Agatha Christie and the Attempted Murder of the Old Mass

What does Agatha Christie have in common with Joan Sutherland, Graham Greene, Yehudi Menuhin, the actor Ralph Richardson and the austere Cambridge don F. R. Leavis?

Many things no doubt, of which the most obvious is that they were all artists of the first rank in their fields. In particular, though, they have in common that in 1971 they and 51 other men and women of cultural eminence used the power of their reputation to petition Pope Paul VI not to consign the traditional Latin Mass of the Roman Catholic Church, which they noted as having an “exceptional artistic and cultural heritage”, to the oblivion intended for it by the “progressive” liturgical reformers of the time. This was the Mass of Mozart, of Beethoven and Palestrina. Most of the signatories were not Roman Catholics but their petition was successful, in that the Pope gave permission for the old Mass, substantially in the form it had existed since the sixteenth century, to be celebrated in certain circumstances if requested. He is said to have read through the names and stopped at Agatha Christie’s. Davvero? you can picture him saying, looking up from the list, la famosa scrittrice. Perhaps he was a fan; in any event the indult, or act of permission he issued, is still called informally the Agatha Christie Indult, and thousands of Catholics around the world who now worship in the old rite, and all who care about the beleaguered Western cultural tradition, owe the Queen of Detective Fiction and her co-signatories their gratitude.  

The attempted suppression of the Mass in the traditional rite known as Tridentine (from the sixteenth-century Council of Trent, at which its form was fixed) was a consequence of the liturgical politics of the Second Vatican Council and its aftermath. The Council had recommended a mild reform to make the cohesion between the various elements of the eucharistic rite more evident. Radical liturgists, who wanted a new rite entirely, managed, as leftists always do in the secular world, to install themselves as the arbiters of change. There was much pseudo-archaeological talk about returning to the simple gatherings of the early Christians, and expressions of pastoral concern, real or affected, for twentieth-century congregations allegedly unable to “understand” Latin (though every Catholic had a parallel vernacular rendering in his Missal). Some thought there was too much emphasis on sinfulness in the Tridentine rite for the feelgood culture already then emerging.  

Chiefly, it is now evident that the reformers were motivated by two things: a perhaps laudable if naïve ecumenism that expressed itself in a desire to make the Catholic liturgy more palatable to Protestants; and the loathing all progressives have for tradition and our inherited culture. In this sense the attack on the Mass was an early skirmish in the culture wars that now plague the Western world.

The progressives largely got their way. In 1970 the Tridentine Mass ceased to be the normal Sunday rite in the Catholic Church, and had it not been for the Agatha Christie Indult and several others subsequently granted, would have vanished into history, along with Latin, Gregorian chant, fish on Fridays and other elements in the Catholic heritage the reformers didn’t like. For them, there was no place for nostalgic survivals of the benighted past in the new “spirit-filled” Church they were seeking to bring into being by exploiting the weakness of a shilly-shallying Pope to go beyond the moderate changes sanctioned by the Council. They spoke extravagantly of a “new springtime” for the Church, of a “new Pentecost”. As it happened, their attack on traditional Catholicism ushered in a long winter of decline and discontent, of shrinking congregations, of Catholic schools decatholicised, Catholic opposition to abortion and other social ills ignored, which has seen the Church reduced and marginalised, to the delight of secularists who have seized on child sexual abuse to put the boot in further. COVID has made things much worse with the closure of churches.  

In the gloomy landscape of contemporary Catholicism one light burns steadily. The reintroduction of the old Mass, now officially known as the Extraordinary Form or EF, has been a success, though still a limited one. Its re-emergence after years of only occasional celebration under the “Christie Indult”, is due to Pope Benedict XVI, who in his motu proprio of 2007 Summorum Pontificum stipulated that any priest had the right to say Mass in the old form and removed the power of bishops, a body of men in whom the fading flame of the new Pentecost still flickers here and there, to forbid them. In fact, many bishops support the old Mass and some have celebrated it.

