Rorate Caeli

Michael Davies to bishop of Fresno in 1976: “My Lord, this is not the action of a good shepherd but a bad bureaucrat”

Now that current Church leaders have adopted the motto of “Back to the 1970s” (who is the 
backwardist?), it is worthwhile to take out and dust off some of the great writings from that period, such as this masterful letter penned by one of the greatest apologists for the TLM, Michael Davies, in response to Bishop Donohoe of Fresno’s vitriolic letter against the traditional Mass. The letter was published in The Remnant on March 20, 1976. Below is a copy of the letter from Bishop Donohoe followed by Davies.

Most Rev. Hugh A. Donohoe,
Bishop of Fresno, California,
February 23, 1976.

My Lord Bishop,

A friend who lives in your diocese has sent me a copy of your letter stating that you are prepared to declare that priests who celebrate, and the faithful who attend, the Tridentine Mass are ‘contumacious’ and will be ‘excommunicated’. We had begun to believe that, in the era of the ‘Spirit of Vatican II, no one could be excommunicated; but now we know, there is one crime in the ‘open Church’ that will not be tolerated, at least in the Diocese of Fresno, the crime of worshipping as our forebears worshipped; the crime of using that form of Mass which Fr Fortescue, the greatest liturgical historian of my own country, tells us “goes back without essential change to the age when it first developed out of the oldest liturgy of all. It is still redolent of that liturgy of the days when Caesar ruled the world and thought he could stamp out the faith of Christ, when our fathers met before dawn to sing a hymn to Christ as God”.

Clearly, my Lord, you think that you can succeed where Caesar could not.

Cranmer, too, thought he could stamp out the traditional Mass. When he replaced it with a new English Communion Service in 1549, the peasants of the west rose up against him and demanded the right to worship once more with the same Latin Mass that their fathers had used.  I would suggest, my Lord, that if you study Cranmer’s methods you could improve upon excommunication. Priests were hung from the church towers  in their Mass vestments for the very act for which you now threaten to excommunicate them; humble peasants were hung in their hundreds because they assisted at the Mass which you, like Cranmer, condemn as “gravely illicit.” But Cranmer could not stamp out the traditional Mass—and you think you can succeed where he failed!

With the reign of Elizabeth came the rack, the hanging, the drawing and quartering—but the reply of the faithful was always the same: “We will have the Mass!” And the Mass they would have was the one codified by Pope St Pius V in 1570, but not a new form of Mass like that promulgated in 1969, but the Mass of the Ages codified, as Pope St Pius V intended, for all eternity. No priest could ever be made to say any other form of Mass, he insisted. But now if a priest uses that Mass in the diocese of Fresno, he will be ‘excommunicated’!

My Lord, forgive me if I seem impertinent, but in my country we have a great devotion to our martyrs; we also know our history. When I read your letter, I could not believe that it was not written by an English bishop of the sixteenth century. “I wish you to make it a matter of conscience to discover if such a Mass is being celebrated in any hall, house, or wherever within the confines of your parish”. These are your exact words.

My Lord, have you no more urgent business to employ your priests upon? Have you, for example, ordered them, as a matter of conscience, to go into their parish schools to discover whether the faith of the children, for whom you are responsible before God, is being corrupted by inadequate or even heretical textbooks?  Have you ordered your priests to discover, as a matter of conscience, whether secularist-humanist sex-education programmes are being used to corrupt the morals of the children in any of your parochial schools? Have you, my Lord, as a matter of conscience, ever attempted to discover whether what few liturgical laws remain are being flouted in your diocese—is Communion being given in the hand? Are unauthorized Eucharistic prayers being used? If you discovered such abuses would you excommunicate those involved? I wonder?

I am quite certain, my Lord, that in a spirit of ecumenism, you would not only NOT excommunicate members of your diocese who take part in Protestant services, but probably encourage them to do so. Can you see no incongruity? You must surely be aware that the Secretariat of Christian Unity issued an Ecumenical Directory in 1967. This Directory not only authorized Catholics to take part in the liturgy of the Orthodox Church on Sundays, but said that this satisfied their Sunday obligation. Yes, my Lord, to take part in the worship of schismatics fulfills our Sunday obligation, but to worship in the manner which has inspired so many saints and has been sanctified by the blood of so many martyrs—this must be punished by excommunication.

My Lord, unless your diocese is unique in the western world, the introduction of the new Mass for pastoral reasons will have been followed by a serious decline in Mass attendance. Thousands of your flock, who assisted at Mass each Sunday before, no longer do so—but they will not be excommunicated. Oh no, my Lord!  Better no Mass at all than the Mass of our fathers.

And please, my Lord, do not say that you have no alternative. Do not say that you are only obeying orders. One thing which has become clear since Vatican II is that the clergy in general and the bishops in particular take the laity for fools. Not all the clergy, of course. There are some who are determined to remain true to the Faith into which they were baptized and to the Mass which they were ordained to offer. Fr. Henri Bruckberger, to mention but one, has written: “Do our bishops take us for idiots? We are as familiar with the relevant documents as they are. We know that the new Mass has simply been authorized and not been made mandatory”. Fr Bruckberger was Chaplain General to the French Resistance, my Lord. He has had ample experience of men who were only obeying orders. I would also remind you, my Lord, that here in England the Tridentine Mass is not absolutely prohibited. It is, of course, celebrated all over the country, in houses and halls, whether the bishops like it or not—but is also celebrated on occasions in churches and in cathedrals, with their blessing, and, I might add, with the full knowledge and consent of Pope Paul VI. What is permitted in Britain could certainly be permitted in the United States.

My Lord, once more without wishing to be impertinent, I would ask you whether you are really clear as to what the word ‘pastor’ really means. If you have not forgotten the Parable of the Good Shepherd, you will remember that in the east a shepherd leads his sheep; he not only leads them, but he loves them; and because he loves them he leads them to green pastures. My Lord, because some of your flock wish to take their spiritual refreshment from the pastures they have always known and loved, you threaten to cast them out from the sheepfold. My Lord, this is not the action of a good shepherd but a bad bureaucrat, a man who believes that the reason for our existence is to be made to obey regulations and that his vocation is to use any means to ensure that this is done.

My Lord, do the basic principles of moral theology no longer apply in the renewed Church? You will certainly have been taught as a seminary student that a legislator should not simply refrain from demanding something his subjects will find impossible to carry out, but that his laws should not be too difficult, too distressing or too disagreeable, and should take account of human frailty. A law can cease to bind without revocation on the part of the legislator when it is clearly harmful, impossible, or irrational. If forbidding faithful Catholics to honour God by worshipping Him in the most venerable and hallowed rite in Christendom does not meet these conditions, it would be hard to imagine anything that did. For a Catholic to contemplate disobedience to his bishop is a terrible thing, but Fr Bruckberger has reminded us of Montesquieu’s dictum: “When one wants only good slaves one ends up with bad subjects!”

My Lord, as a postscript to your letter, you add a suggested petition on behalf of the Jews in Syria, a petition to be used on March 14 in the parishes of your diocese. Might I suggest a similar petition which Catholics elsewhere could use—for, after all, charity begins at home: “That there be an alleviation of the suffering experienced by the Catholics living in the Diocese of Fresno and that they may be free to worship God according to the traditions of their fathers as they desire, let us pray to the Lord.”

I remain, my Lord,

Yours in Domino,
Michael Davies,
London, England.

Michael Davies (1936-2004)