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Una Voce:
The History of the Foederatio Internationalis Una Voce

by leo darroch 
gracewing, 504 pages, $35

In 1965, Evelyn Waugh wrote to the archbishop of Westminster of the growing tide of liturgical changes: “Every attendance at Mass leaves me without comfort or edification. I shall never, pray God, apostatize but church-going is now a bitter trial.”

The prominent Italian Catholic literary figure Tito Casini went further in 1967, publishing the provocative tract La tunica stracciata (“The Torn Tunic”), with a preface by a curial cardinal. He virulently took to task the cardinal charged with implementing the reform, Giacomo Lercaro, for “a perverted application [of the council] detested alike by Catholics and non-Catholics, believers and unbelievers, in the name of piety, unity, concord, art, poetry and beauty.” ­Lercaro’s adept secretary, Fr. ­Annibale ­Bugnini, would describe Casini’s work as “defamatory” and as a “poisonous attack on the liturgical reform and on the conciliar renewal generally.” As the New Yorker of ­September 9, 1967, reported, Pope Paul VI was not pleased.

Casini and Waugh had a point. What began to happen to the Sacred Liturgy of the Western Rite of the Catholic Church in the 1960s (or perhaps earlier), and which led to the production of brand-new rituals produced to meet the needs—almost self-consciously—of that ethereal entity “modern man,” was perceived as madness by many, and caused distress to a great number of faithful Catholics.

Catholics were a thoroughly obed­ient lot at the time. Bishops ­promptly implemented the changes ordered by Rome, and by and large the clergy and faithful accepted them, whatever their misgivings. Casini, though, warned Lercaro that this would not last forever. He mentioned a farm laborer with whom he had sung in the parish choir. In 1965 this man said to him, “To be sure the Mass suited me better as it was before. But what the priest says goes for me and I does as I am told. If the priest says I must dance, then dance I will . . .” Two years later, after the choir had been disbanded, he had changed his attitude. “Well,” he said, “to be sure if this is what the priest wants now, I must say—I don’t know . . .”

Increasingly, many did not know what to do in the face of what was widely perceived as the official, radical dissolution of the Catholic liturgy, that ancient, multivalent reality, with its various ritual, literary, musical, artistic, architectural, and other cultural components. At that time, it seemed that the only imperative was that one did not do what had been done in the past. And in these circumstances, it is a sad but well-known reality that many Catholics simply gave up attending Mass and walked away.

This was particularly true of the poor. In 2009, researchers from the University of Nebraska and Penn State found that Mass attendance among poor white Catholics underwent a sudden and singular drop for the group born after 1960. They asked, “Did the Church do something to discourage attendance among low-income Catholics during this time period? Are we seeing lagged effects of Vatican II?”

Some, however, could not walk away. Indeed, in the “age of the laity,” as the years after the council were so often called, some laypeople courageously and intelligently challenged the liturgical and cultural iconoclasm of the day and preserved what they could of the Church’s liturgical culture and the eternal truths which it enshrined. Theirs was an uphill battle, certainly, but their convictions were clear, and their livelihoods—unlike those of the clergy—did not depend on uncritical obedience to ecclesiastical authority.

In Norway, France, England and Wales, Scotland, and Austria, concerned laity began to organize. These groups, some of whom had adopted the name Una Voce (“With One Voice”), had by 1967 rapidly ­coalesced into the Foederatio Internationalis Una Voce. The organization, which Archbishop Bugnini later dismissed as having an “extremist bent,” quickly became truly international, with the incorporation of Una Voce America in 1968.

Una Voce’s history, faithfully compiled by Leo ­Darroch in the present volume, is indeed the history of lay men and women coming of age in the life of the Church. It is not too much to say that following the Second Vatican Council, Una Voce formed a lay movement that, in spite of at times not insignificant opposition, came to be of singular importance. For at a time when the required obedience had anesthetized the greater part of the clergy (there were notable exceptions, but they were too few and generally ­regarded as idiosyncratic), it was the laity who enjoyed the freedom necessary to organize themselves to ­promote the goods that were ­seemingly being squandered by the Church herself.

Not that the laity had any authority in these matters, of course. The history of Una Voce is the history of devout, intelligent, and indeed obedient Catholic men and women (at times, to be sure, severely frustrated and almost driven to distraction) seeking for decades to convince ecclesiastical authorities at every level, including the highest, that the Church had made a fundamental error not in reforming or developing her public worship—that she had done throughout history—but in excluding substantial and important elements of her liturgical tradition (including Latin) in so doing. They argued that the almost complete prohibition of the older forms of worship was pastorally harmful, culturally deleterious, and gravely unjust to the worthy aims of the fathers of the Second Vatican Council.

