiritual shepherds during those years. First published in 1996, an expanded edition was released in 2011 with a foreword by Joseph Pearce and a new introduction by its editor, Dom Alcuin Reid.
Both Pearce and Reid contribute substantial insights to the volume. Traditionalists, however, would reject as premature Pearce’s judgment that, “with the wisdom of hindsight, we can now see the election of John Paul II as the date at which the high tide of the modernist encroachment within the Church began to turn.” Some would even question whether the tide has yet begun to turn. Others might also think that Reid lets Heenan off the hook rather too easily for going back on his earlier assurances that the liturgical changes would be negligible, assurances Waugh later described as “double-faced.” Reid states that Heenan, like so many clergy of his generation, found himself in an “almost-impossible situation.”
Waugh was only in his late twenties when he was received into the Church. “I was drawn, not by splendid ceremonies but by the spectacle of the priest as a craftsman,” he writes, using a simile suggested by G.K. Chesterton. “He had an important job to do which none but he was qualified for. He and his apprentice stumped up to the altar with their tools and set to work without a glance to those behind them, still less with any intention to make a personal impression on them.”
It is easy to forget that the Church in the decades preceding Vatican II, whatever her problems, experienced what Pearce calls a “burgeoning Catholic revival” and a nearly unprecedented heyday of notable conversions. A few weeks after Waugh’s conversion, the British weekly magazine Bystander observed that “the brilliant young author [was but] the latest man of letters to be received into the Catholic Church. Other well-known literary people who have gone over to Rome include Sheila Kaye-Smith, Compton MacKenzie, Alfred Noyes, Fr. Ronald Knox, and G.K. Chesterton.” The list might also have included J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Dawson, Hugh Ross Williamson, Sir Alec Guinness, as well as many others — not to mention giants like John Henry Cardinal Newman, Fr. Frederick William Faber, and Gerard Manley Hopkins not much earlier. Meanwhile, a wave of literary converts rivaling England’s was sweeping the Continent, and included François Mauriac, Léon Bloy, Jacques Maritain, Charles Péguy, Henri Ghéon, Giovanni Papini, Gertrud von le Fort, and Sigrid Undset. “It is a singularly intriguing fact,” Pearce writes, “that the preconciliar Church was so effective in evangelizing modern culture, whereas the number of converts to the faith seemed to diminish in the sixties and seventies in direct proportion to the presence of the much-vaunted aggiornamento, the muddle-headed belief that the Church needed to be brought ‘up-to-date.'”
Waugh had come to regard the Mass as “what mattered most” in life, as Fr. Philip Caraman, S.J., said in his panegyric at Waugh’s requiem Mass at Westminster Cathedral. “During the greater part of his lifetime [the Mass] remained as it had [been] for centuries, the same and everywhere recognizable, when all else was threatened with change. He was sad when he read of churches in which the old altar was taken down…or of side altars abolished as private masses were held to be unliturgical or unnecessary.”
The first liturgical changes remarked upon by Waugh were the revisions of the Easter vigil in 1951 and the abbreviated new rite of Holy Week in 1955, with its changes, omissions, and “endless blank periods,” which left him “resentful of the new liturgy.” Other changes included the dialogue Masses of the 1950s, which were never made obligatory until the introduction of the vernacular in the 1960s, accompanied by persistent confusion occasioned by conflicting statements from Rome. “Repeatedly standing up and saying ‘And with you’ detracts from [the] intimate association” of uniting oneself to the action of the priest, he complained in 1965. Waugh lived through the Second Vatican Council, which nearly undid him.
One wag suggested that Waugh suffered “Death by Novus Ordo,” though the jest is more clever than accurate. Pope Paul VI’s New Mass was not promulgated until 1969; Waugh died three years earlier, about an hour after attending a private Latin Mass on Easter Sunday celebrated by his friend, Fr. Caraman. Yet, if the liturgy were understood as a “permanent workshop” of innovation — as it was by Fr. Joseph Gelineau, S.J., whom the chief architect of the new Mass, Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, described as “one of the great masters of the international liturgical world” — it would be accurate to say that Waugh’s bitter trial was an effect of the accelerating and seemingly interminable experiments in what he called “the new liturgy,” which he endured in the decade until his death the year after the Council ended.
