The Last Letter From London
|EDITOR, The Remnant|
Thirty-three years ago this past June, Michael Davies submitted his first article for publication in these columns. I was five years old at the time. I don’t remember when he wasn’t a vital part of The Remnant family. For well over three decades his “Letter from London” came in month after month and year after year, keeping thousands of post-Vatican II Catholics informed and encouraged during three of the most turbulent decades in the history of the Church.
After waging a two-year battle against cancer, Michael Davies, who was born in 1936, suffered a massive heart attack and died in his home on September 25, 2004. His final “Letter from London” appeared in the September 30th Remnant. That the great man is no longer with us means, among other sad things, that we no longer have the shoulders of a giant on which to stand to peer over the treetops of a perilous post-conciliar forest. With our London correspondent having gone on ahead, we are on our own and, truly, it seems awfully dark down here in the trees without him!
Remembering a Great Man
Over the decades since the close of Vatican II, Michael Davies literally gave his life to the Traditional Catholic counterrevolution. In fact, I wonder if the cancer that consumed his body and the disease that finally stilled his generous heart, weren’t in some measure brought on by a grueling writing and speaking schedule that would have severely taxed a man half his age.
We’ll never know, but what we can be sure of is that he emptied himself completely in service of the Church, and he died in the saddle with his boots on. We also know that he labored for a pittance from the beginning, having consistently refused to accept a regular stipend for his column.
This was hardly out of the ordinary for Michael Davies. In fact, his entire body of work—including twenty full length books, dozens of pamphlets, hundreds of articles, and countless lectures—was, for the most part, a labor of love…love for the Church to which he’d converted, and love for the cause of Tradition that he’d made his own.
He sought neither money nor fame for his Herculean efforts to defend the Bride of Christ. Like the noble knight that he was, he placed his sword—that most able pen—faithfully in Her service until the very end. For him, the battle for Tradition had nothing to do with temporal reward.
First and foremost, at least in his mind, Michael Davies was a grade school teacher. Teaching was his first love and that remained his identity even years after he’d retired from it in 1992. In fact, his last “Letter from London” included proud remembrances of his beloved students—the little girls and boys who long ago had called him, simply, Sir.
In a day and age when credentials and degrees and inflated titles define us more than virtue does, it says so much about Michael Davies that he wished the world to know, simply, that he was a teacher of children.
When I was ten years old I met him for the first time. The memory of that meeting is a bit hazy, of course, but I recall thinking that Welshmen sure “talk funny.” But, he not only talked funny, he was funny—hilariously so.
Imagine our surprise as children when we learned that the “serious Englishman” (a dual inaccuracy at which he, being Welsh and merely raised in England, would twice wince) whom we knew only through the solemn accolades expressed by the adults in our lives was, in fact, one of the most entertaining men we’d ever met.
Even a child could see that Michael Davies was a man who didn’t take himself nearly as seriously as those around him did. His self-deprecating humor, in fact, would become one of his most endearing characteristics. Later on, it became a source of amusement to see him flat out refuse to take fans and critics alike as seriously as they took themselves, or, for that matter, as seriously as they took him.
Especially here in America, his British wit became nearly as celebrated as his unsurpassed scholarship. Whenever he was approached by an admirer who announced that he’d read one or the other of his books, Michael’s pat response always went something like this: “You didn’t! Goodness me, not the whole thing? You must have found it dreadfully boring.”
Praise embarrassed him almost as much as flattery made him visibly nervous. Invariably, he’d use his sense of humor to deflect both.
I don’t know what it was exactly (perhaps gallows humor) but pioneer traditionalists all understood the essential value of humor—my father, Dr. Bill Mara, Hamish Fraser, Father Miceli, Father Urban Snyder, John Senior, even Archbishop Lefebvre himself, and, of course, Michael Davies.
I can remember as a child lying under the piano bench (my favorite “hide out” in those years) in the family living room and listening to them make one sobering observation after another concerning the desperate state of the Church in the immediate aftermath of the Council, and then move seamlessly on to some droll commentary on Bugnini, Montini, Casaroli, Weakland or Hunthausen, which inevitably left everyone in the room in stitches.
What fascinating men they were! Children could hardly help but to adore them. For us, they were giants who lived in faraway lands and spent every waking moment dueling with the enemies of the Church.
