CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (CNS) — A Harvard University student group’s plan to conduct a satanic ritual “black mass” May 12 on campus brought a public outcry, leading to its formal cancellation and an apparently impromptu off-campus version of the event, as well as a well-attended alternative Catholic holy hour.
The planned event had drawn wide criticism from religious leaders as well as students, alumni and faculty at Harvard.
As the organizers of the black mass scrambled to find an off-campus venue for their event, an estimated 2,000 Catholics and others gathered at the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology before a eucharistic procession down Massachusetts Avenue to join the holy hour at St. Paul’s Catholic Church.
Fr. Michael E. Drea, the senior Catholic chaplain at Harvard, thanked the participants in the holy hour, saying the light of Christ, represented by an Easter candle on the altar, invited believers to joy and peace in union with God.
“And that, my friends, is why we are here tonight praying, with trust and worship, in the presence of our risen savior under the appearance of bread,” Fr. Drea said. A threat to the Eucharist in an act of sacrilege “demands our prayerful and firm response,” he said.
Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley had told reporters May 12 that the archdiocese and the Catholic community took offense to the planned black mass but that “we have no way to prevent it other than to try and explain to people how evil this is,” he said.
The cardinal said one could find out why it offends Catholics simply by looking up the phrase “black mass” on Wikipedia.
“A black mass is a ritual performed as a sacrilegious parody of the Roman Catholic Mass,” the first sentence of the Wikipedia entry read.
“That says it all,” the cardinal said. He added that he was disappointed in Faust’s statement, saying he hoped she would ask the group not to perform the ritual on university property.
Harvard University President Drew Faust had said earlier that she would attend the holy hour “to join others in reaffirming our respect for the Catholic faith at Harvard and to demonstrate that the most powerful response to offensive speech is not censorship, but reasoned discourse and robust dissent.”
Afterward, Faust told The Pilot, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston, that she felt welcomed at the holy hour, and that she saw it as an important moment for the community to be together.
Faust’s statement called the club’s decision to sponsor such an enactment “abhorrent; it represents a fundamental affront to the values of inclusion, belonging and mutual respect that must define our community. But she said she would not cancel or ban the black mass.
“The decision to proceed is and will remain theirs,” she said of the student group. Faust added, “It is deeply regrettable that the organizers of this event, well aware of the offense they are causing so many others, have chosen to proceed with a form of expression that is so flagrantly disrespectful and inflammatory.”
Harvard’s student newspaper, The Crimson, reported late May 12 that the Harvard Extension School Cultural Studies Club dropped its sponsorship of the re-enactment of the satanic ritual shortly before it was scheduled to take place in the on-campus Cambridge Queens Head Pub. The club first announced that afternoon that the event would be held off campus, then that it was canceled altogether.
The newspaper quoted an email from the club saying “misinterpretations about the nature of the event were harming perceptions about Harvard and adversely impacting the student community,” and led to the decision to move it off campus. The paper said negotiations with the alternative venue subsequently fell through. The 50 or so people who had gathered for the event then organized a scaled-down version at a nearby restaurant and lounge.
“As the university attempts to veil this ‘presentation’ under the guise of ‘academic freedom and expression,’ people of good will recognize it for what it truly is: an act of hatred and ridicule toward the Catholic Church and her faithful,” Fr. Drea said a few days earlier.
In a letter published May 12 in the Crimson, the Rev. Luther Zeigler, president of the Harvard chaplains, said: “We do not think the issue presented here is primarily one of academic freedom. Just because something may be permissible does not make it right or good. Whether or not these students are entitled to express themselves through the ceremony of a black mass as a matter of law or university policy is a distinct question from whether this is a healthy form of intellectual discourse or community life. We submit it is not.”
Rev. Zeigler, an Episcopal priest, added: “We urge the student organizers of the black mass to reconsider going forward with this event. If the event does go forward as planned, we would urge the rest of the community not to dignify it with your presence.”
The Harvard student group promoting the black mass — said to be an “inverted” re-enactment of the Catholic Mass — was working with the New York-based Satanic Temple, a group known for promoting controversy such as pushing to have a Satan statue built outside the Oklahoma Capitol.
While one of the concerns raised about the event was that participants would desecrate a consecrated host, Boston newspapers quoted representatives of the Satanic Temple saying it had not obtained one.
The Boston Globe said the sponsoring club had said the event “was meant to be educational, not offensive.” The paper quoted a spokesperson for the group as asserting that many satanists are animal rights activists, vegetarians and artists with a strong sense of community.
Aurora C. Griffin, a university senior who is former president of the Harvard Catholic Student Association and co-founder of the Harvard Daughters of Isabella, presented Faust with a petition opposing the re-enactment signed by 60,000 people, including many Harvard students and alumni.
“The Harvard Cultural Studies program claims to emphasize the ritual’s history. Historically, the ‘black mass’ mocks religious beliefs, defiles sacred items and symbols, and purposely insults the spiritual sensitivities of Harvard’s Catholics, Christians and other people of faith,” Griffin said in a letter accompanying the petition.
— Contributing to this story was Christopher S. Pineo in Braintree.