Rorate Caeli

“What the Fathers and Saints valued and defended, we also feel called to value and defend”: Interview with Dr. Joseph Shaw

The following interview first appeared in the pages of the latest issue (no. 15, Winter 2021) of Calx Mariae, a beautiful journal published by Voice of the Family. Rorate Caeli is grateful for VOTF's permission to republish it here for the benefit of our readers, whom I would encourage to subscribe to the print publication.  

Calx Mariae: Congratulations on your election as President of the Una Voce Federation. For people who dont know about the Federation how would you describe it to them?

Joseph Shaw: The first lay association set up to defend the Church’s ancient liturgy was Una Voce France in 1964. Other national associations followed, usually called the “Una Voce” or “Latin Mass Society” of their countries. In 1965 a Federation of such groups was established, the Foederatio Internationalis Una Voce (FIUV: Una Voce International, or the Una Voce Federation), with six members; today it has more than forty. The Federation is able to represent in Rome and to the media the needs and concerns of our member associations from all over the world.

As a grouping of lay-led associations, we are able to say and do things, publicly, which religious, clerics, and priestly associations cannot. But we are not simply key-board warriors: we represent people who are at the coal-face of organising Masses, negotiating with bishops, singing and serving and teaching Latin and so on. This means that we have a very realistic view of what can and cannot be done, what helps and what does not help, of the need for quiet diplomacy as well as public gestures.

When we heard last year that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith were surveying bishops about the implementation of Summorum Pontificum, the document of Pope Benedict XVI which eased restrictions on the older Mass in 2007, we conducted a survey of our own so that the laity attached to this liturgy could also have their feelings known in Rome. We had responses from 55 countries, and detailed reports from 366 dioceses.

In the Letter which accompanied Summorum Pontificum Pope Benedict noted that the question of adding extra Prefaces to the 1962 Missal, and making it possible to celebrate saints canonised since the last revision of its calendar in 1960, needed to be looked into, with reference also to “various bodies devoted to the usus antiquior”. We were formally included in this consultation, and were able to comment on early drafts of both proposals.

With a view to these and other ways in which the older Missal might be changed, and also simply to explain its more puzzling aspects and set out ways in which it can make a contribution to the life of the Church, we published 33 short “Position Papers”, which have now been published as a book: The Case for Liturgical Restoration (Angelico Press, 2019).

CM: The publication of Traditionis Custodes in July means you are taking up the presidency at a difficult time. Interest in the “old Mass” has seen remarkable growth in recent years, will it be possible for that to continue given the Holy Sees apparent hostility?

JS: The lack of celebrations for people to attend is obviously an obstacle to people discovering the Traditional Mass, but over the years it is remarkable how people have become interested in it despite difficulties in attending it. The Covid epidemic had the result that many people, forced to watch Mass online, found out what the ancient Mass was like and sought it out when restrictions on churches were lifted.

Those who have discovered it, particularly before Summorum Pontificum, often had the sensation that they were discovering some family secret that the older generation for some reason didn’t want to talk about: but not a dark secret, a lost treasure. Today it is incomparably easier to find than it was in 2007 or earlier, both online and in the real world, so there will be an added paradox. Without minimising the harm which will be done in some places by the ending of long-established regular celebrations, the experience for many Catholics will be one of being mysteriously forbidden to look inside a cookie-jar which, far from being hidden away on a high shelf, is open right in front of you on the table.

CM: The annual Summorum Pontificum pilgrimage took place at the end of October. As President of Una Voce, what are your thoughts on the pilgrimage this year? How did the atmosphere compare with previous years?

JS: In 2020 some events took place despite the Covid restrictions, but numbers were limited and travel was difficult. This year, although travel difficulties continued for some, numbers exceeded those in 2019. I had the sense in Rome, as I had in recent Latin Mass Society events in England, that not only were people glad to be able to attend face-to-face gatherings again, but that they were determined to show their support for the Traditional Mass following Traditionis Custodes.

