03 July 2024, The Tablet

UK public figures oppose ‘banishment’ of old rite from parishes

Sir James MacMillan described the old rite as “a thing of great beauty, wonder and awe, and a profound shaper of our culture”.

UK public figures oppose ‘banishment’ of old rite from parishes

The letter emphasised the old rite’s “ability to encourage silence and contemplation”.
Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales / Mazur

A group of 48 public figures signed a letter published in The Times opposing further restrictions on the celebration of the Mass in the old rite.

The signatories, including Princess Michael of Kent, the former cabinet minister Michael Gove and the composer Sir James MacMillan, said that suppressing the liturgy pre-dating the Second Vatican Council was “an unnecessary and insensitive act in a world where history can all too easily slip away forgotten”.

They were responding to “reports from Rome” that the old rite was “to be banished from nearly every Catholic church”. Anonymous sources in the Vatican claimed last month that curial officials had prepared a document to prohibit the celebration of the old rite except in recognised institutes, which was awaiting the Pope’s approval.

“This is a painful and confusing prospect, especially for the growing number of young Catholics whose faith has been nurtured by it,” the letter said.  

“The old rite’s ability to encourage silence and contemplation is a treasure not easily replicated, and, when gone, impossible to reconstruct.”

The human rights advocates Bianca Jagger and Lord Alton of Liverpool, the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum Tristram Hunt, its former chairman Sir Nicholas Coleridge, the historians Lady Antonia Fraser and Tom Holland, the soprano Sophie Bevan and the violist Meghan Cassidy were also among the signatories.

The pianist and composer Sir Stephen Hough, who contributed to the contents of the letter, told The Tablet that he felt “the need to preserve things of beauty in a living context”. He said the old rite was “a glorious irrelevance in the bigger picture – but still something we should not throw away”.

Lord (Robert) Skidelsky, the economic historian, said he signed the letter out of “hostility to the secularisation of religion”.

Sir James MacMillan, who organised the letter, wrote alongside it to emphasise that the list included “Catholics, Protestants, members of non-Christian faiths and non-believers”.

“The fact that there are Vatican functionaries indulging in this petty, philistine authoritarianism against their own co-religionists is shocking for a non-Catholic audience,” he said.

Commenting separately to the Latin Mass Society, of which he is a patron, MacMillan described the old rite as “a thing of great beauty, wonder and awe, and a profound shaper of our culture”.

He continued: “If Rome were to do what is rumoured, it would be grossly unjust and make an utter mockery of ‘synodality’.”

Under regulations introduced by the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes in 2021, bishops may permit priests to celebrate the old rite in specific parishes, subject to the approval of the Dicastery for Divine Worship. There has been no public confirmation of a further document, while other reports have denied that any such document exists.

Joseph Shaw, the chairman of the Latin Mass Society, said it was “very difficult to get clarity” on the Vatican’s position but “there is a certain logic to the idea” of further the restrictions given the “direction of travel” since 2021.

“The guiding principle is perhaps not a liturgical principle, but perhaps more a political motive,” he told The Tablet, describing a “tension” between the Vatican’s concerns about a “parallel Church” using the old liturgy and the intention to confine its celebration to distinct institutes.

The letter referred to a petition in 1971 signed by 105 intellectuals and cultural figures including Agatha Christie, which was also published in The Times, opposing Paul VI’s proposal to abolish the old rite entirely. That appeal said the pre-Vatican II liturgy “belongs to universal culture”.

Shaw said the 2024 signatories were “very similar to the list of 1971” and said such “elite opinion” could help the Pope “to understand the strength of feeling” about the old rite.

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