Evelyn Waugh’s forgotten battle to preserve the Latin Mass

The great novelist, who died 50 years ago, almost became the first president of the Latin Mass Society

Considered one of Britain’s greatest novelists, and widely regarded as one of the prominent Catholics of his time, Evelyn Waugh, author of Brideshead Revisited, died 50 years ago this year.

While he will be remembered for his great works of fiction, many Catholics will be unfamiliar with his connection with the Latin Mass and his association with the beginnings of the Latin Mass Society (LMS).

In the 1960s, Waugh had grave concerns about Vatican II and the liturgical reform that was happening. He wrote many articles on the subject and recorded in his diaries and letters how aggrieved he was about, particularly about the earlier 1955 Holy Week reforms, the Dialogue Mass, which was becoming more common, and Mass in English.

In a Spectator article at the onset of the Council, he wrote:

“‘Participation’ in the Mass does not mean hearing our own voices. It means God hearing our voices. Only He knows who is ‘participating’ at Mass. I believe, to compare small things with great, that I ‘participate’ in a work of art when I study it and love it silently. No need to shout. … If the Germans want to be noisy, let them. But why should they disturb our devotions?

“That is a key idea: the responses, the English, the jumping up and down, shaking hands and so on ‘disturbs our devotions’: the serious business of engaging prayerfully in the Mass.”

In 1965, several attempts were made to create an organisation in England and Wales in defence of the Latin Mass. After a letter was published in the Catholic Herald of January 22, 1965 by a banker called Hugh Byrne suggesting the immediate formation of an organisation, a group was formed to put the wheels in motion.

It was recorded in the Herald in 1965: “This week efforts are being made to start a national Latin Mass Society in Britain. Mr Evelyn Waugh, one of the strongest opponents of the vernacular, has been asked to become President of the Society, which will aim at campaigning for at least one Latin Low Mass in every church on Sundays.”

Until his death in 1966, Waugh acted as an unofficial spokesman for the conservatives, expressing their growing disenchantment to Cardinal Heenan and in the press. He was also instrumental, with Sir Arnold Lunn and Hugh Ross Williamson, in founding the Latin Mass Society at Easter 1965.

The first meeting, a meeting for interested parties was held at Rembrandt Hotel, opposite the London Oratory, on April 10. Those present included the organiser Hugh Byrne, Anthony Couldery, Gillian Edwards, Kathleen Hindmarsh, Geoffrey Houghton-Browne, Peter Kenworthy-Browne, Jean Le Clercq, Miss Lowe, Ruth McQuillan, Mary Teresa Parnall and Barbara Witty, all of whom agreed to form the committee of the proposed Society.

In 1966 the Latin Mass Society produced a booklet, Sancta Lingua, containing an anthology of texts which provided “evidence of the widespread distress which the innovations have caused among Catholics” and showed that the “pleas for the retention of the all-Latin Mass are based on spiritual considerations, and accord fully with the teaching of the Church”. Alongside Church documents and published articles by the likes of Evelyn Waugh, there were extracts from letters received by the LMS.

Evelyn Waugh’s concerns and responses to his letters from Cardinal Heenan, have been turned into a book, A Bitter Trial (edited by Alcuin Reid). Waugh didn’t live to see the 1970 Missal, but despite declining the invitation to be the president of the LMS, possibly due to ill-health, he continued to support the organisation until his death in 1966.

To commemorate Waugh’s death, the Latin Mass Society are holding Pontifical Vespers at 5.30pm today at St Mary Magdalen Catholic church, in Wandsworth, London, in his memory. It will be celebrated by Archbishop Thomas Gullickson, the Nuncio to Switzerland, and features music from Renaissance composers Asola and Palestrina, and Waugh’s contemporary Edward Elgar.

Clare Bowskill is publicity officer of the Latin Mass Society