FaithWorld

GUESTVIEW: Fellay ordains SSPX priests, hints timid opening

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Nicolas Senèze is deputy editor of the religion service at the French Catholic daily La Croix and author of La crise intégriste, a history of the SSPX. He wrote this for FaithWorld (translation by Reuters) after covering the ordinations in Ecône for La Croix.

fellay-alps1 (Photo: Bishop Fellay greets children in Ecône, in Valais canton in southwestern Switzerland, 29 June 2009/Denis Balibouse)

By Nicolas Senèze

Bishop Bernard Fellay has gone and done it. On the morning of June 29, before crowds of the faithful gathered on the large meadow outside the Saint Pius X seminary in Ecône, Switzerland, the Superior General of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X (SSPX) ordained eight new priests. Just like Bishop Alfonso de Galaretta did on Friday in Zaitzkofen, Germany, and Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais 10 days ago in Winona, Minnesota in the United States. They went ahead and ordained these men despite the Vatican’s declaration that the ordinations were “illegitimate”, i.e. illegal according to the law of the Roman Catholic Church.

Was this a provocation by the SSPX against Pope Benedict, whose flag flies above the seminary? Absolutely not, a very self-confident Bishop Fellay responded to journalists who had journeyed to this Swiss Alpine village for the ceremony. “There is a tacit tolerance from Rome,” said the Swiss-born bishop, whose 20-year excommunication was lifted in January along with the three other bishops drummed out of the Church in 1988. “We did not have an explicit order not to do this. I have contacts with Rome, I’m not just making this up out of thin air. Rome knows this is not a provocation on our part.”

In any event, for Bishop Fellay, the SSPX is in the “state of necessity” which canon law mentions when it allows derogations from Church rules. “If everything went well in the Church, our gesture would have been disobedience. But all is not well in the Church,” he said calmly. “We see such scandals at Mass, we hear sermons so contrary to the faith!”

Vatican statement accompanying papal letter to bishops

lombardiThe Vatican’s official spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi S.J., has issued the following statement on the letter Pope Benedict has sent to Roman Catholic bishops around the world about the controversy over the readmission of four excommunicated ultre-traditionalist bishops to the Church. In view of the controversy surrounding that step and the Vatican’s admittedly clumsy handling of its announcement, we wanted to run the statement in full below. Again, any comments on how you see this controversy are welcome. (Photo: rev. Federico Lombardi, 13 June 2007/Herbert Neubauer)

The difficult commitment to reconciliation

The “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church concerning the remission of the excommunication of the four Bishops consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre” is definitely an unusual document and deserves all our attention. Never before in his Pontificate has Benedict XVI expressed himself in such a personal manner and intensity on a controversial subject. There isn’t the slightest doubt: this Letter bears his mark, from beginning to end.

Official text of pope’s letter to bishops on Williamson affair

pensive-pope (Photo: Pope Benedict at his Wednesday audience, 28 Jan 2009/Tony Gentile)

The Vatican published today the official text of an unprecedented letter Pope Benedict has sent to Roman Catholic bishops around the world explaining his reasons for readmitting four ultra-traditionalist bishops to the Church and his dismay at the uproar caused by the Holocaust denial of one of them, British-born Bishop Richard Williamson. Papal protocol usually keeps a safe buffer around the pope, shielding him from the rough and tumble of daily disputes, but Benedict broke with that tradition to write about his dismay at the Williamson controversy, admit it was mishandled and reveal how isolated he was from information anyone could easily find on the Internet. Given its unusually personal nature, we reprint it here. The text and translations into other languages are available in the Vatican’s daily bulletin.

Do you find this convincing? Should he have said more? Or should this now close the Williamson controversy?

bollettino

LETTER OF HIS HOLINESS POPE BENEDICT XVI

TO THE BISHOPS OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH

concerning the remission of the excommunication

of the four Bishops consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre

Dear Brothers in the Episcopal Ministry!

The remission of the excommunication of the four Bishops consecrated in 1988 by Archbishop Lefebvre without a mandate of the Holy See has for many reasons caused, both within and beyond the Catholic Church, a discussion more heated than any we have seen for a long time. Many Bishops felt perplexed by an event which came about unexpectedly and was difficult to view positively in the light of the issues and tasks facing the Church today. Even though many Bishops and members of the faithful were disposed in principle to take a positive view of the Pope’s concern for reconciliation, the question remained whether such a gesture was fitting in view of the genuinely urgent demands of the life of faith in our time. Some groups, on the other hand, openly accused the Pope of wanting to turn back the clock to before the Council: as a result, an avalanche of protests was unleashed, whose bitterness laid bare wounds deeper than those of the present moment. I therefore feel obliged to offer you, dear Brothers, a word of clarification, which ought to help you understand the concerns which led me and the competent offices of the Holy See to take this step. In this way I hope to contribute to peace in the Church.

