More about the SSPX and the heart

I wrote about the SSPX the other day because some internet tweets were drawing out the worst in people.

Opening up Twit-deck today reveals that the worst is still going on.

The canonical status of the SSPX and the various issues connected to it, cannot be hashed out on Twitter, on Fakebook, in rambling partially-informed vlogs, etc.

The situation of the SSPX is anomalous and difficult.

Even the office of the Roman Curia that was set up in 1988 to handle matters related to the SSPX, inter alia, made careful and guarded comments about their status.  (I know, I wrote some of them.)  Since then there have been various backings and forthings which have helped and have harmed the dialogue between the Holy See and SSPX.  Mistakes have been made and advances have been made.  It is a difficult process because of the exceptional nature of the Society.

In the anglophone sphere there is a problem which often blinds dilettantes when it comes to matters of law and discipline and praxis and interpretation of Church matters. People with an American formation, especially, tend to like cut and dried, sharply defined edges and neat little boxes into which they can sort things. But that’s not how things work in the Church when it comes to law.

I am reminded of a certain kind of priest who, because of inflexibility and not a little scrupulosity had to… simply had to… make signs of the Cross during the Canon exactly between the syllables of the words in which the marking was printed. This nearly Jansenist rigidity contributed to the maniac modernist war on our liturgical tradition, discipline and doctrine.   This same thing can be found in lay people of a strongly traditional stripe, for whom all priests must conform in their manner of saying Mass to how they recall old Fr. Sven O’Brian used to do it, ’cause he used to wiggle his pinky finger at the same point in Mass as followed in their ol’ St. Joseph Missal.

Some people don’t know what they don’t know.

I know quite a lot about the SSPX situation, as it turns out, but I don’t know what’s going to happen next.  All along the way, just as I thought I had things worked out, I’d get thrown a wicked changeup.  The priests of the SSPX are clearly suspended a divinis.  Welllll… not so much, since they can now receive faculties to witness marriages.  Priests of the SSPX clearly don’t have faculties to absolve penitents in regular auricular confession.  Welllll… not so much, since now they do.  What’s next?

The priests of the SSPX obviously don’t have faculties to preach or to say Mass.  Oh, yeah?  I’m waiting for another changeup.

I can’t predict what will come next, but I have learned to be patient at the plate and not grip the bat too tightly.    My view has had to evolve as the situation evolves.  One day this is going to get sorted out.  I hope soon.

Repetita iuvant.

The fact is, the SSPX is a what the ancient Latin writer Juvenal in his Satires would call “rara avis in terris nigro simillima cygno… a bird as rare on earth as a black swan”.  They didn’t think black swans existed.  They were wrong, but that’s not the point.  That’s where we get the phrase rara avis, a “rare bird”, something unique or hardly to be imagined.  There’s nothing else out there quite like the SSPX.

Notwithstanding, some hard-headed and clearly hard-hearted folks out there are absolutely determined that the SSPX must be definitively categorized and confined to a precise cubbyhole otherwise… OTHERWISE!! … as Dr. Peter Venkman predicted: “Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!”

They just can’t stand that the SSPX does not conform to their paradigm of how the Church ought to work… on their planet.

Since I’m on a quoting roll, back in seminary in Rome there were guys from way up in Piemonte who had their own indecipherable ways and dialect.  Sometimes when talks or sermons got a little long one of them would mutter, “gavte la nata”, which was eventually explained to me as meaning, “pull the cork out”. In other words, let the pressure out and let’s get on with things.

Will you allow me to digress into a personal anecdote?  It’s about one of the most important things that ever happened to me in Rome and it has to do with the traditional Mass and with rigid positions.

When I was at “Ecclesia Dei“, early on, we had a really strained correspondence with an intractable American bishop, an infamous über-lib, who had a deadly feud going on with people in his diocese who wanted the traditional Mass.  The people got us involved, the bishop got angry.  It was awful.

Finally, the bishop wrote to us a letter that was seriously rude, even insulting.  I had had it.  “Basta!”  I drafted a response for the Cardinal that was going to END the issue by bringing in the weight of the office.

My dear late mentor and boss, Card. Mayer, the holiest man I’ve ever known, called me to his office, as usual, to go over various drafts of correspondence.  He had saved The Draft – my hammer on the bishop – until the end.  He said that what I had written was correct and proper.  “This is what we should write, of course.”  Then he asked about the first sentence,

“Here you wrote, X.  Do you think perhaps we could write Y instead?”

