Cambridge, Mass.

Every once in a while—not too often—good triumphs over evil. Such was the case on May 12, when a Harvard student group dropped its sponsorship of a satanic “Black Mass,” originally scheduled to take place on campus, about an hour and a half before the event was supposed to begin, at 8:30 that evening. Earlier that day Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust, issued a statement condemning the ritual, a parody of the Catholic Mass, as “abhorrent” and announced her intention to attend a “holy hour” of prayer and worship that had been arranged by the Harvard Catholic Center at a nearby church to take place simultaneously with the Black Mass.

Faust’s statement followed a series of protests against the involvement of the university with the Black Mass, which was to be staged by the Satanic Temple, a New York City group of Satanists, under the sponsorship of the Cultural Studies Club at the Harvard Extension School, Harvard’s part-time program for nontraditional students. The Satanic Temple is best known for its efforts via crowdfunding to erect a seven-foot-tall statue of Satan, or at least of one of his lieutenant demons, the horned and goat-faced Baphomet, on the grounds of the Oklahoma State Capitol, where a monument to the Ten Commandments had been placed by a state legislator in 2012.

During the weeks preceding Faust’s statement, Harvard’s chaplains representing a range of religious traditions, Boston’s Catholic archdiocese, and numerous Harvard students and alumni had spoken out against the planned ritual, arguing that its only purpose was to mock and denigrate the faith of Catholics and their central Eucharistic ritual. In her statement Faust had rejected pleas for Harvard to cancel the event, or at least to deny the Satanic Temple the use of university premises, citing Harvard’s “dedication to free expression at the heart of a university.”

At first the Cultural Studies Club announced that it would forge ahead with the Black Mass, which was to take place at the Cambridge Queen’s Head pub in the basement of Harvard’s Memorial Hall just north of Harvard Yard. But as the day wore on, and small groups of protesters began to form on the sidewalk outside the hall on an unseasonably warm afternoon, the club began to waver in its commitment.

Some backing-off had begun even earlier. The Satanic Temple had at first told reporters that it planned for its Black Mass to feature a consecrated host that would presumably be pilfered from a Catholic church. Catholics hold that the consecration rite of the Eucharist transforms the host, or wafer of bread, into the body of Christ, so the use of such a host in a satanic ritual would be the ultimate blasphemy. Later on, the temple maintained that the host it would use would not be consecrated and that its ceremony would be merely a “reenactment” of a historic ritual for educational purposes.

But at about 5 in the afternoon of May 12 the Cultural Studies Club announced that it would abandon Memorial Hall—voluntarily and not at the instigation of Harvard—and seek an off-campus venue.

Around 7 p.m., the Cultural Studies Club threw in the towel and announced that it would no longer sponsor the Black Mass. Some members of the Satanic Temple went ahead and at 10 p.m. held what appeared to be a Black Mass on the second floor of a Chinese restaurant, the Hong Kong, across the street from Harvard Yard. About 50 people were reportedly in attendance, and according to the Crimson, the Harvard student newspaper, the participants included “[f]our individuals in hoods .  .  . one man in a white suit, a cape, and a horned mask .  .  . [and] a woman revealed to be wearing only lingerie.” So reduced in scope was the ritual that the Hong Kong’s owner, Paul Lee, told a Crimson reporter over the phone at 11 p.m. that he was “unaware” it had taken place.

The Cultural Studies Club decided to play the victim card. In a lugubrious statement emailed to reporters desperately trying to find out what was going on, the club declared: “[W]hat we find most disturbing have been the demands that the rituals and beliefs of marginalized members of our society be silenced. It is gravely upsetting to us that some people feel vindicated on the basis that they have disingenuously mischaracterized our invited guests as being part of a hate group.”

So much for the Harvard Black Mass: a victory for freedom of expression and respect for others’ religion. But for a reporter, good news is no news. I had traveled to Cambridge—even packing a crucifix in my purse (just in case!)—only to find myself effectively barred from covering what I was most interested in: What is a Black Mass really like? Do they dress up like KISS? Do they spit on the Bible? To what extent does their ritual resemble a Marilyn Manson concert? My cold comfort was that no other reporters, including anyone from the Crimson, had witnessed the goings-on at the Hong Kong restaurant that night.