Indeed, Waugh suffered immensely. In a 1965 letter to Archbishop Heenan, Waugh begged him, “Please pray for my perseverance.” He declared further that “every attendance at Mass leaves me without comfort or edification. I shall never, pray God, apostatize but church-going is now a bitter trial.” Even then, he kept his acerbic sense of humor, writing to Lady Diana Cooper, “If you see Cardinal [Augustin] Bea [in Rome], spit in his eye.” Several months later, he wrote to Msgr. Lawrence L. McReavy, asking, “What is the least I am obliged to do without grave sin? I find the new liturgy a temptation against Faith, Hope and Charity but I shall never, pray God, apostatize.” A year later, a month before he died, Waugh wrote to Lady Diana Mosley, “The Vatican Council has knocked the guts out of me…. I have not yet soaked myself in petrol and gone up in flames, but I now cling to the Faith doggedly without joy. Church-going is pure duty parade.” The Thursday after Waugh died, his daughter wrote to Lady Diana Cooper, “Don’t be too upset about Papa.…. You know how he longed to die…. I am sure he had prayed for death at Mass.”
Why did Waugh suffer so? To understand his predicament, and that of a multitude of English Catholics like him, one must consider multiple facets of the distress: (1) the sheer fact of change itself, (2) practical changes in disciplines, and (3) confusions about doctrine.
First, there was the practical damage caused by the sheer fact of “too frequent changes in the Mass,” as Heenan states in his 1967 intervention at the Synod of Bishops in Rome. All that parishioners wanted, as he would later write, was “to be left in peace to worship God in the way [they] know and love.” Pope Benedict XVI has often lamented that more attention was not given to the uprooting, disorienting, and disruptive effect of the abrupt and radical changes in the Church’s liturgical law following the Council. St. Thomas Aquinas himself sharply cautioned against changing law — any law — even when some improvement is possible, unless there is some “urgent necessity” or “substantial and obvious benefit,” since “the mere fact of change in law itself can be adverse to the public welfare” and lessen the “restraining power” of the law. We need not rehearse the well-known statistics about plummeting Mass attendance and vocations following Vatican II to note a connection.
A related question concerns the popular reception of the changes among the faithful. Heenan once told Waugh, “The vast majority (my priests tell me) enjoys the English in the Mass.” Yet there is ample testament supporting the contrary claim as well. It was hardly the case that the police needed to be called to Catholic churches each Sunday “to hold back the hordes of lapsed Catholics whose faith had been rekindled at the prospect of saying the Confiteor in English,” as Michael Davies sardonically quipped in Pope Paul’s New Mass. Waugh wrote to Heenan, “Literally every day I get letters from distressed laymen who think I might speak for them”; “Please tell [your fellow bishops] how much distress they cause”; “Please pray for…many English Catholics who are distressed and bewildered by the changes imposed on them.”
Heenan himself admitted to his fellow bishops in Rome, “If we were to offer [in England] the kind of ceremony we saw yesterday in the Sistine Chapel (a demonstration of the Normative Mass) we would soon be left with a congregation of mostly women and children.” In a 1967 pastoral letter he wrote, “Bishop after bishop in the Synod rose to complain that his people are thoroughly tired of the constant changes.” In the same letter, two years before Pope Paul’s promulgation of the Novus Ordo, he confessed, “I hope…that this will be the last change for a long time.” Then, two years later, when announcing the forthcoming implementation of the newly promulgated Novus Ordo, he declared to his flock, remarkably, “Your Sunday Mass, however, will not be changed again in your lifetime.” How could he have foreseen the removal of tabernacles and altar rails, the elimination of Gregorian chant and ad orientem liturgies, and the introduction of altar girls, lay Eucharistic ministers, and Communion in the hand, which all still lay ahead! He had not our benefit of hindsight.
