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.”