The Non-Catholics Who Saved the Latin Mass

In one of the great ironies of history, it was a group of mostly British non-Catholics who petitioned Pope Paul VI to save the Latin Mass in 1970.

Dr. Joseph Shaw is the 43 year old Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales. He teaches Philosophy at St Benet’s Hall in Oxford, and relates this fascinating story in an exclusive Regina Magazine interview.

Q. Tell us about the Society.

The Latin Mass Society, founded in 1965, is an association of Catholic faithful dedicated to the promotion of the traditional Latin liturgy of the Catholic Church, the teachings and practices integral to it, and  the musical tradition which serves it.


Three people are principally responsible for the founding of the Society, in 1965: Evelyn Waugh, the foremost Catholic writer of his day (“Brideshead Revisited”), Sir Arnold Lunn, controversialist and skiing pioneer, and Hugh Ross Williamson, media personality and historian.


Evelyn Waugh’s concerns about Vatican II and the liturgical reform are recorded in his diaries and letters, and in a famous Spectator article at the onset of the Council. Much of this material, and responses to his letters from Cardinal Heenan, has been turned into a book, ‘A Most Bitter Trial’ (ed Scott Reid).


BRIDESHEAD REVISITED author Waugh didn’t live to see the 1970 Missal, but he was deeply concerned about the 1955 Holy Week Reform, the Dialogue Mass, and Mass in English. He wrote in the Spectator article:

“‘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?’”

Q. That is quite a commentary! What about the other founders, Williamson and Lunn?

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.  As for the other Founders,

Hugh Ross Williamson

Hugh Ross-Williamson was an Anglican clergyman who converted. He had been brought up in a non-conformist (Presbyterian) family, had become a High Anglican, and was finally received inti the Catholic Church when the Anglicans recognised the orders of group of Methodist clergy in India in 1955. He wrote a book about the Roman Canon, ‘The Great Prayer’, as well as plays, history, and journalism; he was on the ‘Brains Trust’ TV programme until his conversion. (His complaint ‘This is 1955, not 1555!’ fell on deaf ears: a Catholic was not acceptable on the programme.)

Summer School image

Hugh Ross-Williamson was very disturbed by the theology of the New Mass and later wrote a pamphlet arguing that it was invalid. He saw a strong parallel with the liturgical changes made by Cranmer in the course of the English Reformation.

arnold lunn

Arnold Lunn was a great apologist, as well the inventor of slalom ski racing; as an agnostic he had a debate with Monsignor Ronald Knox which was turned into a book, ‘Difficulties’, and although many thought he’d done rather well in the debate, two years later he became a Catholic.

Even as an agnostic he had been a fierce opponent of scientific materialism, and was very interested in the roots of the decline in religious belief. He researched the way religion was being taught in the great Anglican public schools and published a book, ‘Public School Religion’, about it.

Basically it wasn’t being taught at all because the chaplains in those places no longer had any confidence in their religion – this was in the 1930s. The great contrast, he discovered, was with the Catholic schools, where it was still being taken very seriously.

He could see where things were going; like many in the early 20th Century, to Lunn the Catholic Church looked like the last bastion of reason and civilisation, let alone religion. And then the Catholic Church started to incorporate many of the same ideas and reforms which had hollowed out the Anglicans.


Q. They were certainly very clear in their ideas. So, after the Missal of 1970 came out, they organized the Society?

A. The attitude of these three was not unusual: in fact, one of the great early successes of the LMS was organising a petition to ask Pope Paul V that the Traditional Mass be preserved. 


The petitioners were all intellectual and cultural figures, mostly non-Catholic.  They included the concert violinist Yehudi Menuhin, British crime author Dame Agatha Christi, and novelist Graham Greene, who converted to Catholicism.

Q. So the Society somehow got the petition to the Vatican, then?

A. Yes, the legend is that Pope Paul VI saw the petition lying on a desk and noticed Dame Agatha Christie’s signature. Apparently he was one of her literary fans — and so that’s what caught his eye.

In any case, Pope Paul VI’s signature on the Latin Mass Society petition led to the ‘English Indult’ of 1971, wherein England became the only country in the entire world where the Latin Mass could be celebrated without the express permission of a bishop.

Chartres image 1


Print pagePDF pageEmail page