This document seems to say that we should not exist: we faithful Catholics who want to live in unity with the Pope and be sustained in the Faith by the Church’s own ancient liturgical forms. On the other hand, Pope Francis let us have High Mass in the Chapel of the Throne in St Peter’s in Rome, and to use other churches for other liturgies, so he remains hard to read.

Traditional Catholics are, sadly, used to inconsistent and ambiguous messages from people in authority, and even to hostility. Without ignoring the changing political context in which we work, we take our lead from the Fathers and the Saints. What they valued and defended, sometimes with their lives - like the English and Welsh Martyrs of the 16th and 17th centuries - we also feel called to value and defend.
Solemn Mass in the Vatican Basilica, October 2021

CM: People familiar with Una Voces work associate it with Catholic tradition and the restoration of Christian civilisation and culture. But what is the ideal that Una Voce is striving for, what would success look like?

JS: The aim of the Una Voce movement is simple: the restoration of the ancient Mass to the Church’s altars. This need not imply the disappearance of other liturgical forms. Pope Benedict thought that the attempt to stamp out the older Mass was a mistake, and it is surely not unreasonable to agree with him. Catholics should be able to discover it, he said: and that means it needs to be widely available.

We also want celebrations of the liturgy to be as reverent and solemn as possible, and for as many people as possible to be moved to attend them. As already noted, this is what most of the practical work of Una Voce groups consists in: singing, serving, mending vestments, cleaning churches, organising pilgrimages, arranging training for people in different roles, and advertising events, and answering questions about the Usus Antiquior in accordance with our abilities and expertise.

The laity has always been involved in the liturgical life of the Church, and the Una Voce movement continues the tradition of the numerous guilds and sodalities which have supported the worthy celebration of the liturgy over the centuries.

The liturgy is not the whole of Catholic culture, but it is an indispensable and fundamental component of it. This means that the restoration of the Traditional liturgy has further implications for Catholic life and culture.

CM: The proverb “Lex Orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi” suggests that how we pray is the basis of what we believe and how we live. How is the public worship of the Church to shape our understanding of doctrinal issues and the moral life of the laity?

JS: The ancient Mass is associated with a more counter-cultural, more penitential, and more incarnated way of living the Catholic Faith than is typical among Catholics today. To take a trivial example, it is an unusual Novus Ordo-attending family which says Grace before meals, but it would be equally unusual for a Traditional Mass-going family not to say Grace. This contrast carries over to belief in various Catholic teachings, a willingness to accept a larger number of children, and being prepared to adapt one’s life - what job to do, where to live, how to dress - to one’s religious obligations, the need to educate one’s children in the Faith, and so on.

I do not believe that this is simply because the Vetus Ordo attracts Catholics who are more orthodox than the average. It does attract them, but if you talk to Catholics who attend this Mass you quickly find others who have been drawn to it from all kinds of background: the lapsed, atheists, people involved with the New Age or other religions, and many who received only a nominally Catholic upbringing, to whom this Mass was an extraordinary revelation. As they get to know the Mass, it very often has a profound effect on them.

This is in part to do with an inner conversion stimulated by the graces of the Sacraments and liturgical prayer. Another aspect is the sense of continuity with the past which the ancient Mass makes possible.

Discontinuity is such a feature of the Church today that classical Catholic literature and art have become all but incomprehensible to many Catholics, and for this reason children’s books about the saints sometimes present a weirdly distorted picture of the liturgy and spirituality of the past. Catholics who have become used to the ceremonies and prayers of the ancient liturgy find themselves much more at home in the world of the great spiritual writers and theologians, who took part in the same, or very similar, liturgy, in past centuries, back to the time of the Fathers of the Church, in whose age and in whose spirit many of the texts of the ancient Mass were composed.

Catholics who attend the older Mass are not only reconnected with the Fathers: the sense of continuity also encourages them to learn from the responses to modern problems offered by the Popes of the century before the Council. This was a period of intense activity in the Church which has, with the partial exception of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, fallen into a kind of memory-hole for many in the Church today.

