Evelyn Waugh did not love the splendour of a high Mass but rather a priest’s humble absorption in a low Mass

Evelyn Waugh and his wife pictured in 1950 (Photo: PA)

I have just been dipping into Roads to Rome: A Guide to Notable Converts from Britain and Ireland from the Reformation to the Present Day, compiled by John Beaumont, published by St Augustine’s Press, South Bend, Indiana, and with an introduction by Joseph Pearce. It includes a long entry on Evelyn Waugh who was received into the Church by Fr Martin D’Arcy at Farm Street on September 29 1930. I mention this because I see in today’s copy of The Catholic Herald a long article on page 8 by Joseph Pearce, entitled “Waugh’s ‘bitter trial’ bears fruit at last”.

In Roads to Rome, the entry on Waugh includes a quote from an article he wrote in the Herald for August 7 1964: “I am old now but when I was young I was received into the Church. I was not at all attracted by the splendour of her great ceremonies – which the Protestants could well counterfeit. Of the extraneous attractions of the Church which most drew me was the spectacle of the priest and his server at low Mass, stumping up to the altar without a glance to discover how many or how few he had in his congregation; a craftsman and his apprentice; a man with a job which he alone was qualified to do. That is the Mass I have grown to know and love.”

Waugh’s dislike of the post-conciliar Church and the subsequent changes to the liturgy is well known so I won’t rehearse it here. What interested me in the above quote was learning that Waugh’s love of the Tridentine rite was not a matter of loving the solemn splendour of a high Mass, as I had always supposed; it was simply the priest’s humble absorption in the rite of a low Mass.

A further quote in the same entry, from The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, confirms this: “Easter 1965: A year in which the process of transforming the liturgy has followed a planned course… A minority of cranks, for and against the innovations, mind enormously. I don’t think the main congregation cares a hoot. More than the aesthetic changes which rob the Church of poetry, mystery and dignity, there are suggested changes in Faith and morals which alarm me…”

Of course I am quoting out of context and there is much more to be said about Waugh’s attitude. But when I read the article on page 8 by Joseph Pearce in today’s Herald I did experience a small amount of disquiet. The large colour photo illustrating the text shows the celebration of a Tridentine high Mass, with the caption, “Mass in the Extraordinary Form is increasingly common in the English-speaking world. ‘We are beginning to see the restoration of the liturgy for which Waugh hoped and prayed.’” (The quotation here is also the concluding sentence to Pearce’s article.)

This begs many questions: is Pearce hoping for the restoration of the Extraordinary Form as the “proper” form of the Mass, rather than the Ordinary Form? Would Waugh also “be delighted if he were alive today” (as the headline states), to attend a low Mass in the Ordinary Form, celebrated properly in the new translation of the liturgy? I am with William Oddie here, in his excellent blog on Wednesday on the new CTS Sunday Missal, with its hope that liturgical quarrels are now a thing of the past and its implicit assumption that the Ordinary Form, reformed and renewed, is the norm for Sunday worship by Catholics. I like to think that we might again see a priest “stumping up to the altar” to concentrate self-effacingly on his unique task, yet this time reverently enunciating the more accurate and awe-inspiring wording of the new translation – and that Evelyn Waugh might have approved.