So far so good. But all at once it seems possible that another “Christie” campaign might become necessary. Pope Francis, with his Peronist penchant for oblique hints when controversial decisions are in the air, let it drop at a conference of Italian bishops in late May that he intends to “reform” the motu proprio. “Reform” in Francis’s lexicon could mean anything from a revised instruction in his own name to an abrogation. The latter would be foolish, uncharitable and could possibly lead to a split in the Church, the last thing you’d think a Pope would want in this aggressively secular age.

Sadly, experience suggests that Pope Francis is not deterred by consequences or unpopularity when he resolves to do something, witness his nasty deal with the Chinese Communist government, which has sold Chinese Catholics loyal for decades to the Vatican down the river in favour of the Beijing-controlled “patriotic Church”; or his implicit instruction to American bishops not to withhold Communion from President Biden, whose party he openly favours but whose encouragement of abortions is in conflict with Catholic moral teaching. At the time of writing Catholics are just having to wait and see what the Pope decides to do about the motu proprio, which is exactly the way he likes it, with everyone hanging on his word. (For a discussion of Pope Francis’ political techniques, see “The Puzzle of the Pope” in Quadrant‘s December 2020 edition.)

Meanwhile, around the world the traditional Mass is offered in hundreds of churches in every continent. In Australia, the Latin Mass Directory lists 64 churches and chapels, in all states, including the cathedrals of Sydney and Melbourne. In both those cities, and in Adelaide, it has a growing and thriving parish dedicated exclusively to its celebration. In Brisbane there is the Oratory in formation where the traditional Mass is celebrated daily. And, as younger priests take charge of parishes, it is beginning to filter out into the wider Church where it attracts higher than average congregations.

Indeed, it is among congregations attending the EF Mass that there is evidence of Catholicism, slowly, beginning to grow again. And it is growing among the young, with statistics disproving the canard, still occasionally heard in progressive circles, that it is only ancient “nostalgics”, reared on the EF Mass when it was the norm, who wish to attend it now. If a few do, they must be very old indeed and would have been teenagers when it was discontinued. Instead it is teenagers who go to it now. A pre-COVID world survey commissioned by the Vatican found, in the words of Oxford philosophy lecturer Joseph Shaw of the British Latin Mass Society, that Catholics who regularly attend an EF Mass “are disproportionately young, and include a disproportionate number of families with small children.” Millennials who are likewise conspicuous by their absence in most churches are also there in numbers.

Attenders at an EF Mass speak of being drawn by a quiet ritual power that – to non-believers outrageously – presumes to invite its followers into a reality beyond the quotidian. There is a profound sense of reverence, partly on account of the relative silence during the most solemn part of the service, the Canon, the long prayer in which the priest consecrates the eucharistic elements, when only the murmur of the Latin is audible, or if it is a High Mass with full ceremonial, the music, which is often very fine. The use of Latin, much of which is fairly easily memorised, underlines the continuity of the Mass through the centuries and its invariability throughout the world and serves the practical purpose of retaining a fixed meaning and avoiding the changes of idiom and nuance to which a vernacular language is subject over time.

It is the sense of total dedication to prayer, total absorption in the rite, which most strikes newcomers to the EF Mass. In the newer rite, the way it is usually celebrated in parishes, there seems to be always something distracting going on: the congregation is up and down, down and up, standing, sitting, kneeling or (what more people dread than would admit it) shaking hands with each other at the ceremony of exchanging the “peace”. (The pandemic, being a very ill wind but not one that has blown no good at all, stopped that, if only temporarily.) 

Naturally the progressive opposition was not extinct even before Pope Francis started dropping hints. Just recently a prominent American Jesuit, displaying the dictatorial streak of the true contemporary liberal, said that children “should not be allowed” to go to the EF Mass, presumably because in them lies its future. Liberals always want everything their own way; they can never live and let live. This is true of one diocese in Victoria where the bishop, though he cannot (yet) ban the old Mass, has, to put it mildly, done nothing to encourage it.

