OTTAWA—An order of priests that became “like orphans” 30 years ago when it broke away from the schismatic Society of St. Pius X has prospered by observing Church tradition and stressing unity with the Holy Father.
“There is no possibility to get to heaven without being united to the Pope,” said Father Andrzej Komorowski, the recently-elected Superior General of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP), a Society of Apostolic Life of Pontifical right that celebrates the Traditional Latin Mass.
“(The Pope) is the visible face of our Lord. Unity with him is very important if you want to be in the Church. There is only one Church founded by the Lord and the Pope is His visible vicar,” said Father Komorowski.
While many defenders of Pope Francis accuse traditionalist Catholics of attacking the Pope, whether about interpretations of Amoris Laetitia or more recently about the sex-abuse scandals, the FSSP stresses prayer for the Pope, respect for the Successor of Peter, and acts of charity.
“I love the Pope and I pray for him,” said Father Joseph Bisig, a co-founder of the FSSP who gave a lecture in Ottawa Nov. 24. “That is what you have to do.
“We believe in the visibility of authority,” he said. “We are not Protestants” who see authority as something invisible. “That doesn’t mean the exercise of authority is always just, but that’s not a reason for or a recipe for doing what we want.”
It wasn’t always that way. The FSSP had its origins in the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who developed a strained relationship with the Vatican over doctrinal matters arising from the Second Vatican Council and the modernization of the Church. In the mid-1970s, the SSPX had its seminary in Econe, Switzerland, suppressed by the Archbishop of Fribourg. In 1976, Pope Paul VI suspended Archbishop Lefebvre a divinis, meaning the archbishop was forbidden to celebrate any sacraments, including the Eucharist. But Lefebvre defied Rome and expanded his order to other nations.
Father Bisig said the suppression of the flourishing seminary, which had 120 seminarians by 1977, and Pope Paul VI’s subsequent suspension led to a change in Lefebvre’s attitude towards Rome, and his language became increasingly “polemical.” Lefebvre began to entertain sedevacantism, the idea that Paul VI was not the real pope, and thus the Chair of Peter was vacant, Father Bisig said. But the archbishop kept this opinion largely out of the public realm because most priests in the SSPX would have been scandalized.
“Until then it was forbidden for us to be critical of the Holy Father or Rome,” Father Bisig said.
The founding members of the FSSP only split with Lefebvre after he ordained four bishops in 1988 against the will of Pope St. John Paul II, leading to Lefebvre’s excommunication. The SSPX, then numbering some 60,000 followers, was deemed schismatic.
“It was clear we had to leave the society because of this rupture with Rome,” said Father Bisig, one of 12 priests, one deacon, and 20 seminarians who left.
“We did not want to
leave the SSPX,” he said. “We were forced to do so. Our superior became
schismatic. We felt like orphans abandoned by our father.”
Father Bisig, who became the first Superior General of the FSSP, is now rector of Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, Nebraska.
Over the past 30 years, the FSSP has succeeded in forming a society that is in unity with the Pope as it continues to offer traditional liturgy and formation. Bisig says this demonstrates that “it is possible to be in the Church with traditional liturgy and traditional priestly formation.”
On Nov. 23, a Pontifical Mass was celebrated in Latin in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite by Archbishop Terrence Prendergast to mark the 50th anniversary of St. Clement’s Parish in Ottawa, a parish of 600 that is served by an FSSP priest. The Ottawa archbishop preached on the Gospel passage regarding Christ’s entrusting Peter with the keys of the Kingdom.
“Tradition understands that what God granted to Simon Peter, God also gave to his successors,” Archbishop Prendergast said. “And so we Catholics have come to appreciate the importance of the Holy See and the successor of Peter, regardless of who occupies that office.”
The FSSP has two seminaries, in Nebraska and in Wigratzbad, Bavaria, Germany, and its General House is in Fribourg. It has experienced steady growth since its foundation in 1988 and has 300 priests and 150 seminarians.
“I pray very much for my old, good friends (in the SSPX) to join the Church” and to “come in without any conditions,” but to “accept the authority of the living magisterium,” Father Bisig said.
Under Pope Francis, talks continue with the SSPX. On Nov. 22, the Superior General of the SSPX, Fr. David Pagliarini, met with Cardinal Luis Ladaria, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in ongoing talks. During the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis recognized the validity of absolution during confession of SSPX priests and provided for a way to recognize SSPX marriages as valid. But the SSPX still remains in an irregular relationship with Rome.
Pope Benedict XVI began the process of healing the schism in 2009 by revoking the excommunication of the four bishops Lefebvre had ordained. The move proved to be a public relations disaster when one of the bishops, who has since been expelled from the SSPX, was shown to have written anti-Semitic material.
In the Archdiocese of Vancouver, Holy Family Parish in Vancouver is served by the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter (FSSP).