Evelyn Waugh’s Ash Wednesday in New Orleans

On the occasion of the first day of Lent (or Ash Wednesday) in the Western Christian church, the Jesuit journal America has reprinted a 1955 article about its association with the carnival known in the French speaking world as Mardi Gras and celebrated to much acclaim in the city of New Orleans. This was observed last week on 14 February. The America article was by John Hazard Wildman and stated in part:

And so it is good to stand on Canal Street in New Orleans and watch the Carnival parades go by. And it is good to know that this all got started because New Orleans was and is a Catholic city. … Sometimes, [Mardi Gras events] can be a busman’s holiday—as when, for instance, I, an English professor, went down to escape from “all that” and found that the night’s subject was “The Plays of Shakespeare.” Sometimes, you seem to have seen it all before. … But Evelyn Waugh noticed (as many have before and since) the doors of the Jesuit church just off Canal on Baronne Street and the crowds that go through them on Ash Wednesday morning. He wrote (as no one else could) how Carnival and Ash Wednesday establish the long extent of men’s joys in this world and their definite, impassable limit. And certainly Catholics, who should be in the very best sense of the term realists, should be aware of the legitimate joys of this world which go far beyond the joys of Carnival and yet of which Carnival itself is a paradoxically noisy-humble part.

Waugh was in New Orleans for Ash Wednesday in 1949 (2nd March) as a stop on his lecture tour of the Eastern United States. He wrote about the religious observance of the day in his article for Life magazine entitled “The American Epoch in the Catholic Church” where he described “one of the most moving sights of my tour”:

Ash Wednesday; the warm rain falling in streets unsightly with the draggled survivals of carnival. The Roosevelt Hotel overflowing with crapulous tourists planning their return journeys. How many of them knew anything about Lent? But across the way the Jesuit church was teeming with life all day long; a continuous dense crowd of all colours and conditions moving up to the altar rails and returning with their foreheads signed with ash. And the old grim message was being repeated over each penitent: “Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.” (EAR, p. 382).

Waugh delivered his lecture the following day on the subject “Three Catholic Writers: G K Chesterton, Ronald Knox and Graham Greene” at the Poché Theatre on Canal Street sponsored by Loyola University.

Meanwhile, a Roman Catholic website (The Rad Trad) has cited Waugh in a reposted 2013 article about the influence of Pope Pius XII on Pope Paul VI. This is in the context of the recent canonizations of Paul XXIII and JohnPaul II as well as consideration of imminent sainthood for Paul VI. Others have suggested why not include Pius XII given his influence on Paul VI. The blogger warns:

readers of a traditionalist bent … to remember why [Pius XII’s] canonization should be opposed: because of what he actually did during his pontificate, not because of what secular media mindlessly repeating the accusation of Rolf Hochhuth merely think he did. At the time of his death Pius XII made the Church more vulnerable to the world and to poor leadership than any pope since Leo X.

 The blogger cited Waugh’s position on this point from his earlier post:

Lastly there is the liturgical question. Pope Paul [VI] stated explicitly in his bull Missale Romanum, which introduced the new ordinary of the Mass to the Roman rite of the Church, that this new praxis was the culmination of a renewal process which began under Pius XII. Given Montini’s [Paul VI] daily first hand knowledge of Papa Pacelli [Pius XII], one would be hard pressed to dispute this claim. Novelist Evelyn Waugh once wrote “many of the innovations, which many of us find so obnoxious, were introduced by Pius XII.” Waugh’s tone aside, he hits the “nail on the head” here. Evening Masses, vernacular Masses, people muddling through spoken responses, the new Holy Week, and other novelties came about with official approval from Pope Pius. He certainly was not a fan of other novel practices, like the lay offertory procession—which he condemned in Mediator Dei, but he did very little to stop other innovations such as Mass versus populum.

The quote is from a 1964 letter Waugh wrote to the editor of the Catholic Herald opposing further liberalization following John XXIII’s death and the election of Paul VI. His point was to remind the “progressives” not to categorize the liberalizations he and others found so “obnoxious” as products of “the Johannine era” but to recognize that they started with Pius XII. There seems to be some irony intended, since these same “progressives” could be expected to be opponents of the legacy of Pius XII. Or perhaps irony should not be inferred when one is discussing religious matters. EAR, p. 529.


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