It has been argued that there is a gulf between those who attend the 1970s Mass and those attached to the old one, that there is already a de facto schism, which Pope Francis has seemed occasionally to encourage with disobliging remarks about “traditionalists” and their “rigidity”. Hitherto these traditionalists have comforted themselves with  Mandy Rice-Davies’ observation that “he would say that, wouldn’t he?” since Francis himself is the embodiment of post-Vatican II progressivism. But his allusions to “reform” have gone further than that and it is not inconceivable  he will seek to forbid or limit the celebration of the EF Mass. That will put many Catholics, including the young – a valuable constituency in an ageing Church – in the unenviable position of being torn between their loyalty to the Pope and their loyalty to the rite, with the real possibility of schism as a result. Catholics respect the Pope as a symbol of unity. Would any Pope, even one with as little regard for the opinions of those who disagree with him as Francis, really wish to go down in history as having engineered the destruction of the unity he is supposed to safeguard?

Perhaps more immediately to be guarded against is a temptation on the part of EF Massgoers to consider themselves superior in their practice of religion to those who attend the newer Mass. This is the sin of pride: hard to avoid but inimical to unity and charity, and perhaps it is a perception of this that is at the heart of what Pope Francis has been imputing to traditionalist Catholics. But if it can be avoided, and if the Pope for his part contains the impulse not to leave well alone, the Catholic Church will continue to be enriched by its rediscovery of the Tridentine rite. As this venerable liturgical action seeps through the consciousness of Roman Catholics, it will create a habit of mind in which they will become more aware of, and will value more highly, their heritage of devotional culture; and non-Catholics will continue to have access if they wish to a high aesthetic experience. It would hardly take one of Agatha’s detectives to deduce how pleased she and her co-signatories would be about that.

Christopher Akehurst, a frequent contributor, lives in Melbourne

19 thoughts on “Agatha Christie and the Attempted Murder of the Old Mass

  • Harry Lee says:

    A very informative piece that I greatly appreciate. I pray it has good effect in good places.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    It was Vatican Ii and the abandonment of the Tridentine Mass that finally drove me out of the Catholic Church.

  • Lonsdale says:

    And nuns with guitars.

  • padmmdpat says:

    I attend a Latin Mass. I do so because I do not wish to go to Mass and have liturgical abuse hurled at me by priests and laity who think they can do anything they like with the liturgy. My experience is that too many Catholic priests – especially those who were ordained around the time of Vatican II are liturgically ignorant. Please understand me – I am not referring to ritual – tight arsed, high camp, traditionalist ritualists are just as bad as priests who ‘make it up’ as they go along – both are obstacles to grace and distract worshippers from the main purpose of the Mass – to worship God. And some who attend Latin Masses seem to think that that automatically means one must have an infantile faith that is anti-intellectual and suspicious of theology and sound biblical exposition. And often they are encouraged in this by appalling preaching – literalist waffle and pious legends about saints. One shouldn’t have to leave one’s brain at the door when one attends a traditional Latin Mass. I consider myself a catholic who adheres to Tradition – not a traditionalist catholic. The difference? Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead, ossified faith of the living. At a Latin Mass the priest has not turned his back on the congregation, ( post Vatican II lingo) but celebrates facing the crucifix and leads his people to meet the Crucified and Risen Christ coming to meet us from the East. That central tenant of the Faith is virtually lost in the Novus Ordo where the priest often comes across as the focus of attention; a performer. And of course in parishes that use the Novus Ordo the sanctuaries are sometimes over-run with ‘extraordinary’ ministers ( who have become very ordinary/usual these days) under the guise of lay participation. The result is the priest is more and more laicized and the laity are more and more clericalized. I recall one priest consecrating the elements with two lay people on either side of him at the altar holding up the host, and the chalice. Needless to say Father did not distribute communion but sat down while laity administered the consecrated bread and wine to the congregation. It’s sheer liturgical, theological and pastoral lunacy. It’s impossible for that to happen at a Latin Mass. That, and for many other reasons, despite some drawbacks, is why I attend.

