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Michael Davies obituary

27.04.05 by Leo Darroch

Michael Davies

It would be clear to any independent analyst carrying out a study of the Catholic Church in the 20th century that the statistics show a graph rising in all aspects of the Church's life and activity up to the 1960s, then a dramatic falling away from the mid-1960s. That decline continues inexorably to the present day.

The most obvious question that would enter the head of even the most inexperienced analyst would be: "What happened in the Church in the 1960s to cause such a collapse?" Well, the great event of the 1960s, undisputed by supporters and critics alike, was the Second Vatican Council. Its supporters claim it was perhaps the greatest event in the history of the Church; its detractors regard it as the greatest disaster.

How is it that such an event created such a polarisation of opinion? Either something is a success or it isn't. In establishing a conclusion, the clinical analyst relies on hard facts, data. There is no room for sentiment, no allowance for opinion, no acknowledgement of 'the best of intentions'. The only thing that counts is reality.

The problem for the great majority of the laity, despite assurances ranging from the highest echelons of power to the parish pulpits, has been the absence of a sense of reality from our spiritual leaders. From cardinals to curates, our leaders have fed us a diet of liturgical change that has been presented, bizarrely, in every official document, newspaper and pastoral letter as a wonderful renewal.

The fake 'renewal'

This manipulation of the laity began during the Council itself when changes in the Mass were introduced, supposedly for our benefit. The self-appointed 'experts' knew what was best for us. We would be grateful and the Church would embark on a wonderful new era of growth. So much for the theory.

Most of us were in no position, either academically or numerically, to withstand this attack on our faith and liturgical practice, so we were picked off gradually during the 1960s until our worship, liturgy and churches had changed out of all recognition. Even in the great cities such as London, the few who dared challenge the prevailing wisdom were swimming against the harsh tide of modernism. By 1970, we were almost back in penal times with traditional rite Masses being celebrated mostly in private houses and chapels.

In this atmosphere of chaos and despair, Michael Davies emerged from the great body of the laity and became our beacon of hope, our champion of Tradition, and our undisputed leader in the fight back against the liturgical wreckers. But why Michael Davies? What was it about this man that captivated so many traditional lay hearts, yet disturbed so many of our clergy?

Michael Treharne Davies was born in Yeovil, Somerset, on 13 March 1936, to Cyril and Annie Davies (nee Garnworthy). His father, a Welshman, was a Baptist and his mother, who was English, was an Anglican, a member of the Church of England.

Michael attended Pen Mill primary school in Yeovil and later moved to the Yeovil School, which was the local grammar school. Michael was well known as a historian and this love of history dated back to his school days when he won a prize for his knowledge of the British Empire. His mother enrolled him and his younger brother in the choir of St John's Church of England parish church and for a time he became an active member of that church.

On leaving school at the age of 18, Michael joined the Somerset Light Infantry as a regular soldier, taking part in such conflicts as the Malayan Emergency, the Suez Crisis, and the fight against the EOKA campaign in Cyprus. During this army service he was drawn to Roman Catholicism. He was received into the Church and conditionally baptised by Fr Michael McSweeney at St Peter's Catholic Church, Crown Hill, Plymouth, on 17 April 1957.

After leaving the army in 1960, he met a young Croatian girl, Marija Milosh, at the Charles Peguy Centre in the French Church (Notre Dame de France) in Leicester Square, London, and they married in July 1961 at St Mary's, Marnhull, Dorset. Michael attended St Mary's Catholic Training College in Twickenham and qualified as a teacher in 1964. And so were laid the foundations of his great work that followed. From being a soldier in the service of his country he became a soldier in the service of his Church.

Apostolate begins

Maria Davies clearly remembers Michael's first foray into print. In May 1967, the liberal Catholic magazine The Tablet printed an article on the Vietnam War by a priest who made claims about Americans bombing Catholic churches in North Vietnam and killing people on their way to Mass. Michael simply did not believe the story and checked the information. His letter to The Tablet (24 June 1967) proved that the entire article was groundless and based on Communist propaganda.

This insistence on checking information in the search for truth became the cornerstone of everything he produced subsequently. It became a continual source of irritation, and more, to those 'experts' who wished to steamroller the laity into liturgical change that their spurious claims and grand plans were put under the microscope and found, for the most part, to be baseless. Michael's life's work was spent meticulously researching these supposed new insights, this new scholarship, and exposing it to public scrutiny as the ill-founded and destructive movement it was. He had discovered in his late teens and early twenties that the Truth existed in the Catholic Church and he was not prepared to allow anyone to take it away from him or his children.

