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Harvard Rejects Satan

The elusive Black Mass.

May 26, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 35 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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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!”

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