  • STD says:

    Christopher, it is indeed very hard not to be peeved. In every facet of life, the politicians, left and right, and the media and the modern day corporate tzars who administer their consumerist fiefdoms within society – just find temptation too tempting to just let people quietly be.
    As an aside ,there’s a Catholic Church in Sydney’s Broadway- St Benedict’s which is attached to the University of Notre Dame. Whilst attending weekday midday mass, the students in attendance would often sing the hymns in Latin- I tell you what, hymns sung in Latin not only stir the soul and bring it to life, but it actually opens a door to the sense of the sacred.
    Why is it that we find it so hard to let God into our lives? Is it because we are so consumed by our own sense of self?
    People are searching for the authentic. Politics and political agendas have no place in the Church and more specifically the mass. Politics is the art of deception and compromise, in the main politicians are all liars.
    I remember attending a mass recently, where a lay woman gave the congregation the welcome to country rot (this to my mind is a similar Political incursion as Pope Francis’ fore’ with the communist Chinese). I walked out – the reason I go to mass is to listen to the word of God, not progressive leaning politically inspired tripe.

  • Lewis P Buckingham says:

    To all, greetings. We Catholics are not immune from the experience of grief and loss.
    Stripped of the liturgy and its beauty there are only four elements of the mass.
    Everything else is commentary.
    Whatever the language.
    Covid 19 has brought us to a different place.
    This morning at Solemn Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney the restrictions led to the priest and celebrants facing the altar, socially distanced from the cantors, singing in Latin.
    36.49 min to 38.03 min would suffice to show this.
    The prior sermon on the difference between the sometimes unwanted gift of vocation and the self made intention of following some career, is worth the watching.
    The Catholic Church is faced with the same dilemma.

  • lbloveday says:

    STD, I have stopped going to Mass, even on days of obligation. Will hopefully choose to return when the pope is no longer Pope Francis. While “… your servant Francis our Pope and N. our Bishop, the Order of Bishops, all the clergy, and …”, does not warrant walking out like Welcome to Country does, it’s too much for me to front up to each week.

  • Lewis P Buckingham says:

    Just a point of concern.
    Whatever game the Vatican is playing with the PRC, they still hold the only card that matters to the PRC.
    The Pope has not thrown Taiwan under the bus.
    If he does, we lose.
    Whatever concordat the Holy See has with the PRC, there has to be some silent clauses.
    In 70 years the Vatican archives will be opened and we may find out.
    In the meanwhile, as the doughty Pell observed on Vatican finance, Pope Francis ‘plays the long game’.

  • lbloveday says:

    It may seem pedantic, but when something is enclosed with quotation marks, it should be exact and while I wasn’t there, the preponderance of evidence, including her own assertion, points to Marilyn having not said “he would say that, wouldn’t he?” but “he would, wouldn’t he?”

  • Stephen Due says:

    Speaking as a Protestant, I think there is a broader issue here. When I was in England as late as 2011 I was amazed at the resentment still fulminating over the desecration of the interiors of what are now Anglican churches during the Reformation. In Australia the results of reforming zealotry in high places are not so evident. Nevertheless on reflection it can easily by seen in the liturgical vandalism that is rampant in Australian churches. A profound ignorance of the beauties and truths of the old liturgical orders prevails almost everywhere Christians worship today. The old Anglican BCP, although it survives in a few churches, has largely been replaced by forms of service that have no power of spiritual transformation, education, revelation or encouragement. The same tidal wave of mindless neglect has swept away the old church music, with its roots going back centuries. The pipe organ is gone, the choir stalls have been removed to make way for the drum kit – you know the story. Historical continuity with the church experience of previous generations is vitally important in my view. How else are we to learn from them? We have taken away the cultural heritage of Christendom and handed to future generations something practically worthless. This is supposed to be Progress, but in reality it is just another symptom of the grim, protracted suicide of Western civilisation.