For Michael, the truth was everything and he was appalled at the way that modernist pseudo-intellectuals and their fellow travellers had infiltrated the Catholic media, the seminaries and the publishing houses, and were introducing a new religion to our churches and schools to the detriment of the faithful. He was equally appalled, that the hierarchies of the world had abandoned their flocks and allowed these 'experts' to peddle their destructive theories unchallenged. Even worse, many bishops actively supported them, while condemning as divisive those Catholics who were not prepared to abandon the faith of their parents and grandparents.

As a schoolteacher and a parent, Michael knew the importance of guiding young minds along the path of truth, especially in matters of the Faith. Initially, he had a degree of enthusiasm for Vatican II but he quickly realised that things were not as he and many others expected. He joined the Latin Mass Society in February 1967 and quickly became actively involved. In October 1968, he addressed a conference in Cambridge and gave a talk on 'Mass and the Under-11s.' Later that month, he spoke in London on 'Children and the Mass.'

He had been a Catholic for only 10 years and a teacher for only four, but he could see immediately the damaging effect the changes would have on the faith of young people. He was to be their champion and he threw himself entirely into the battle. He had written to Cardinal Heenan who had assured him that the entire Mass would never be celebrated in the vernacular. When this eventually happened, Michael felt very let down by the cardinal. Perhaps it was the realisation that the new liturgy was careering out of control that led the cardinal to obtain the 'English indult' of 1970 that permitted the continued celebration of the traditional Latin Mass in England and Wales, albeit under severe restrictions. This was to be Cardinal Heenan's legacy to the Church - and a wonderful gift it proved to be.

The written word

By the early 1970s Michael had already established a reputation for being a formidable defender of the Faith and Tradition. He was forming friendships with other defenders of Catholic Tradition in the English-speaking world, men such as Fr Paul Crane SJ in London, editor of Christian Order, Hamish Fraser in Scotland with Approaches, and Walter Matt in the USA with The Remnant. These three publishers formed a mighty triumvirate in defence of Catholic doctrine and Tradition and, in Michael, they recognised a writer to cherish.

For nearly 35 years, he wrote incessantly and prodigiously for these magazines, in addition to writing for the Latin Mass Society, and later the American Latin Mass magazine. His articles were always the first to be read before all others. In all his writing, Michael encapsulated the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. He was possessed of a wonderful faith that, even in the darkest moments, never wavered; he never lost hope that Tradition would be restored to our altars. Though he criticised endlessly the disastrous reforms inflicted upon the Church, he never resorted to personal abuse of those responsible.

In his first article in Christian Order (October 1972), entitled 'Communion in the Hand', he responded to a strongly-worded editorial in the Catholic Herald of 2 June. It had severely criticised those who opposed the introduction of Communion in the hand, stating it was a traditional Catholic practice. Michael proved that this claim was unjust and inaccurate - yet another early example of the exposure of deception and the establishment of truth.

The major works

By the mid-1970s, the crisis within the Church was deepening. Michael's research on the various novelties being introduced had amassed a huge amount of data on the Council. He found that the great majority of the Fathers had been deceived by the well-orchestrated plans of a clique of European bishops and their liturgical advisers. Michael argued that the Church's attempted headlong rush into unity with other Christian bodies would, in fact, have the opposite effect to that proclaimed and was leading swiftly to the Church 's decline. Thus was born his great trilogy, Liturgical Revolution.

His first volume, Cranmer's Godly Order (1976), examined the Protestant Reformation, what happened and why. His second work, Pope John's Council (1977), was written "to provide an objective and documented explanation of the fact that the Church in the West is disintegrating and that the responsibility for this disintegration must be laid at the door of the Second Vatican Council." His third volume, Pope Paul's New Mass (1980), provided a detailed examination of the development of the Roman rite, the liturgical legislation pouring out from the Vatican during and after the Council, the prayers and rubrics of the new rite of Mass, and the devastating impact of the changes on the Church throughout the world.