They brought Campion and Fisher and More to life before our eyes. They were on fire with love for the Catholic Church, but, and what some tend to forget, they were all so very human—they loved life and knew how to laugh, especially at themselves.
This was true of all of them, but especially Michael Davies. As a child, I practically worshipped him; as an adult and despite occasional disagreements, I respected him more than any other man, save my own father; and now in death I mourn him as I’ve never mourned anyone since my father.
What I keep thinking about now that he’s gone is how much less interesting the world will be without Michael Davies. He was, after all, a sort of man for all seasons in his own right. An accomplished linguist (he spoke several languages fluently), he also loved football and dogs and rugby and movies; he had a fascinating appreciation for history, wars, kings and generals.
And he never met an underdog he didn’t like. He knew more about the War Between the States, for example, than most Americans. I can remember walking along to Chartres one year and listening as he expertly distracted the pilgrims from their pain and exhaustion by explaining why General Robert E. Lee (whom he admired) had lost at Gettysburg— this to the delight of the young pilgrims especially, who learned more about the Civil War that afternoon than they had in years of history classes.
Like most combat soldiers, Michael very rarely spoke of his own military experiences in the Somerset Light Infantry (where he’d fought in the Malayan emergency, the Suez Crisis, and the campaign in Cyprus), apart from admitting that his years in uniform were his happiest.
But he never tired of talking about the exploits of other soldiers, especially famous dead ones…and, sometimes, not so famous ones. There was one story that he liked to tell: One dark night during the War, a German airman suddenly showed up at the back door of his mother’s kitchen, having parachuted quite by accident into her garden. “Being British, what do you suppose my mother did?” Michael would ask with that inimitable twinkle in his eye. “She invited the man in for a cup of tea and then phoned the police and asked them to come ‘round and pack him up.”
In appreciation for the tea, the airman had given little Michael one of his battle medals which, to Michael’s great chagrin, the police “confiscated” when they did finally “come ‘round.”
He loved war songs and would delight in reciting poems from memory about gallant heroes and famous battles, his favorite being Henry V’s speech before the Battle of Agincourt (on St. Crispin’s Day).
If you wanted to know how many French vs. English died in that battle, you only needed to ask. The exact dates and figures were all right there in that keen mind, but he would reel them off in such a way that no one could mistake his purpose: He was genuinely amazed by the lopsided statistics of the famous battle and just naturally assumed that his friends would want to know them.
He didn’t know how to brag, and so he shared his wealth of such knowledge like a child might, with a kind of simple wonder that made everyone listening feel like something new had just then been discovered. Though few could keep up with him intellectually, he made sure that no one ever felt inadequate around him or because of him. Thus, bus drivers, waiters, cabbies and bar tenders were treated like kings. Michael Davies, the Lion of Traditionalism, was an incredibly sensitive man who appreciated very much the little things in life.
I can remember watching the changing of the guard with him at Buckingham Palace in London one year. He asked us if we didn’t agree that the British bearskin hats were “ever so smart looking”. Moments later we had the whole history of the tall, black hats which the British had evidently stolen from the French who had used them to make their armies look taller and more fearsome.
Fascinating stuff, to be sure; but what was amazing about the man was the incredible scope of his knowledge and the ready ease with which he could recall both profound and quirky aspects of it.
One minute it might be bearskin hats; the next, von Hildebrand’s daring escapes from the Nazis; and then Archbishop Lefebvre’s thought process in June, 1988. And, yet, being a huge fan of Bugs Bunny and Lieutenant Columbo, Michael could also wax quite rhapsodic about slightly less pressing matters. He had an uncanny way of communicating with 10-year-olds and intellectuals with equal ease and effectiveness. I found that to be fascinating, especially when I was ten.
Whether the topic was Victor and Veronica Viper hissing in Mrs. Potts’ pit, or the nuances of the rules of rugby, or Peter Pan vs. Winnie the Pooh, or single malt Scotch vs. blended, or the suppression of the Jesuits, or Pope Paul’s liturgical abomination—Michael Davies was in his element. He also possessed that great gift whereby he could connect to his intellectual inferiors in a way that left them convinced he was utterly unaware of any disparity between them. Michael Davies—the great Hammer of the Modernists—was a model of charity.