  • guilfoyle says:

    Brilliant article – as a Latin Mass goer, you have put your finger on the climate in the Church just now. I must confess to cynicism when talk of suppression arises at the moment that the traditional Mass is shown to have attracted a large body of the faithful (instead of the prior assumed elderly or eccentric aesthetes). This is at the same time as platitudes such as ‘the new evangelisation ‘ are constantly shoved at us by those who have orchestrated the emptying of the churches and the vast exit from holy orders and vocations (tens of thousands left the priesthood and convents within ten years of Vatican II and the new Mass).
    One further point (Benedict XVI made reference to it); the traditional Mass, while minor changes have been made over the centuries, dates from Apostolic times. The Council of Trent merely codified already existing practice (which is how the Church works) – changes occur organically, never by committee, as the Novus Ordo Mass was, and they are never imposed from the top by the Pope, as the Novus Ordo Mass was. The imposition of the Mass was a monarchical act by the Pope who is, by his infallibility, bound by tradition. The Pope is himself subject to the tradition of the Church. He is the successor of Peter and is the representative of an office. He is not an absolute monarch who can do what he likes. Therefore, as Benedict said, the Mass cannot be suppressed (at least, legitimately). That is not to say that the notion of ‘schism’ and that ‘traditional Catholics are ‘rigid’ (as in, Catholic), won’t be used to suppress the ‘rigid’ priests and Catholic faithful. It just won’t be suppressed legitimately. We can only wait and see what ploy is used by those who wish to further vandalise the beauty of the Faith.

  • Richard Gleeson says:

    Francis Daniel

    think the article is a “Single Story” and as we know too well, single stories have political undertones, even though the author seems to suggest the progressive are the only ones playing politics with the Liturgy. I find it hard to appreciate the author’s sense of “Meism”, using his own exact words, “the soul.” He argues that EF is good for the Church because it is attractive to the young. If we follow his argument to a logical conclusion, we can also argue thar Woke is good to society because it is connecting with the young? This I where a single story runs amok.

    In all fairness, almost 2000 bishops who voted for the Liturgical Reform in 1965 could not not have been moved by the Holy Spirit. I sincerely doubt the Holy Spirit only stopped working prior to 1963 and resumed with Benedict XVI mutus propio Summorum Pontificum. Besides, the Liturgy is the work of the people. However, it is the initiation of God and the work is for the glory of God and the sanctification of man and woman. When we assume this perspective, we read the Liturgy in multiple stories.

    There is a story of the Incarnation, those who believe with the Scripture that Christ took flesh within a historical context and milieu and continue to take flesh in the words, actions and thoughts of the men and women of every age. And this means, Liturgy must continue to be the work of the people in its broader and restricted sense. Broader in that it says what it is – work of the people. The people of English speaking background, the disaffiliated people, people with no metaphysics, no conception of the reality of God, and indeed people with a deep sense of the sacred. It must be a work of the people that speaks many languages.

    And has Sandra M Schneiders argue, language is symbolic which means it is full of ambiguity and misunderstandings. To shy away from this genre of Liturgy is to murder the very meaning and purpose of Liturgy as work of the people – giving glory to God and allowing ourselves to be sanctified. Notice it is not the sanctification of the soul that the Liturgy is about, but the recreation of the whole person and creation. This brings me to the restricted sense. Liturgy here is about the Church’s act of worship. And the authority to determine how we worship has come from the highest authority, an Ecumenical Council. Did Jesus not say whatever you ban on earth shall be considered bound in heaven? While is this an exception? Why can’t we accept what the Second Vatican Council has bound? Could it be that our refusal to accept this teaching may be short-changing the reality of the Liturgy and its purpose?