Michael had submitted Cranmer's Godly Order to the censor of his diocese for an imprimatur which was refused, despite the censor finding no doctrinal fault with it. An appeal to his archbishop proved fruitless. Such was the prevailing attitude of the authorities to anyone who dared question Vatican II or its 'fruits.' Following this unjust rebuff, he decided there was no point in submitting any more of his work for an imprimatur but ensured that everything he produced was examined by theologians for criticism and amendment where necessary.

In the midst of working on this trilogy, a taxing enough project in itself, Michael became engaged in a spirited defence of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. In 1976, the Catholic Truth Society had published a pamphlet that seriously misrepresented the French archbishop. Michael wrote to the author and suggested he either substantiate or withdraw his allegations, but he refused. This led to a pamphlet entitled Archbishop Lefebvre, The Truth, which was so successful it ran to several reprints. However, Michael decided that the only way to present the full truth about the archbishop would be to write an apologia. This was published in June 1979 as Apologia Pro Marcel Lefebvre. This eventually became Volume One, to be later followed by Volume Two (August 1983) and Volume Three (April 1988).

Growing stature

Such a prodigious feat of writing would have been immense for a full-time author but Michael was first and foremost at this time a schoolteacher with a young family. He was teaching by day and writing by night and at weekends. His wife, Maria, played a vital role in supporting all his activities, a fact that he readily acknowledged. At home he would be so immersed in his writing that Maria did everything else. His meals had to wait until he finished some important paper, and his daily routine seemed to revolve around the times of postal collections. "I must catch the post" was a daily cry as he dashed out of the house. His home in Bromley, southeast London became the centre of the lay traditional movement and he and Maria entertained visitors from all over the world, including many priests and seminarians.

As Michael's reputation grew, so did the demands on his time. Everyone wanted a quote, an article, a lecture, a foreign visit or simply a reply to a letter or an email, of which he received thousands each year. I have a letter from him in April 1982 in which he said he had others to answer written as far back as 1980.

In 1980, he appeared on television in America where he debated the state of the Church with a Fr Joseph Champlin from the Chancery of Syracuse, New York, who served on the bishops' commission on the liturgy. It was heartening to see a layman demolishing one of the leading lights of liturgical reform in such a one-sided debate. From then on, Michael became probably the foremost lay speaker in the USA and was instrumental in the mid-1990s in gathering the miscellaneous traditional groups in the USA into Una Voce America. The Americans took him to their hearts and he was invited back time and time again. With his reputation growing worldwide, his tours took in many European countries, India, Australia and even Nigeria, where he helped with the foundation of a traditional parish.

Dedicated teacher

Given the problems encountered by many other Catholic teachers who were deeply unhappy about the 'new' faith being imposed in schools, it is surprising that Michael suffered no problems in his own schools. Maria Davies said that Michael was an excellent teacher and felt compelled to teach about the knowledge he had acquired. That is why his books are so readable.

He worried about nothing. He wrote his own school plays which were always anti-feminist and with a soft spot for poor husbands. Those who knew Michael will smile at this recollection from Maria who always thought him "a unique individual". When the school inspectors were due, other teachers would spend weeks preparing the children, but Michael would simply give the inspectors a very thin folder and describe it as an inspector-friendly file. It was always his intention to retire early and he would tease the more feminist mothers. In the inspectors' presence, he would urge the children to complain about him so that the inspectors could have him sacked, but the children would say that he was a wonderful teacher, so his grand plan did not bear fruit.

He took great pride in being a primary school teacher. He would talk endlessly about his pupils and had an unstoppable stream of stories about them. He deeply resented that, while he was teaching his pupils the Catholic Faith he had learned as a convert and which had been reinforced at his teacher training college, they were later being exposed to a Catholicism that he did not recognise. That Catholicism had been adapted to the secular spirit of the age and was watered down to be acceptable to everyone, but ended up being rejected by most.

St Matthew recounts how Jesus said that we must not lay up our treasures on this earth, but rather lay them up in heaven. Where your treasure house is, there your heart is too. It was abundantly clear where Michael's heart was. In 1998, a friend complained about a magazine using some photographs without permission. He wrote in reply, "You will not be surprised to learn that I do not in the least share your indignation. I believe that we are in a war about the most important issues in the world, that our enemies are the [he named a bishop] of this world and that if anything that we have written or photographed can be useful to our allies, we should be delighted. I have not only had extensive passages from my books quoted without permission, I have had entire books and pamphlets reprinted or translated into other languages on numerous occasions without being informed. I discovered quite by accident that in one country, five of my full-length books and about 10 of my pamphlets had been published. In every case I have been pleased that my writing has been found useful in fighting the good fight."