Pope to bishops: check your mail

pope-pic-1Those of us who thought the pope had said the final word on the Williamson saga will have to think again. It seems to be never-ending.

On Thursday the Vatican officially releases a letter to the world’s bishops in which the pope essentially acknowledges that the Vatican handled the lifting of the excommunications of four ultra-traditionalist bishops very badly and that it hurt him personally that things went awry. (Photo: Pope Benedict at his weekly audience, 11 March 2009/Alessia Pierdomenico)

The story started leaking out on Tuesday night in the blog of Andrea Tornielli of Il Giornale and a story with partial excerpts was published in the Italian newspaper Il Foglio on Wednesday.  The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung printed what it said was the full text in German of the pope’s letter. Our story is based on a face-to-face conversation I had with an Italian archbishop who received the letter. We discussed it over a light meal near St Peter’s Square.

The pope and the Holocaust: Regensburg redux?

The uproar over traditionalist Bishop Richard Williamson and his denial of the Holocaust highlights an open secret here in Rome: Vatican departments don’t talk to each much, or at least as much as they should. The pope appears to have decided to lift the 1988 excommunication of four schismatic bishops of the SSPX (including Williamson) without the wide consultation that it may have merited. The Christian Unity department, which also oversees relations with Jews, was apparently kept out of the loop. The head of the office, Cardinal Walter Kasper, told The New York Times it was the pope’s decision. Kasper’s office and the Vatican press office, headed by Father Federico Lombardi, were clearly not prepared for the media onslaught that followed the discovery of Williamson’s views denying the Holocaust. (Photo: Bishop Richard Williamson, 28 Feb 2007/Jens Falk)

Pope Benedict’s lifting of the ban and Williamson’s comments about the Holocaust are unrelated as far as Church law is concerned. The excommunications lifted last Saturday were imposed because the four were ordained without Vatican permission. As Father Thomas Resse, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, told me: “The Holocaust is a matter of history, not faith. Being a Holocaust denier is stupid but not against the faith. Being anti-Semitic, however, is a sin.” This is an important distinction, but not one the Vatican seems to be able to get across.

It was all very reminiscent of the pope’s Regensburg speech in 2006. Few in the Vatican knew it was coming. The Vatican was overwhelmed by the Muslim reaction and the media interest. This time, it is also not clear how many people in the Vatican even knew about Williamson’s history. Surely, those negotiating with the traditionalists for the lifting of the excommunications should  have known. If they didn’t, why didn’t they? If they did, why did they not tell Kasper’s department? The Holocaust is such a sensitive issue for Jews that this response could have been seen from miles away.

Paris cardinal and others comment on SSPX ban lifting

Paris Cardinal André Vingt-Trois,  chairman of the French Bishops Conference, held a press briefing on Saturday evening on the lifting of excommunications of four bishops of the ultra-traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX). France is home to the largest of the provinces of the dissident group, with around 100,000 faithful  of a worldwide total of 600,000. Sitting in a medieval meeting room in Notre Dame cathedral, he defended Pope Benedict’s decision to take the four bishops back into the Roman Catholic Church and indicated the SSPX would have to bend to Church discipline. (Photo: Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, 8 Sept 2008/Benoit Tessier)

He called the decision “a measure of clemency and mercy” that would allow the Church to repair a damaging split. He declined to question the bishops’ motives, saying that “when people express their desire to respect the teachings of the church and the primacy of the pope, my ministry of mercy does not allow me suspect them a priori and to suspect them to be the worst people on earth … what they have in their hearts, only God can judge. Not me.”

The handful of journalists present repeatedly asked about one of the bishops, Richard Williamson, whose denial of the Holocaust this week outraged Jewish leaders. “The Jewish community was not shocked by this decision, it was shocked by the comments of Bishop Williamson,” he said. “He may have some twisted thoughts, but it’s not because the excommunication is lifted that these twisted thoughts have been approved.”

Pope lifts SSPX bans but conditions still unclear

Pope Benedict lifted the excommunications of four ultra-traditionalist SSPX bishops on Saturday. While much daily media attention is focused on the fact that one of the four is a Holocaust denier denounced by Jewish groups in advance, the interesting internal Catholic question is what the conditions of this deal were. The two sides have been at loggerheads for years over the SSPX’s refusal to accept some reforms of the Second Vatican Council. SSPX leader Bishop Bernard Fellay insisted the Vatican should lift the excommunications first and talk about differences later. The Vatican wanted them to accept the reforms first and be rehabilitated later. (Photo: Pope Benedict at the Vatican, 10 Jan 2009/Alessia Pierdomenico)

We’ll have to see the full documentation to know exactly who has agreed to what. It seems that the excommunications have been lifted first (as the SSPX wanted) and the SSPX and the Vatican are now to hold discussions to clear up their doctrinal differences. The assumption is that the doctrinal gap can be bridged but there is no indication how or when this would be done.