Since his passing, bittersweet images keep popping up in my mind. Here he’s walking along the muddy roads to Chartres, his Welsh flag in one hand and his rosary in the other; there he’s inside Thomas More’s actual prison cell, chatting with the Captain of the Guard at the Tower of London; teaching some young men in Spain the authentic words to Annie Laurie; exploring the Chapel of the Martyrs deep in the woods of the Vendee; cheering on Wales in a televised rugby match in some pub in the South of France; standing beneath Michelangelo’s dome beside the tomb of St. Pius X; arranging a Tridentine Mass inside Canterbury Cathedral for the first time since the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I; praying the rosary in Fatima; entering the miraculous waters in Lourdes; kneeling in prayer at John Fisher’s cathedral in Rochester; “supporting the Monks” in a café in Monaco; meditating before the statue of the Infant in the city of Prague— and a hundred other Catholic moments, at the center of which is a rather ordinary-looking Welshman in a Jack Daniels sweatshirt or a Pittsburgh Steelers cap.
In these rapidly fading recollections from years gone by, I see Michael Davies teaching…constantly teaching. During the time spent with him in Europe over the past thirteen springs, I often noticed that it was the American children and students in our tour groups to whom he devoted most of his time. That’s the way he was. The world for him was a classroom with something to learn and something to teach around every turn in the road. I think he would rather have spent hours with a troubled fifteen-year-old than minutes with an admirer who’d read all his books and wanted to “talk shop”.
Michael Davies was a natural-born teacher who possessed that unique quality that instructs without condescending, that enlightens without intimidating, and that could impart wisdom in the brief time it takes to raise a glass in a toast. I wasn’t his peer…few men were; but I was his student.
A few hours after I’d heard the sad news of the passing of the great
man, I wrote the following on The Remnant’s web site:
With all my heart I believe this to be true and am convinced that history will concur. In terms of sheer positive impact on souls languishing in a revolution-wracked Church, I can think of no layman who served more loyally or confirmed the brethren more steadfastly. He knew history and he understood the perils of our own time in the context of history.
He also knew that we are presently engaged in a pitched battle against forces of darkness, against which, humanly speaking, we are no match since the Catholic Church has fallen. He knew well that, under such circumstances, even the strongest faith will wither if hope is lost.
And so his tireless task was to keep Hope alive, convinced that a childlike confidence in a good God is the best antidote for the poisons of despair, ambition, presumption and pride that hell has injected into the bloodstream of the modern world.
Like Newman and Chesterton before him, Michael Davies chose this Faith…he wasn’t born into it. And after making that choice, he, like them, dedicated his life to the unflagging defense of its every doctrine and dogma, tenet and creed, rubric and sacred prayer. And this is what we’d do well to always remember about him—he chose to be a traditional Catholic and would have died for that choice.
The former Anglican knew well that Roman Catholics possess the pearl of great price; ours was the religion that successfully carried saints and kings, gentlemen and scholars, soldiers and peasants through this vale of tears for two thousand years since Christ walked with men. We, then, are the fortunate ones…and neither fabricated liturgies nor cockamamie Councils can change that triumphant reality. We have no excuse to abandon Hope!
And so, as Michael always sought to be useful, let’s put his memory to good use. Let’s remember him happily as the mighty lion of Tradition, the jovial son of Wales, the great Catholic who inspired tears of love and tears of laughter, who helped us believe in the only things that really matter, and who kept hope burning bright even in the darkest night. In the end, he showed us how to finish this race, fight the good fight, and keep the old Faith.
With fond remembrance and gladness at having known him and called him friend, we bid adieu and Godspeed to Michael Davies, one of the greatest Defenders of the Faith who ever lived.
Cheers, Sir. Thanks for everything! And, don’t worry—we’ll not forget what you’ve done for us and for our children. As Harry the King might have said, your story shall the good man teach his son. And Tradition shall ne'er go by from this day to the ending of the world.
Even in the few days that have elapsed since his passing, I’ve already seen a variety of published attacks on the memory of Michael Davies, one individual even having had the remarkably bad taste to refer to him as a member of the “unfaithful departed”.