Second, the liturgical changes involved what Waugh and many others perceived as practical dangers to faith and morals in matters such as the slackening of discipline in cutting short the Eucharistic fast and in the introduction of Saturday evening (“vigil”) Masses. “Holy Communion is taken altogether too casually without, I suspect, in many cases, proper preparation and thanksgiving,” he wrote. In response to the explanations offered by ressourcement theologians, who claimed to be retrieving authentic ancient practice, he retorted, “If, as they claim, the liturgists wish to emulate the church of the earliest centuries, would they not do well to fast rigorously?” Waugh told Heenan that he also detected a new kind of “anticlericalism” that tended to “minimize the sacramental character of the priesthood and to suggest that the laity are their equals.” Heenan responded, “Of course you are right. That is why they are playing up this People of God and Priesthood of the Laity so much. The Mass is no longer the Holy Sacrifice but the meal at which the priest is the waiter.”
Third, the perceived threat also involved questions of doctrine. Waugh wrote to The Tablet that “the dangers threatening the Church were to be resisted on graver grounds than the merely sentimental, aesthetic, or traditional.” To The Catholic Herald, he wrote that he doubted that Pope John XXIII “had any conception of the true character of [liberal] Protestantism,” citing the demythologizing tendencies in Protestant theologians like Paul Van Buren, who strip Christianity of its supernatural elements. Again in The Tablet, he declared, “I detect graver dangers to the Faith [than questions of aesthetics], chief among them a lowering of respect for the unique office of the priesthood and episcopate in the talk of ‘the people of God’ as consecrating the elements.” To Heenan, he wrote that the distress of Catholics “at finding our spiritual habits disordered” must be a “minor concern” compared to “the graver dangers to faith and morals openly propounded at the Council.”
Of notable interest is a trajectory of shifts in Heenan’s position over the course of his correspondence with Waugh. Heenan first wrote to Waugh in response to an article in The Tablet, titled “The Same Again, Please,” which Waugh had written in 1962, lamenting the liturgical changes and “strange alliance between archaeologists absorbed in their speculations on the rites of the second century, and modernists who wish to give the Church the character of our own deplorable epoch. In combination they call themselves ‘liturgists.'” Heenan, at the time a participant at the Council, responded with a sympathetic letter: “The real difficulty (I think) is that Continentals are twisting themselves inside out to make us look as like as possible to the Protestants.” Waugh would later pen in the margins of Heenan’s letter: “He went back on all this.” By 1964 we find Heenan writing, “We shall try to keep the needs of all in mind — Pops, Trads, Rockers, Mods, With-its, and Without-its.” And by 1965 we find him echoing the prevailing progressive bromides touting the benefits of the changes — such as the “millions who hitherto were mere bystanders…now taking an active part in the Mass” — and going so far as to compare those who resisted the Council’s changes to those elderly unfortunates who resist “slum clearance,” by which they are compelled “to exchange squalor for clean decency.”
A consistent undercurrent throughout A Bitter Trial is Waugh’s contention that the quiet and faithful “middle rank of the Church” are precisely those whose concerns were not being heeded by the Church or her Council. In her afterword, Lady Clare Asquith, Countess of Oxford, notes that traditional Catholics, as a group, “were too intimidated by the new movement to speak out”; that they were “by their very nature the least likely to raise their voices against the pope and the Council”; and that “both Heenan and Ratzinger afterwards identified one of the main weaknesses of the Council as a failure to listen to ordinary parish priests and laity in preference to specialists and experts.”
One of the insights to be gained from A Bitter Trial is, accordingly, the gaping discrepancy between the common experience of ordinary Catholics and the theories of the specialists and innovators. “When young theologians talk…of Holy Communion as a ‘social meal’ they find little response in the hearts and minds of their less sophisticated brothers,” wrote Waugh. The issue was not limited to the laity. After witnessing the “so-called Normative Mass” for the first time in 1967, Heenan declared that whoever the members of the Consilium and their consultors were, “few of them can have been parish priests.” Another complaint was that the academic experts regarded him and most of his fellow bishops as “mitred peasants.”