It is by no means an easy task to inform a naked emperor that he is wearing no clothes, as the early Una Voce leaders learned only too quickly. Darroch’s history is replete with polite but firm reminders from ecclesiastics that the old ways have been replaced by newer and better ones and that everyone needs to make the best of them. A 1970 petition to Pope Paul VI requesting the preservation of the older rite of Mass received this reply from Cardinal Benno Gut, prefect of the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship: “You know that the decree . . . ­issued with the ­publication of the new Ordo provided for a certain period of transition. . . . But after this period of transition all the faithful should get used to the new form.” His Eminence conceded that the difficulties ex­perienced by many of the faithful with the new order were “due to (very genuine) psychological inhibitions.” He concluded: “Your letter, written in such a ­distinguished tone, gives us the ­assurance that you will find the ­correct attitude.”

Where, by 1970, Tito Casini’s farm laborer friend was with all of this we do not know. But we do know that, among others, Una Voce did not duly “get used to the new form” of the liturgy or “find the correct attitude” as instructed. Locally and internationally, they did what they could to promote the use of Latin in the liturgy and to lobby authority for preservation of the classical liturgical rites.

Darroch speaks of the “confusion, and indeed alarm” at the understandably “very chaotic situation” that had come about in the decade following the council. But from the outset Una Voce was blessed with the leadership of the German-born convert from Protestantism Eric de Saventhem—a providential unifier, spokesman, and coordinator of the movement. While for many years he too had received polite but firm replies entreating him and his associates to adopt the “­correct attitude,” his vision was ­nothing less than prophetic. As early as June 1970, speaking as the guest of honor at the annual meeting of Una Voce USA at the Liederkranz Club in Manhattan, de Saventhem would assert:

A renaissance will come: asceticism and adoration as the mainspring of direct total dedication to Christ will return. Confraternities of priests, vowed to celibacy and to an intense life of prayer and meditation will be formed. Religious will regroup themselves into houses of strict observance. A new form of Liturgical Movement will come into being, led by young priests and attracting mainly young people, in protest against the flat, prosaic, philistine or delirious liturgies which will soon overgrow and finally smother even the recently revised rites.

He continued:

It is vitally important that these new priests and religious, these new young people with ardent hearts, should find—if only in a corner of the rambling mansion of the Church—the treasure of a truly Sacred Liturgy still glowing softly in the night. And it is our task, since we have been given the grace to appreciate the value of this heritage, to preserve it from spoliation, from becoming buried out of sight, despised and therefore lost forever. It is our duty to keep it alive: by our own loving attachment, by our support for the priests who make it shine in our churches, by our apostolate at all levels of persuasion.

Darroch gives chapter and verse of Una Voce’s tenacious pursuit of this noble aim, and while at times one may wonder whether his narrative could have benefitted from a further editorial revision, or indeed, in some places, an extra footnote, his work provides an important historical ­testimonial to the slow but real ­progress that was made in the apostolate de Saventhem so clearly outlined in 1970.

The first breakthrough was made by the English. Through the good offices of Evelyn Waugh’s correspondent, Cardinal John Heenan, in 1971, a petition signed by prominent Anglophones, Catholic and non-Catholic alike (including two Anglican bishops) argued that the suppression of the older form of the Mass would be an irreparable cultural loss. Pope Paul VI, said to be particularly moved by the signature, among others, of the novelist Agatha Christie, granted the requested permission for its occasional use—not, however, without provoking the ire of the custodians of “the correct attitude.”

In addition to de Saventhem, four key personalities had a significant impact on further progress (or lack of it). The first two are the French missionary Archbishop Marcel ­Lefebvre and the soon-to-be-­canonized Pope Paul VI. The popular narrative is that ­Lefebvre wanted the old Mass and Paul VI insisted on the new. But greater issues were at stake: ­Lefebvre was gravely concerned at the disintegration of Catholic life and teaching, at the decline in the numbers of priests and religious, and at the direction in which the liturgical reform mandated by the council had gone (he had himself signed the ­constitution on liturgical reform in 1963). The liturgical question had become highly politicized, and in the midst of the widespread post-­conciliar ­theological and pastoral turmoil, including liturgical disobedience and anarchy in some places, the celebration of the older rites was excluded a priori as a matter of obedience and of loyalty to the pope and to the council. Supporters were labeled with the pejorative term ­intégristes and held to be people tied to the past with closed minds who rejected the modern world. The ­older liturgy was regarded as the banner under which such ­ecclesiastical ­reactionaries—­assumed also to be linked ­intrinsically to political ­ intégrisme—would gather. The ongoing clash of wills between the northern Frenchman Lefebvre and the Brescian pope ­resulted in ­Lefebvre’s suspension and the ­further marginalization of those who sought to preserve the classical ­liturgy.