“Of course, Your Eminence!  It’s your letter”.

Changes were made in his carefully microscopic writing.

“And in this place, you wrote X.  Could Y work here?”

“Yes, Eminenza!”, I responded.

We continued that way until there was literally nothing remaining of my Draft – the hammer – but a couple of “ands” and “thes”.   We were actually laughing as my composition relentlessly disappeared under the black ink spiderweb of the Cardinal’s emendations, each one carefully and politely framed as a question, asking permission.

At last I said, “I obviously don’t have the right view of this.  Help me out.  Help me to understand how you want me to approach this.”

He paused a bit and looked at the crucifix on the wall of his office and said, “At a certain point, we have to stop fighting and try to open up their hearts.”

With that, I went back to my desk and stared at the keys of the typewriter… yes, typewriter… and pondered.

“How do I open this bishop’s heart after all the bitter bridge burning?  One of us has to give, and clearly it has to be us.  Get off your high horse and keep it simple.”

I flashed out another draft and was back in the Cardinal’s office a few minutes later.  He looked at my new version, approved it, and out it went in the evening mail bag.

What, you might be asking, did I write in that second draft to that bishop?   It was not long.  It was not complicated.

I apologized to him for our part in making the correspondence so difficult and then said along this line,

“Your Excellency, so many good people in your diocese simply want to have access to Holy Mass according to the 1962 Missale Romanum.  Will you please, Your Excellency, not open your heart for them and give them what they want? They would be so happy.  Sending prayerful best wishes for, etc. etc.”

Some time later we received a note from one of the faithful in that bishop’s diocese who had been involved in the feud and tension.   He thanked us for what we did, and related that, not only had this über-lib, tradition-hating bishop given the required permission for the Traditional Mass, but he came to them and he said it himself.

I was stunned, but I don’t think the Cardinal was.

To this day, my heart gets chilly and I often fail in charity.  But I am, I trust, a work in progress.  But that was was an important life lesson.  I learned that, in the matter especially of the dynamics of tradition, the heart is an important lens through which to view complicated conflicts.  This is because, I am convinced, the Enemy knows that he cannot succeed if we succeed in renewing the life of the Church through a recovery of our traditional liturgical rites.   So the Devil is going to fuel feuds, create strife, harden hearts.  Moreover, Old Scratch and demons are the ultimate lawyers.   If they can keep us quibbling and mired in the details, we are rendered ineffective.

Recovery of our identity is just as much a matter of the heart as it is a matter of stuff we can grind about in our heads.

I could tell story after story like the one above.  I also have many tales about the zeal of good SSPX priests whom we helped out at Ecclesia Dei, and whom I personally got to know.  What a lot of people today don’t understand is what the atmosphere of those times was like, especially in certain countries.  The hostility and vindictiveness of bishops and priests in positions of power was nothing short of diabolical.  It was far worse in Europe than it was in these USA back then.  And, these days, especially in these USA, the situation is now very much improved.

Hence, it is really hard, especially for the young who haven’t been in the trenches, newcomers, as it were, to take in all these matters, and especially for lay people, to understand these matters from within.

This is why I think that some whippersnappers out there should put a sock in it for a little while and… please… open their hearts to the matter.

I urge every one just to unclench about the SSPX. Could you, please?

The situation of the SSPX is complicated.  It is anomalous.  It is evolving.

The moderation queue is ON.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Cri de Coeur, My View, SSPX and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Charles E Flynn says:

    But Father, but Father, if you eliminate the “rambling partially-informed vlogs” and the dilettantes, the Internet will collapse.

    [It’s a risk. I know.]

  2. PetersBarque says:

    Very well said, Father Z.

    Speaking of the heart, mine goes out to those men who are willing to wrestle over weighty matters concerning the Church, even at the risk of allowing for a temporary disunity among brothers during the heat of battle. Please God, unite these good men with the common thread of Your Divine Mercy.