The facts are these: No layman writing in any language did more to alert Catholics to the severity of the post-conciliar debacle and to the necessity of resisting Vatican II’s ecumenism and disastrous “renewal”; his trilogy (Pope John’s Council, Pope Paul’s New Mass, and Cranmer’s Godly Order) was the vehicle for the return to traditional Catholicism of thousands of laymen, hundreds of priests and even a bishop or two.
The pontificates of the post-conciliar popes were for him a source of profound sadness and deepest regret. He believed and he wrote and he said that the new theology, the new liturgy and the new ecumenism were razing the human element of the Catholic Church to the ground—a stark reality which prompted him to adamantly oppose the “conservative” Catholicism which irrationally defended the Council’s regime of novelty for more than thirty years!
True, he didn’t make it his habit to join in reckless bellowing of rash judgments and dangerous opinions that could easily lead to scandal or to simple Catholics questioning the indefectibility of the Church. He also had a keen sense of the awesome responsibility a Catholic writer must live up to, especially one who dares to use his pen to question the successors of the Apostles. For the good of souls, Michael tended to understate rather than overstate. But this was no crime. This was the stock and trade of a British scholar and polemicist!
How shocking it is, then, to see American
“traditionalists”—men and women who owe Michael Davies so
much—actually disparaging the memory of the great defender of
Archbishop Lefebvre, the layman who wrote the book on the problems
with Pope Paul’s Mass, and the columnist who held up the mastheads
of the Angelus and The Remnant through decades of revolution. While
Michael himself would have been the last to take note of such
boorish behavior (let alone defend himself against it), I believe
it’s incumbent upon those who knew him best to put a few words down
in his defense for posterity’s sake.
I have no desire to tinker with any aspect of his long association with The Remnant, including those instances when we didn’t see eye-to-eye. I make no secret of the fact, for example, that I questioned (and still question) Michael’s dogged defense of Cardinal Ratzinger.
Over the years and to Michael’s dismay, I published criticisms of some of the Cardinal’s more perplexing statements. But I can also assure the reader that there was much more to that story. As someone who took issue with him on this very point, I hasten to set the record straight—Michael Davies, through it all, had only the best interest of traditional Catholics at heart.
And here’s what I mean: He firmly believed (and had been assured on numerous occasions) that Cardinal Ratzinger is “on our side” and would do all in his power, short of touching off a schism in Rome, to gradually turn things in Tradition’s favor. All His Eminence required of us was patience and time.
Some of us were (and are) skeptical. But, as Michael saw it, the Cardinal had demonstrated enough good will on our behalf to justify our giving him the benefit of the doubt, i.e., the Cardinal’s foreword to Msgr. Gamber’s book; the Cardinal’s historic rehabilitation of Pat Morely and the Honolulu Six who had been placed under interdict for “formal adherence” to the SSPX; the Cardinal’s public celebration of the Tridentine Mass on occasion; the Cardinal’s willingness to meet personally with traditionalists, etc.
Whether we can bring ourselves to accept the Cardinal’s assurances that he is “on our side” is not at issue. What is at issue is that Michael believed that the Cardinal believed he was our ally. His great “sin”, then, was to take his friend, the Cardinal, at his word; but this was very much the British thing to do.
There was no conspiracy or dark and dastardly plotting going on behind the scenes. Michael simply believed, based on private meetings with His Eminence (to which none of us was privy, by the way), that the Cardinal would prove an invaluable ally to us all. What of it? Wouldn’t it be grand!
In the grand scheme of things as well as in the light of eternity, this can hardly be deemed an unforgivable offense. And, after all Michael Davies did for his fellow Catholics and the restoration of the old Mass throughout the world, it is absurd to suggest that his loyalty to the Cardinal could in any way undermine his place in history as the great defender of Tradition during the aftermath of Vatican II.
And, besides, who among us would balk at the prospect of facing the Divine Judge knowing that the most serious charge that could be leveled against us in life was that we had harbored an inordinate loyalty to the head of the Holy Office?
Furthermore, to anyone who was paying attention, it was obvious that Michael Davies had a “back-up plan”. Never once did he cease writing for the most “radical rag” in all of Traditionalism—The Remnant—even after we’d published “We Resist You the Face”, which Michael suggested I send to every bishop in the United States.