Historically speaking, the Black Mass is something like droit du seigneur, the supposed medieval custom in which the lord of the manor got to deflower attractive peasant girls on their wedding night: It’s vilified aplenty in literature and culture, but it’s difficult to prove that it ever actually happened. During the 17th century, the golden age of real and imagined witchcraft in the Western world, a lurid Black Mass template emerged: a rogue priest saying Mass on the body of a naked woman lying on the altar, with the aim of invoking Satan to work magical spells. I emailed Ronald Hutton, an expert on pagan religion at the University of Bristol, to find out if there was any truth to this, and he emailed in reply: “It may well be a Christian legend, since Christian writers alleged it against Satanists, but there’s no solid proof that an actual or defrocked priest ever did celebrate a blasphemous mass using the body of a woman as an altar.”

Today’s Black Mass seems to have a far shorter history: in the career of Anton Szandor LaVey ( the more prosaic Howard Stanton Levey in Chicago in 1930). In 1966 LaVey shaved his head to look more diabolical and founded the Church of Satan in San Francisco. He declared that year to be “the year one, Anno Satanas,” à la Rosemary’s Baby. LaVey, who died in 1997, devised a Black Mass that copied the Catholic church’s old Latin Mass, except that “Satan” seemed to be substituted for Jesus. The Satanic Temple is a kind of politicized offshoot of the Church of Satan. Its leader, Lucien Greaves (another exotic name change: from Douglas Mesner; Satanists seem to cultivate a Continental sheen), used to blog for an atheist website and appears to be more of a debunker of religion in general than a believer in anything in particular about diabolical power. The temple’s website asserts that it views Satan as “the ultimate icon for the selfless revolt against tyranny, free & rational inquiry, and the responsible pursuit of happiness.” In a February interview with the Atlantic, Greaves admitted that the Satanic Temple has only about 20 members.

I never got to Greaves’s Black Mass, but I did get to St. Paul’s, the large and lavishly decorated Italianate church just off Harvard Square where the holy hour took place. There I witnessed the tail end of a procession that had walked behind a priest carrying the Eucharist for the two miles between the MIT campus and Harvard. An estimated 2,000 people were trying to cram themselves into a church built to hold 1,200; they spilled into the aisles, into the vestibule, down the stone church steps, and into the street, where a contingent of Cambridge cops kept order.

There were students from MIT and Harvard, babies in arms and in strollers, nuns, a bishop (Arthur Kennedy, a Boston auxiliary), and two young women who had driven from Stockbridge in western Massachusetts; they carried big pictures of Jesus. There were people in T-shirts sporting Bible verses, and people with medals, crosses, and sometimes medals and crosses around their necks. There was a portly man standing on the church steps wearing a Knights of Columbus polo shirt and eating ice cream from a cup. There was an ancient lady who insisted on kneeling on those steps during most of the service and then had to be helped to her feet by friendly neighbors. There were little girls in pretty dresses and at least a dozen Franciscan friars. I talked to two of them, Brother Rick and Brother Scott. They were grinning. They had learned that the Harvard club canceled its sponsorship of the Black Mass “while we were processing,” said Brother Scott. “We were overjoyed.”

Across the street stood a lone heckler, who told me his name was Bob Odenkirk, age 27 and a graduate of MIT. He was shouting indefatigably: “They stopped the Satanists from having their mass! This church protects child molesters! They demonize gay people! They don’t let women into their priesthood!”

Inside the church’s packed interior, though, there was nothing but silence as a lector read aloud from the Book of Revelation: “And now war broke out in heaven, when Michael with his angels attacked the dragon. The dragon fought back with his angels, but they were defeated and driven out of heaven.”

Charlotte Allen, a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard, last wrote on the living-forever movement.

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