  3. Unwilling says:

    When I was in the Seminary in 1970, the place was run by the super-libs and high-profile gays. The abuses were so extreme, it is hard to imagine thinking back. A few of us wanted to hear Mass in the form of the then current Missal and to discuss behaviour with reference to the Code. We appealed to what was plainly written. No use. We were derisively dismissed on the grounds that “that’s not how things work in the Church when it comes to law“. We heard this as just cynical nonsense. But we were only students, who could hardly argue with the authority of people with Canon Law degrees from Roman studies. Despite appearances, maybe it wasn’t “a duck”. I am sure Father is right, and the letter-revision story will ring true to anyone who has learned the meaning of authority as service. But is painful to encounter as an argument for flexibility that key phrase from the hermeneutic of change. Septuagenarian though I be, I still have intellectual maturing to do.

  4. Moreover, Old Scratch and demons are the ultimate lawyers. If they can keep us quibbling and mired in the details, we are rendered ineffective.

    That’s a hard thing for me to remember, especially since I myself am a lawyer. And why did I become a lawyer? So I could argue and get paid. Of course, it wasn’t until I was admitted to the bar and actually took up the practice of law that I started to realize it’s about a lot more than just that.

  5. Richard McNally says:

    Thanks Father Z for these few posts, for this teaching and counsel.

  6. Stvsmith2009 says:

    I have never been able to attend a Traditional Latin Mass here. The closest one to me is almost 3 hours away. Anyway, today on Twitter I saw where someone posted that they had determined that the SSPX is not in schism, but that their Masses are illicit. Either they are confused, or I am. I don’t understand how the masses can be labeled as such.

  7. TonyO says:

    Dear Fr. Z, thank you so much, and from my heart.

    I am a person who likes there to be slots and boxes to categorize things, but I have gradually learned that not everything in real life fits into them perfectly. Some things do, but other things resist being pigeon-holed. We can’t turn our back on the difficult situations merely because they resist being cast as all black or all white. For instance, while in war there is always a party in the wrong, that doesn’t prevent BOTH parties from being in the wrong at least in part.

    Without being a member of the SSPX or being a member of any of the parishes (or “parishes”) that they run, I greatly sympathize with their priests and the people to whom they minister. I fervently hope that the pope will regularize them by something or other, and if that takes either a personal prelature or something of the kind, then go for it. And soon, like yesterday.

  8. Hidden One says:

    St. Philip Neri, on whose feast day Fr. Z was ordained, had a most excellent maxim applicable to Twitter wars, online discussions of the SSPX, and much else besides:

    “In dealing with our neighbour, we must assume as much pleasantness of manner as we can, and by this affability win him to the way of virtue.”

    If perhaps we are tempted to dissent from this advice at times, we should humble ourselves and consider that perhaps the Third Apostle of Rome knew a little bit more about evangelization within the Church than we do.

  9. TDPelletier says:

    after reading your anecdote (which I absolutely loved), I was reminded of a book Catholic apologist Patrick Madrid wrote (Life Lessons, Fifty Things I Learned in My First Fifty Years, Ignatius Press). I would love it if you did something similar.

  10. taylorhall95 says:

    Great post Fr. Though it still leaves Cardinal Burke’s criticism of the SSPX untouched, but I do think him saying that the anomaly of extending faculties without lifting the suspension really refers to the fact that perhaps Rome recognizes deep down that maybe the SSPX wasn’t suppressed according to proper canonical form. Thus because it wasn’t actually suppressed, its suspension a divinis of priests also wasn’t valid. And thus, faculties could be extended and the suspension is de facto lifted

  11. jflare29 says:

    When I read something like this….*shakes head*
    Yes, I’m an American and I DO like clear-cut rules. Most people I’ve ever met, regardless of where, don’t live well by rules that…evolve.
    Our wider culture already eagerly embraces making any exception to rules or teachings it wishes. It’ll make all the usual excuses. When we insist on carrying on like this….small wonder the world views us skeptically. We don’t appear willing to actually uphold our own rules or teachings.
    We may as well shoot ourselves in the foot and be done with it.

  12. Jones says:

    “The hostility and vindictiveness of bishops and priests in positions of power was nothing short of diabolical.”

    There is always a theme of the *diabolic*. Seems to rear it’s head and cause strifes and divisions.

    “For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.” Ever a verse to keep front and center. I continue to pray the rosary and say spiritual warefare prayers. Thank you Fr. Z for your Easter Friday PaschalCazt “That evil can exhaust itself and be overcome by love.”