Michael truly appreciated that we as individuals were not important. It was the restoration of the traditional liturgy that was paramount and anything that we could do should be focused on this cause.

The Una Voce years

In 1995, Michael Davies was elected President of the International Federation, Una Voce, a position that gave him greater international status and a much higher 'official' profile which allowed him access to the major Vatican departments. It also increased greatly an already taxing workload as, for most of his term of office, he acted as president, secretary and treasurer. Before he stepped down in 2003, he welcomed 14 new associations into the Federation and became a respected visitor to the Congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith, of Divine Worship, and the Ecclesia Dei Commission.

Perhaps his most telling intervention was in 2000 when he informed the commission that moves to adapt the Missal of 1962 to include changes introduced in the 1960s would be rejected in their entirety by the traditional movement worldwide. The proposed moves were dropped.

In addition to his great work with the Una Voce movement, he took part for many years in the annual Chartres pilgrimage and gave lectures every year at the Dietrich von Hildebrand Institute in Italy. He accepted many invitations to functions in small parishes, which he saw as equally important as his international engagements. He was kindness and patience personified to everyone who wished to speak to him but was deeply uncomfortable when compliments were paid to him. He would become embarrassed and change the subject to something such as Welsh rugby (his second religion) or Bryn Terfel, the great Welsh baritone.

But every compliment was thoroughly deserved. He was the master who came out of the liturgical chaos and restored clarity of Catholic teaching on liturgy, doctrine and the ordering of churches. This is why the liturgical establishment disliked him so much: he embarrassed their gurus and he annoyed those bishops who were in thrall to the weird and (not so) wonderful theories of these gurus and implemented wholesale changes on their recommendations. To be publicly exposed as gullible is not an easy medicine to swallow and it is so much easier to attack the messenger than to digest the message.

For those who did not know Michael personally, but only through his writing on Church matters, it would perhaps be easy to imagine him as a dry-as-dust academic fighting some hopeless cause against the might of the Church establishment. A Welsh Don Quixote tilting at the windmills of modern Catholic life, the 'spirit' of Vatican II, renewal and ecumenism. But Michael knew exactly what he was aiming at and his aim was deadly.

To his friends he was the most engaging companion. His breadth of knowledge was staggering and he could converse with authority on music, from pop to polyphony, on films, sport, history and literature. Of great charm and unassuming modesty, equally at home with the smallest child and the most senior cardinal, he was the most magical companion.

The legacy

But his legacy (and what an immense legacy he has left us - 17 full-length books and several dozen booklets and pamphlets) will cheer those who knew him until the end of their days. Those who did not know him personally will be enlightened, educated and sustained by a body of work of truly Catholic genius, a timely antidote to the self-interested, self-serving, shallow delusions of men whose ideas had already been condemned by Pope St Pius X in Pascendi Dominici Gregis over 100 years ago. Michael Davies has been laid to rest, a rest he truly deserved. He once said to me that if he couldn't find a priest to conduct a traditional funeral, then he wished just to be taken to the cemetery. In the event his funeral in Chislehurst, Kent, was a wonderful occasion in the truly Catholic sense. His requiem was celebrated by Fr Martin Edwards, a former pupil of his. When Michael had been laid to rest and the committal prayers had been said, a group of four friends sang over the grave, in Welsh, one verse and a chorus of 'Land Of My Fathers', the Welsh national anthem.

Michael Davies, while being a man hugely admired and respected within the world of traditional Catholicism and known in the corridors of power in Rome, was perhaps relatively unknown to the great majority of Catholic faithful who still attend Sunday Mass. The immensity of the man will only be fully appreciated in the decades to come when his writings will be recognised as the foundation and springboard of the resurgence of the traditional liturgy and faith of the Church.

Perhaps one of the great tributes we can pay him for his service to us and the Church is for each of us who has one or more of his books to lend it to someone who does not know Michael or his work. Make it your apostolate to persuade your parish priest to read his trilogy on the liturgical revolution. It could produce remarkable fruit.

This article first appeared in the magazine Mass of Ages, and is reproduced here with permission.