Like Fr. Ralph Wiltgen’s The Rhine Flows into the Tiber (1967), which traces the prevailing influence at the Council to a coalition of progressive northern European theologians and bishops, Waugh criticizes the “northern innovators,” and reserves his sharpest barbs for the Germans: “I think it is a great cheek of the Germans to try and teach the rest of the world anything about religion. They should be in perpetual sackcloth and ashes for all their enormities from Luther to Hitler.” Waugh’s clever criticisms are often balanced, however, by penetrating insights: “‘Participate’ — the cant word — does not mean to make a row as the Germans suppose. One participates in a work of art when one studies it with reverence and understanding”; and “‘Participation’ in the Mass does not mean hearing our voices. It means God hearing our voices.” In a letter to The Tablet, he asked the pundits to explain how “participation” is “furthered by today’s peremptory prohibition of kneeling at the incarnates in the creed.”
Throughout the 1960s, Waugh became increasingly worried about the survival of the traditional Roman rite. He cast about for any feasible means of survival. If every parish has a “rowdy Mass” for those who like it, it should also be permitted to have a silent one “for those who like quiet,” he suggested. With a notable nod to Eastern-rite Catholic Churches, which also anticipates our contemporary Anglican Use parishes and a possible canonical arrangement for the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X, he asks, “Why should we not have a Uniate Roman Church and let the Germans have their own knock-about performances?” He here appealed to the innovators’ own principles against themselves: “‘Diversity’ is deemed by the progressives as one of their aims against the stifling Rominità.” He explained his solution thus: “We do not claim to impose our tastes and habits on those who find them unsympathetic. All we ask is that in every church where it is feasible there should be one Mass on every day of obligation said as in the days of good Pius IX.”
Heenan’s assurances, however sincere, doubtless increasingly rang hollow to Waugh: “Do not despair. The changes are not so great as they are made to appear…. I should be surprised if all of the bishops will want all Masses every day to be in the new rite”; “nothing will be changed except for the good of souls… the Council will bring all in the Church closer to Christ, and the world itself closer to the Church of Christ”; “I expect that before two years have passed we shall begin to reap results,” he wrote in 1966.
In the concluding pages of A Bitter Trial, we find Heenan’s 1971 letter to Paul VI timidly requesting an indult “occasionally” for use of the traditional Mass in the U.K. The book’s appendix contains a 1971 “Petition to Pope Paul VI By Distinguished Writers, Scholars, Artists, and Historians Living in England to Spare the Traditional Latin Mass.” Notably, the petition argues for the preservation of the old Mass, which, “in its magnificent Latin text, has…inspired a host of priceless achievements in the arts…by poets, philosophers, musicians, architects, painters and sculptors in all countries and epochs.” It bears the names of more than fifty distinguished celebrities, including famed novelist Agatha Christie, whom Paul VI admired. The petition, so the story goes, finally moved him to grant what came to be known as the “Agatha Christie Indult.”
The resultant indult, exclusively for the bishops of England and Wales, was prepared by Fr. Bugnini, secretary of the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, on the instructions of Paul VI. As Reid notes, in the letter conveying the concession, Bugnini “urged that prudence and reserve be exercised in granting the faculty and that any grant not be given too much publicity.” Permission was given “on strict condition that all danger of division would be avoided.” One cannot but wonder what colorful epithets this might have elicited from Waugh had he lived to witness it. By the same token, one cannot but imagine him grateful had he lived to witness the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 motu proprio granting widespread freedom for celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass.
Reid notes that the first edition of A Bitter Trial appeared during the pontificate of John Paul II, in the wake of the 1996 “Oxford Declaration on Liturgy,” which asserted that “the preconciliar liturgical movement as well as the manifest intentions of Sacrosanctum Concilium have in large part been frustrated by powerful contrary forces, which could be described as bureaucratic, philistine and secularist. The effect has been to deprive the Catholic people of much of their liturgical heritage.” One should like to hope that Waugh’s correspondence with Heenan, along with his bitter personal trial, might serve today in some small way to point us to a direly needed retrieval of that heritage, passed down through centuries of tradition, with its amplitude of resources, which could be described as organic, cultured, and sacred.
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