All this contributes to a more intense, more militant living of the Faith, which has given Traditional Catholics the strength to persevere when even their own bishops and priests have made them feel distinctly unwelcome. As governments around the world seem to be making the living of a Catholic life increasingly difficult, this spirituality will be even more valuable. Far from being a spirituality suited only to members of some secure and prosperous Catholic community of an idealised past, it is, as our predecessors found it, a spirituality for the marginalised and the persecuted.
CM: How do the aims of Una Voce relate to the family?

JS: The Traditional Mass has always been associated with families, and as Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos expressed it, “families blessed with many children”. The summary report of the French Bishops on the progress of the ancient Mass in their country notes that it is requested by “young people and large families”.

The practicalities of family life and the question of how to pass on the Faith to our children are therefore never far from our thoughts. Those of us - like me - baptised and educated as Catholics without access to the older Mass are acutely aware of the failures of the typical post-Conciliar approach to these questions. On the other hand, we can see how our own children respond to the Mass and traditional devotions.

In her novel, The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin, it is the children who brought one of the central characters, “the man in the wingchair”, not only to the Mass but back to the Faith, having discovered it themselves. This may sound strange but it is based on a real phenomenon. I recently met a father of a family in Rome who said he’d found the older Mass quite difficult at first, but his children had insisted on persevering with it in preference to the alternatives. In a different way, one mother I know told me the Vetus Ordo was the only place in Rome where her less-than-perfect small children did not attract rude remarks from other, ageing, members of the congregation.

Our experience is that children and the Faith should precisely not be treated as a special problem, in need of a special solution. Catholic adults go to Mass; when they have children, they naturally take them with them. Adults believe the Faith, and they naturally pass it on: using catechisms suited to their children’s age, of course, but the same in content with what the adults believe. Presenting the Faith in a dumbed down, childish way, away from the grown-ups, is a recipe for creating the impression that it is something suited only to children. In the traditional milieu, the Faith is something you grow up into, not something you grow out of.

Young people entering university and the world of work frequently come under intense pressure to give up on the Faith, and no programme of spiritual preparation can guarantee that they will not succumb to this. But the lapsed children of traditional Catholics will at least have some idea of the Faith they left, and of the spiritual power of the Mass. The typical young “lapsed Catholic” would struggle to tell you what the Incarnation is, and their outstanding memories of Mass may be of acute boredom, or even of embarrassment.

CM: What are the main obstacles to your work and what can be done to overcome them?

JS: Apart from ideological opposition by some older clergy and laity, a miasma of suspicion about the old Mass has lingered in some places even after Summorum Pontificum in 2007: the idea that it just isn’t part of the Church’s preferred menu of options. Sadly this sense is likely to intensify once again in the wake of Traditionis Custodes, and its very vagueness makes it difficult to oppose. The key factor in undermining this kind of opposition is the process that has taken place since 2007 of the Usus Antiquior becoming a normal and familiar part of the life of the Church.

Apart from that, I would say that the biggest limitations have been two: the lack of Latin among priests, and their lack of time. It can seem impossible to add a Traditional Mass to the parish timetable if the priest is covering several parishes due to the shortage of clergy.

There is not much we can do directly about the lack of priests - though the movement produces many vocations - but we can respond to the Latin problem with training courses. Over the years there have been various residential courses sponsored by Una Voce groups, and online courses are now becoming widespread. Una Voce groups also arrange training in the celebration of the Mass itself.

Among the laity, since 2007 it has remained the case that most Catholics are completely unaware that the ancient liturgy is allowed: some don’t even know that it exists. Chance encounters and word of mouth are major ways it gets discovered, and a priest taking it up in a new location can open up a whole new market for it. Consistently getting helpful or simply intriguing information or viewpoints into sections of the press or social media read by Catholics not already aware of the Vetus Ordo is a huge challenge, with many media channels remaining quite negative about it. At the same time one may wonder how many Catholics read their output - the UK has lost three of its four Catholic weekly newspapers in recent years.