Year after year, he very publicly joined The Remnant chapter on the road to Chartres, even acting as guide for Remnant tours in Europe. He spoke at every Remnant Forum ever convened. And when it became clear that he didn’t have long to live, it was here to St. Paul—to The Remnant—that he traveled (at his suggestion) in order to bid farewell to his many American friends. It was on that same historic evening, in fact, that he expressed his firm conviction that Archbishop Lefebvre would one day be canonized—an electrifying moment that brought down the house in a thunderous standing ovation.
Michael Davies’ loyal stand with The Remnant infuriated those centrists who preach a “reasonable” and “balanced” traditionalism (based primarily on liturgical “preferences”) and who believed that his alliance with such dangerous “extremists” as us was detrimental to Una Voce’s prestige here and abroad.
But he paid little attention to this. Instead, he labored to strike a balance that he hoped would, in the long run, benefit the greatest number of abandoned traditional Catholics and their children. He worked diligently in the present but never took his eye off the future.
To the further consternation of his “reasonable” friends, he consistently supported the Society of St. Pius X, insisting publicly that attendance at SSPX Masses was permissible and that the SSPX could not be considered schismatic.
He maintained close relations with many if not most of the priests of the SSPX. And, back in January of 2004, I myself drove him from St. Paul to Winona (a grueling trip for a man in his condition) so that he could deliver two unforgettable lectures to the priests and seminarians of St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary.
One of Michael’s last published letters was to Father Patrick Perez in which he encouraged Catholics in California to attend the Tridentine Mass at the traditionalist independent chapel of Our Lady Help of Christians, and to have nothing more to do with the Latin Novus Ordo at St. Mary’s By the Sea.
How do you suppose that one went over in Rome? Probably about as well as this did from Michael’s Liturgical Time Bombs in Vatican II in 2002:
Michael maintained good relations with the Fraternity of St. Peter, the Institute of the Christ the King and the other approved priestly orders. He believed in at least trying, again, for the sake of the souls of the faithful, to bring traditionalists closer together in order to help each other weather this post-conciliar storm.
And yet, lest anyone mistake that effort for the swapping of principle for a tenuous unity, let us remember that Michael Davies, to the bitter end, remained a fierce critic of the New Mass, which he refused to attend and which he considered an abomination; he lambasted Vatican II for the reign of terror that it had imposed on the Church; and he frequently stated in public that, thanks to Vatican II, the New Mass and the disastrous current pontificate, the Church today is well beyond crisis and, humanly speaking, well beyond hope…
Little things? Yes, if your only forum is some lame website in cyberspace. But for a high-profile traditional Catholic, the president of an international federation, a renowned international author, and one who was regularly granted private audiences with some of the highest ranking prelates in the Church (despite his Remnant by-line)—those “little things” spoke volumes.
Michael Davies was a man who demonstrated that leadership involves knowing when to advance as well as when to hold the ground. And hold his ground he did, even while extremist traditionalists rushed past him, leering at him and mocking his “centrism”, just before they overran the front line and rushed straight off the battlefield into the fever swamps of irrelevancy—precisely where the Modernist revolutionaries wanted all Traditional Catholics to wind up… out of the Church and well out of their way.
Neo-Catholics, envious of his accomplishments in favor of a cause they’d declared “dead and buried” decades ago, will no doubt try to turn Michael Davies against the movement he championed; the tiny fringe of fever-swamp traditionalists will try to condemn him for failing to come down with the fever and start his own church or crown himself pope; but the vast majority of Traditional Catholics know exactly where he stood and what he did for the Church and for hundreds of thousands of souls.
These little jabs by little men will be forgotten soon enough. History knows the truth about Michael Davies, and so do we. And we will not forget.
Any one who is fortunate enough to be worshipping regularly at the Tridentine Mass these days may see fit to consider that, were it not for the groundwork of Michael Davies, there may not be many such Masses left to attend anywhere in the world.
Would it not be right and fitting, then, for each
of us to vow here and now to have one such Mass offered for the
repose of his soul? I can think of no more fitting way to repay the
debt we owe the man who spent thirty-five years teaching us about
the “most beautiful thing this side of heaven” and showing us all
how to keep ourselves and our children on the narrow path that leads
to everlasting life…despite the Revolution of Vatican II.