In November 1976, de Saventhem was curtly informed by Archbishop Giovanni Benelli of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, “The Sovereign Pontiff, for grave reasons of which he alone is judge, has thought that he should not dispense any longer from the obligation” of adopting the new Mass. Benelli complained that de Saventhem had “still not understood or admitted that the habitual obedience to the Pope, even when he does not speak ex cathedra, is and has always been an elementary duty for all the sons of the Church,” and advised him “to consult in all humility and serenity a good catechism approved by the legitimate ecclesiastical authority.” Undaunted as ever, de Saventhem replied with a 3,400-word letter (well worthy of study) that asserted most incisively: “The crisis of the liturgy, the crisis of the Mass, most definitely both precedes and transcends the conflict between Rome and Msgr Lefebvre.”

This was a fact well understood by the third of our key figures—Joseph Ratzinger—created a cardinal by Paul VI in 1977 and called to serve as the prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by the new pope, John Paul II, in 1982. Cardinal Ratzinger inherited the “Lefebvre file” under a pope who was by no means as intransigent on the liturgical questions as was his predecessor. Indeed, John Paul II had received Lefebvre in personal audience only weeks after his election and was willing to move forward in areas where Paul VI was not.

The thaw had begun, and Ratzinger worked diligently, though as Darroch demonstrates, “the correct attitude” had many partisans in both the Vatican and in the worldwide episcopate who opposed any concession. Nevertheless, in 1984 Rome gave permission for the use of the older form of Mass throughout the world. Its fine print meant that local bishops, however, could effectively prohibit it if they wished—and very many did.

This opening facilitated further work by Ratzinger toward the regularization of Archbishop Lefebvre’s situation, and the clarification of the legal status of the older liturgy itself. The former almost led to a recon­ciliation in 1988, but years of (perhaps understandable) mistrust of “Rome” led Lefebvre to renege on the signed agreement and incur the penalty of excommunication for the illicit consecration of bishops. The latter—the legal status of the rites—was studied by a special commission of cardinals, whose clear conclusion that the older rites were never legally abrogated was almost promulgated in 1989 by John Paul II, who, in the end, gave in to the fierce opposition of the cardinal presidents of the episcopal conferences of France, Germany, Switzerland, and England and Wales, who flew to Rome for an urgent meeting with the pope so as to prevent any liberalization of the older rites.

Lefebvre’s disobedience ­prompted John Paul II to offer those of ­Lefebvre’s followers who did not wish to break with the Church all that the archbishop had rejected, including the celebration of the older liturgy in its entirety—not just the Mass. One could now be a Catholic in good standing without adopting “the correct attitude.” The wall had been breached. The realization of de Saventhem’s vision had begun.

Among those who could not follow the archbishop after the 1988 consecrations was the fourth key individual, Michael ­Davies, a former soldier, a teacher, and a convert who became a prolific popular author and speaker in defense of liturgical tradition. Elected to the presidency of Una Voce in 1995, Davies moved the organization forward in years that were not as bleak as previous ones, but still not without challenges arising from those who wished to contain at all costs the “damage” caused by the breach opened in 1988.

Davies’s meetings with Ratzinger convinced him that this cardinal did indeed understand what was at stake, and although his hands were tied by a largely hostile Curia, ­Davies trusted Ratzinger. Why? Because Ratzinger did indeed “get it.” In 1997 he would write with his customary insight:

What we previously knew only in theory has become for us a practical experience: the Church stands and falls with the Liturgy. When the adoration of the divine Trinity declines, when the faith no longer appears in its fullness in the Liturgy of the Church, when man’s words, his thoughts, his intentions are suffocating him, then faith will have lost the place where it is expressed and where it dwells. For that reason, the true celebration of the Sacred Liturgy is the centre of any renewal of the Church whatever.

Joseph Ratzinger’s election to the papacy in 2005 as Pope Benedict XVI proved decisive. His 2007 motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum, established the right to the older liturgical rites to all those faithful who request them—regardless of the preference of the local bishop.

Lefebvre, de Saventhem, and Davies did not live to see Summorum Pontificum, but they and countless others—many of whom enjoy their rightful place in Darroch’s history—did all that they could to ensure that the Catholic Church did not in the end dispose of the riches of her traditional liturgy. Frequently they did so at great cost and in the face of an almost abusive contempt from those in authority.

They sowed “in tears,” as the Psalmist sings, but their heirs today—including, as de Saventhem had predicted, significant numbers of faithful and intelligent young people—stand “cum exsultatione, portantes manipulos suos,” joyfully reaping a harvest that has matured steadily, rooted in and fertilized by the faithful perseverance of these heroic lay men and women (see Ps. 126:5–6). Please God the grandchildren of Casini’s farmer are among them.

Dom Alcuin Reid is the founding prior of the Monastère Saint-Benoît in the diocese of Fréjus-Toulon, France.

Photo by Christophe117 via Creative Commons. Image cropped.