  13. JustaSinner says:

    Thank you Father for that update. Great info to know. Was always under the impression that the SSPX was a verboten group and their Mass wasn’t real Mass.
    But have a question. The SSPX was dinged because their leader ordained bishops without approval of Rome? Heady stuff that, and bad example set if left uncorrected. But then why are female religious groups allowed to agitate for female ordination and many other things that are down right heretical without barely a peep from the Curia? I don’t have your insight or Intel regarding this, so asking for guidance.

  14. Ann Malley says:


    “…Though it still leaves Cardinal Burke’s criticism of the SSPX untouched.”

    His excellency will have to answer for his criticism in the long term. An anomaly isn’t schism. And stoking fear of a potentially schismatic attitude by way of unsupported smears only gives rise to a critical spirit. Not of God.

    [Don’t come in here and snip at Card. Burke, whom I deeply respect. He is a fine priest, a good man, a friend, and very versed in the law. I think on this matter his view has to evolve. I look forward to talking to him about it. Until then, I’ll say to you what I have suggested to others out there who are way out over their skis: stick a sock in it, at least around here, when it comes to Card. Burke. Thanks in advance. And it’s “His Eminence”.]

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  16. Dan says:

    I think when it comes to SSPX many Catholics try to equate licit vs illicit with valid vs invalid.
    The licitness of the SSPX really applies strictly to their priests. The validness of the sacraments they confer to a lay Catholic is not in dispute. They are valid.
    Interestingly the SSPX makes the same argument about the NO Mass. They claim it absolutely without question as valid but do not believe it to be licit.

    I know several SSPX priests and laypeople who attend SSPX chapels. If you set aside the intricacies of their canonical status, that is way beyond my pay grade, what you find is a group of Catholics that you can’t help but feel are just a bit more Catholic than many of us. When I hear some comment from a priest or bishop I often find myself asking, “would an SSPX priest agree with that statement” when the answer is “yes” I know that the comment is well-founded and soundly Catholic, if it is “no” I know to take a closer look.

    They are attacked because they do not compromise or mess around with the Catholic faith. They know, much more than some priests, that their job is nothing short of the salvation of souls. They have chosen an irregular status over risking the loss of even one soul in their charge.

    A priest told me once he thinks it is time for them to just regularize now that Summorum Pontificum has allowed for the widespread use of the TLM. The issue with them though is the same as with that priest who is reluctant to implement Ad Orientem. They have souls in their charge that they know full well will lean toward sedevacantism if they regularize too quickly.

    Bottom line is their priest are good good good faithful priests if they teach it you can be it is authentically Catholic. They have an enormous love for the Church and are prepared to make daily reparation for Her unity.

  17. Occidite says:

    One thing people need to understand about Abp. Lefebvre was his absolute fear of facing divine judgment – he couldn’t abide the thought of being accused by our Lord of having contributed to the destruction of the Faith, seminary formation, liturgy, etc. He could easily have gone along to get along in this world, but he feared the judgment more.

    I pray for more bishops like him to return soon – we could use some more evident supernatural Faith and healthy Fear of the Lord among our bishops.

    Thank you Father for sharing your thoughts via these posts.

  18. nathanasius says:

    This article is so important. So many Catholics today have become modern day Pharisees: they insist on absolute and total submission to their interpretation of canon law, yet they miss altogether its point.

    Divine law for many has become subjected to canon law–an absurdity! Well-meaning Catholics try so hard to resist the modernist and Protestant rejection of the law that they go to the opposite extreme and reject the spirit while upholding only the letter.

    Thank you, Fr. Z, for a timely reminder!

  19. I’ll be closing the combox very soon.

  20. andromedaregina says:

    Thank you again Fr. Z. Though I am in agreement with you concerning the topic of the SSPX (and so rejoice in you having posting them), your article still really convicted my heart. I saw in myself in your story. Thank you again Fr. Z! I’ve made a firm purpose of amendment to avoid these charity killers.

  21. Dave H says:

    I believe Cardinal Burke has stated that (in his opinion) things have changed with the status of the SSPX:
    “Despite the clear preference in the CDF letter for a diocesan priest as a witness of a marriage, Burke acknowledged:

    “This is a very significant action of the Holy Father, and it also indicates that in some way there must be a reconciliation of the FSSPX, because basically what the Pope is saying is that the priests in this Society, when they witness marriages, are exercising jurisdiction in the Roman Catholic Church. So that is very interesting.””

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