Post-Traditionis Custodes, the number of places where the bishop is the key obstacle to a more widespread celebration of the old Mass is going to grow again, but the other limitations remain in place. The movement is vastly more sophisticated today than it was ten years ago, and beautiful photographs, well-produced videos, and carefully-argued books have been pouring out, explaining, demonstrating, where necessary arguing, and changing negative perceptions about the Mass. This is an area where quantity is almost as important as quality. To get a message across in the crowded market-place of ideas, you need to say it over and over again.

Some years ago I was told that a picture-editor of a conservative Catholic publication was asked to find some images of the Mass. He was not a Catholic, but he looked online and included the nicest ones he could find. The publication was subsequently criticised because a majority of these were of the Traditional Mass. The picture editor had no idea that he was touching some kind of third rail, and nor do many people, Catholic or not, who encounter the vast output of photographers, artists, and writers attached to the ancient Mass. It is important to recognise the effect of this work taken as a whole.
A recent LMS pilgrimage to Walsingham

CM: The uncompromising tone adopted by Traditionis Custodes, and then by the directives for the diocese of Rome, took many people by surprise but what is the appropriate response to it? What should the bishops, priests and laity do, each on their own level?

JS: The Federation re-published the Canonical Guidance I put together at first for the Latin Mass Society, with input from some experienced Canon lawyers, to try to thrash out exactly what room for manoeuvre it allows. To those bishops and priests who believe, as we do, that it would be pastorally harmful to close down celebrations, to ignore needs expressed by the Faithful and the desire of priests to make the older Mass part of their spiritual lives, we are able to say that Traditionis Custodes is not as prescriptive as may at first appear. Life can go on, without entering into conflict with the Pope or the law of the Church.

Pope Francis himself seemed to be eager to dampen down concerns that Traditionis Custodes was an aggressive and destructive act, when he spoke to a Spanish radio station, COPE, in September, and when he spoke to some French bishops on an ad limina more recently.

It is more difficult for priests who have a hostile bishop. These must find ways to negotiate whatever complex situations they find themselves in. We would like to emphasise, nevertheless, that Pope Francis has not claimed to have abrogated the older Missal, and private celebrations remain perfectly legitimate. To say otherwise is just an unfortunate misunderstanding.

CM: How can people find out more about the Una Voce Federation?

JS: We have a website ( and a magazine (Gregorius Magnus, twice a year). Every two years we have a General Assembly, usually in Rome, but online in 2021 due to Covid, part of which is open to the public.

Those who wish to can become “Friends” of the Federation, and we have regular Masses said for our benefactors, both living and dead.

I would encourage everyone to get involved in their local Una Voce/ Latin Mass Society groups, make sure they are affiliated to the Federation, and establish new local groups if necessary. Priests who celebrate ancient Mass, whether they are diocesan clergy or members of the Traditional Institutes, need the support of the laity: not just their money, but informed laity in stable associations doing practical things to support the Mass on the ground, consistently representing to bishops their pastoral needs. It is essential not to limit one’s activism to arguing on social media. The Una Voce movement gives us an opportunity to make a practical difference for good, and at the same time to gain an understanding of how things work in the Church: the relationships, the ideology, and the politics. With our feet firmly planted in the complex realities of Church life at the local level, and sustained by the ancient liturgy itself, we can make a difference for good.

Joseph Shaw is well known to the readers of Rorate. In October this year, Dr Shaw was elected President of the Una Voce Federation, the lay movement that promotes and defends the Traditional Latin Mass worldwide. Dr Shaw has a PhD in Philosophy from Oxford University, where he also currently teaches. He has published on Ethics and Philosophy of Religion and has edited The Case for Liturgical Restoration: Una Voce Position Papers on the Extraordinary Form (Angelico Press). He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and the father of nine children.