  • Pittacus66 says:

    Manning Johnson had been “District Agitation and Propaganda Director” of the Communist Party of USA, before he became disillusioned and left. In the 1950s, he revealed how they had put agents into seminaries and divinity schools. In general, the idea was to divert the emphasis of clerical thinking from the spiritual to the material. Similarly, Bella Dodd was a high-ranking Communist Party official from 1932 to 1949 before she was received back into the Catholic Church by Archbishop Fulton J Sheen. She was interviewed by Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, widow of philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, and told of the communist infiltration of agents into seminaries: “She told my husband and me that when she was an active party member, she had dealt with no fewer than four cardinals within the Vatican, ‘who were working for us.’”
    In 2002, the book, “Goodbye, Good Men” by Michael Rose, chronicled the depravity and dissent within Catholic seminaries in the USA. One chapter in on “The Gay Subculture” and details how homosexuality was more than just tolerated in some seminaries. Another Chapter is on “The Gatekeeper Phenomenon” and how those in control of some seminaries used techniques to keep out applicants who held traditional beliefs.
    Said one vocations director, “Tim if you don’t believe in the ordination of women, then you don’t belong in our order.” Another applicant said: “I was told I was ‘too rigid’ and ‘too focused’ to be a priest…I was then told that ‘too rigid’ meant that I took the pope too seriously, and ‘too focussed’ referred to my devotion to the Blessed Mother and my practice of St Louis de Monfort’s Marian Spirituality.”

  • mikerogers836 says:

    Have no fear, if Francis does something unexpectedly harsh to SP, then you can celebrate Holy Mass at the chapels of the Society of St Pius X.
    I often attend their Masses in Rockdale, Sydney, & there you get solemn Latin Masses, said with dignity & a love of the Liturgy.

  • larrikin says:

    There are 2 reasons in particular I like the Latin mass:
    1. I don’t know Latin;
    2. The Pope doesn’t like it

  • christopher.coney says:

    I agree with the author that we must always avoid pride, and this need is obvious for those of us who love the TLM and discuss it with those who prefer the new Mass. This is not easy when one is falsely accused of pride and arrogance, but in a long discussion we do need to point out the clear respects in which the TLM is superior to its predecessor, but without denigrating those who attend the new Mass.

    For my part, I do not think that getting rid of the new Mass should be anything other than a very long term goal, and maybe it should not even be a goal at present. The new Mass can be done reverently. When I attended last year via zoom the Sunday Mass said at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne by Archbishop Comensoli a good dose of solemnity and reverence was there. However, there is no way that such a Mass can compare, objectively speaking, with the TLM, when both of them are done well.

    I point out something that the author misses. Although most attending the TLM will be following the prayers and/or singing, other things are also happening. Often there are people preparing for and attending confession. Some are saying the rosary or private prayer. One does not have to be ‘following’ the Mass, and in this respect I’d say that the TLM is a little different from the new Mass, where there really is an expectation that everyone is on the ‘same page’ – especially at handshake time !!!

    It was not only the signatories to the Christie Indult who respected the TLM as a treasure. The Marxist, Freudian, atheist philosopher Professor Alfred Lorenzer, published a book in 1981 called The Council of the Accountants (1981) in which he deplores the massive loss inflicted by the liturgical changes wrought by Vatican II – inflicted not just on Catholics, but on Western culture as a whole. I do hope that one day this book will be translated into English!!!

    Many thanks for this article.

  • Rebekah Meredith says:

    Can anyone give me a single example in the New Testament (except those detailed in 1 Corinthians) of a church service being carried out in a language that the congregation did not speak? The truth is that, considering the historical context, much of the preaching and services were probably in GREEK (the language that the largest number of people would have understood), not Latin.
    Paul rebuked the church at Corinth for their improper services, telling them that, if anyone preached in an unknown tongue (language), there must be someone to interpret. “Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.” (1 Corinthians 14:19). How can gibberish–and, to most people, Latin is nothing else–bring glory to God or edification to the congregation?
    The Latin mass is a creation of man, not an institution of God.

Leave a Reply