Luca Fumagalli

The writer Julien Green after attending the “New Mass” for the first time, and amazed at having found it incredibly similar to the Protestant rite, turned to his sister Mary asking: «Why did we convert ?»

The anecdote referring to Green is only one of the many that demonstrate the bewilderment that many felt at the liturgical innovations introduced by the Second Vatican Council. It was above all the countries with a Protestant majority, including England, that saw the first outbreaks of the protest. The small Catholic communities that resided there immediately and more easily than others grasped the dangerous similarity between the Novus Ordo and the Lutheran and Calvinist rites of their compatriots. It is no coincidence that an eminent Norwegian psychologist, Dr. Borghild Krane, was the first to sound the alarm to all Catholics worldwide, with a view to organising a joint action to preserve the centuries-old liturgical heritage of the Tridentine Mass.

The appeal resulted in the birth of numerous associations and in 1965 the delegates of six European states met in Rome to set up an international coordination, commonly known as Una Voce, formalized in Zurich on January 8, 1967. The British Latin Mass Society immediately occupied a place of great importance among the federated groups.

A first appeal was sent in 1965 to Paul VI in which it was maintained that abandoning the use of the Latin language in the Holy Mass would result in great spiritual deprivation. Montini was then asked for permission at least to continue to attend Masses celebrated in the ancient rite; the plea, however, got no response.

With the official introduction of the new missal, in order to prevent the great traditions of the Church from disappearing forever, the Latin Mass Society, led by the writer and poet Alfred Marnau, decided to take the initiative again. This time it was necessary to break the delay with an incisive and resounding action. Marnau then proposed to forward a petition to Paul VI. Unlike the previous requests, all ignored, this time the document was also to be signed by eminent personalities from culture, art, entertainment and politics, including some who were far from Catholic.

Having drafted the text and approved the action plan, in early 1971 Marnau, driven by urgency, in almost three weeks collected fifty-seven signatures including those of Graham Greene, Herman Grisewood, David Jones, Kathleen Raine, Cecil Day Lewis and, of course, Agatha Christie, whose name was later associated with the Indult that Montini finally granted.

The happy outcome of the initiative, however, can be attributed to the diplomatic skills of the then archbishop of Westminister, Cardinal John Carmel Heenan. In the audience on October 29, 1971, Heenan persuaded Paul VI to accept the requests of the English faithful. It was even suggested that the Pope’s benevolent attitude towards the appeal was determined by Montini’s discovery of the signature of Christie, of whom he was a well-known admirer. However, the much more likely explanation is that Paul VI was favorably impressed by the cardinal’s arguments. Heenan, anticipating any possible objection, focused above all on the recent canonization of the forty Elizabethan martyrs – who died to defend the Latin Mass – and, above all, guaranteed that the Indult would not produce any fracture within the English Church. Furthermore, Montini realized that this request was not the usual petition promoted by the “nostalgics” of the Latin Mass Society, but a heartfelt appeal that came from that modern world that was so close to his heart and with which he was so eager to dialogue.

The story therefore ended positively. On November 5, 1971, the decision was officially communicated to Cardinal Heenan: Paul VI would grant the British faithful the much coveted Indult.

Source: G. AMATO, L’Indulto di Agatha Christie. Come si è salvata la Messa tridentina in Inghilterra, Fede & Cultura, Verona, 2013.