Westminster Cathedral Ends 50 Years of Masses for the Latin Mass Society

The cancellation of the decades-long biannual celebration of traditional Latin Mass at Westminster Cathedral appears to be another attempt to marginalize traditional Catholics.

The Cathedral was packed with people, many standing all down the aisles, in the galleries, and at the back of the Church. It was a most impressive celebration and astonished the foreign visitors by the beauty of the church, the music, and the intense devotion of the congregation. We could not have hoped for a more triumphant assembly.… There were representatives from Italy, France, Germany, Belgium, Holland and other places.

This is a description by Geoffrey Houghton-Brown, my predecessor as Chairman of the Latin Mass Society, of the first Traditional Mass to be celebrated in Westminster Cathedral after the liturgical reform, on Saturday, June 17, 1972. The previous celebration of the Traditional Mass on the Cathedral’s High Altar had taken place in November 1970. The gap was short because Pope Paul VI issued a decree allowing the bishops of England and Wales to permit ongoing celebrations for the good of the faithful, the so-called “English Indult.” The rest of the world had to wait until 1984 for the same possibility.

The Indult was granted in response to a request from the then-Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, John Carmel Heenan, who had presented Pope Paul with a petition of intellectuals and cultural figures begging him not to ban the Traditional Mass. (This petition and others like it is the subject of a book I have edited which is shortly to be published by Arouca Press, so I will resist the temptation to say more about it here.) The result was that Cardinal Heenan allowed a monthly celebration of the Traditional Mass in the crypt and two Masses a year at the high altar, to be arranged in coordination with the Latin Mass Society. They became our Annual Requiem and the Mass that accompanies our Annual General Meeting. The Masses in the crypt eventually moved into a side altar of the main church.

Cardinal Heenan was annoyed by the publicity the Latin Mass Society had given the Mass, and he wrote to Houghton-Brown to say that permission had been given on the understanding that “the use of the old rite would not be made the occasion of fostering division in the Church.” Houghton-Brown replied: “I am unable to imagine how the use of either the Old or New rite could divide the Church, unless there is some fundamental difference of meaning in these rites, which God forbid.”

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This exchange could have taken place in 2023—we almost appear to be in a time warp. There is this difference, however: in 1972, Cardinal Heenan allowed the celebration. Our present Cardinal Archbishop, Vincent Nichols, has cancelled the bookings the Latin Mass Society had arranged for the next two annual Masses which were to have taken place, the Annual Requiem on November 4th, and next summer’s Mass. I do not wish to single him out for blame; what has happened is the result of a situation much wider and more complex than Westminster Cathedral.

Cardinal Heenan probably assumed that demand for the ancient Mass would wither away naturally. But something rather different happened. As Pope Benedict XVI expressed it: 

Immediately after the Second Vatican Council it was presumed that requests for the use of the 1962 Missal would be limited to the older generation which had grown up with it, but in the meantime it has clearly been demonstrated that young persons too have discovered this liturgical form, felt its attraction and found in it a form of encounter with the Mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist, particularly suited to them.

Pope Benedict’s greatness of soul was such that he, completely confident that there was indeed no “fundamental difference of meaning in these rites,” made provision for the wider use of the older Missal. On this basis, it made sense to bridge the psychological division between “Traditionalists” and the rest of the Church—bringing them in from the margins, calming them down, making them feel appreciated and cared for, and encouraging them to get to know their fellow Catholics and take part in parish and diocesan life. 

Not long after Pope Benedict’s Letter, the then-Cardinal Archbishop, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, established the policy that the two annual Masses in Westminster Cathedral be celebrated by bishops of his own choosing: his own auxiliary bishops or retired bishops living in London. The Mass is, after all, something we laity receive from the clergy and the hierarchical Church. It is surely ideal for the Traditional Mass to be provided with the greatest possible solemnity at the hands of the Archdiocese. This was a symbolic reversal of marginalization.

Following Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter Traditionis Custodes, we were told, however, that thenceforth these Masses would be Missa Cantata. We could not even have Solemn Mass with a deacon and subdeacon. Two years later, the Masses are at an end. The monthly Low Masses, thankfully, continue—for now. 

The Latin Mass Society will have no difficulty in arranging a Mass to be celebrated for its deceased members and supporters; nor will there be any lack of options when it comes to having a Mass on the day of our Annual General Meeting. Then again, while this situation continues, we will not have to bear the considerable cost of Westminster Cathedral’s singers. 

What is significant about this development is not any inconvenience to us but the message it conveys. What are we to understand by it? It is the reversal of a policy, as I noted, designed to draw us in. It is the opposite of a policy that encouraged us to see Westminster Cathedral as the mother-church of the Archdiocese—not just for respectable Novus Ordo Catholics but for us, the benighted members and supporters of the Latin Mass Society. It is, in a word, marginalization.

One of the many puzzles of Traditionis Custodes and subsequent documents is whether it is seeking to marginalize traditional Catholics or to integrate them. The radicalization of traditional Catholics that it condemns, fairly or not, is the predictable result of marginalization. The “parallel Church,” which it decries, develops when one group suffers marginalization. But the solution being put forward is also marginalization.  One of the many puzzles of Traditionis Custodes and subsequent documents is whether it is seeking to marginalize traditional Catholics or to integrate them. Tweet This

Traditional Masses are to be excluded from parish churches. They should not appear on parish newsletters. Diocesan clergy in ordinary parishes are forbidden to offer the other traditional sacraments. We are being pushed out of churches into parish halls, presbytery sitting rooms, and gymnasiums. 

We are even told, confusingly, that the Society of St. Pius X may offer Confession and the celebration of the Sacrament of Matrimony in the traditional forms, despite their not being in good canonical standing. Are we supposed to be going to them? Does Pope Francis want to stop us engaging with parishes and dioceses? Does he want to stop us talking to our fellow Catholics who attend the Novus Ordo?

The answers to these questions are not provided; but one thing is clear. The policy of Traditionis Custodes is not a policy founded on hope, like Pope Benedict’s hope for the enrichment of the Church by the ancient liturgy. It is, instead, fearful of the future, fearful of young Catholics and the changes they may bring. It is a policy that “stands athwart history yelling Stop.”


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