The Vatican announcement (here in SSPX English translation and original Italian) says that Fellay wrote a letter on Dec. 15 restating the SSPX request for the excommunications to be lifted. It then says:

If Catholic rebels return to Rome, who caved?

Pope Benedict is reportedly planning to lift the excommunication of four ultra-traditionalist Catholic bishops who have defied the Vatican for decades by rejecting some central reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Andrea Tornielli, the well-informed vaticanista of the Italian daily Il Giornale, says the decree inviting the bishops of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) back to the Roman fold should be announced this weekend. If this is true (which, given Tornielli’s track record, it presumably is),  the unanswered question now is: who caved? (Photo: Pope Benedict at the Vatican, 10 Jan 2009/Alessia Pierdomenico)

Our vaticanista Phil Pullella writes that lifting the excommunications “would be a major gesture by Benedict to resolve a crisis in the Church that surfaced in 1988, when the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre illegally consecrated four bishops without the requisite permission of the late Pope John Paul.”

The Swiss-based SSPX has about a million followers worldwide compared to 1.1 billion for the official Church. It maintains the old Latin Mass and rejects Vatican II reforms such as dialogue with other religions.

How many Catholics will hear disputed Good Friday prayer?

A Good Friday procession at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, 21 March 2008/Yannis BehrakisGiven the discussion about the new Latin prayer to be read at Catholic Good Friday services in the Tridentine rite today, I’ve tried to find estimates for how many people will actually hear it. Jewish groups have expressed dismay that the new version of the prayer, which drops references to the “blindness” of the Jews but still calls for their conversion. The leader of Germany’s Jewish community said she could not fathom how the German-born Pope Benedict could “impose such phrases on his church.” The Vatican rejects this criticism and sources there say it could soon issue a conciliatory note. So there’s a lot of talk about this issue, but how much is actually happening on the ground?

Actually, the vast majority of Catholics attending Good Friday services around the world will not hear this prayer in Latin but a different one in their own native language. That prayer is based on a 1970 text without any explicit reference to the conversion of the Jews. There is no official number for how many will attend the Latin services in the older Tridentine rite that Pope Benedict promoted with a ruling last year authorising wider use of the old Latin Mass. But even ardent supporters of the traditional rite agree that the number is very, very small. Some have objected to our use of the term “tiny minority” for it, saying this was dismissive and implied the number was insignificant. It wasn’t, but it’s very hard to write about such a small amount without seeming to write it off.

Fr. John ZuhlsdorfLooking for anecdotal evidence, I first turned to the excellent conservative Catholic blog What Does The Prayer Really Say? (which just swept the 2008 Catholic Blog Awards). This was a logical step since its lively moderator, Fr. John Zuhlsdorf (“Fr. Z”), had just taken us to task for writing “tiny minority.” I posted a question about how to describe the size of this group and several readers chimed in, suggesting words like “rare” (sounds like an endangered species), “relatively few in number” (too vague), “some” or “a few” (even more vague) or “small but growing minority” (that adds movement, but it’s still vague). Even the most neutral synonyms for “tiny” — diminutive, microscopic, miniature, minuscule, slight or wee (for my Scottish colleagues) — can be read as dismissive. How would Fr. Z put it — paupera lingua angliae?

“Lefebvrists” say Vatican caved on Good Friday prayer

A missal (prayer book) for mass in Latin, 25 July 2007/Alessandro BianchiEver since Pope Benedict allowed wider use of the old Latin mass last year, we’ve been watching to see whether the schismatic traditionalists in the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) would soften their staunchly critical line towards the Vatican. They have stuck for decades to the centuries-old Tridentine mass in Latin and rejected all the modernising reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Benedict has long been concerned with bringing them back into the Roman fold and lifting most restrictions on the old Latin mass was partly a step in their direction. But that didn’t stop the “Lefebvrists” (from the name of their first leader, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre) from denouncing the Vatican for updating the Latin version of a Good Friday prayer about the Jews.

In a weekend statement for its French-language news service, the SSPX said: “Following foreign pressures on the Catholic Church, the pope has felt obliged to change the very venerable Prayer for the Jews, which is an integral part of the Good Friday liturgy. This prayer is one of the oldest and goes back to about the third century. It has thus been recited throughout the whole history of the Church as the full expression of Catholic faith.

SSPX Bishop Bernard Fellay, 13 Jan. 2006/Franck PrevelThe SPPX said the change, which it called an “amputation,” had “the allure of a real transformation, expressing the new theology of relations with the Jewish people. It is part of the liturgical upheaval that is the characteristic mark of the council and the reforms that followed it. While the necessity to accept the Messiah to be saved has been retained, one can only profoundly deplore this change.”