Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 Motu Proprio, Summorum Pontificum, was an attempt to end decades of division over liturgy: to bring the Society of St Pius X (SSPX), and all the groups affiliated with it, back into the Church. The older Latin Mass, the Pope said, had never been outlawed; it was, in fact, the “same rite” as the newer Mass, the Novus Ordo. The Church must make “every effort” to achieve unity, he said, adding: “Let us generously open our hearts and make room for everything that the faith itself allows.”
Negotiations with the SSPX have indeed begun, yet so far no traditionalist group has taken up the Pope’s call – except, that is, for one small community based on a tiny, windswept island in Orkney.
The community, known as the Transalpine Redemptorists, have paid a heavy price for their decision. Four brothers and two priests have left, and about 1,000 supporters in Britain have broken off contact with them – only one or two families are still in touch.
They have not been ecstatically welcomed, either. It is more than two years since they first approached Rome, yet they are still waiting for their bishop, Bishop Peter Moran of Aberdeen, to grant them legal status within the Church.
Fr Michael Mary, who founded the community in 1988, is a kind man but no softie. Later, when he gives me a rosary as a present, he says “don’t blub”. He is a New Zealander: he left in 1987 to join Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre at his Econe seminary in Switzerland.
When I arrive at their island, Papa Stronsay, the waters are calm. A seal is bobbing its head by the shore. I sit down with Fr Michael Mary in the monastery guestroom – he tells me it was once a herring shed, where women used to gut fresh herring. Next door is the chapel, where office is now sung in Latin for several hours a day.
When Summorum Pontificum came out, he says, he was back in New Zealand. He read it first on the Rorate Caeli website – the “BBC of tradition”. Later he printed a copy for another priest, Fr Anthony Mary.
They had no thoughts, at that time, of becoming reconciled with Rome. It was only months later, at an SSPX conference, that doubts about their status began to creep in.
It started when Bishop Bernard Fellay, head of the SSPX, mentioned that he would ask Rome to give the SSPX jurisdiction for marriages. Currently, their marriages could be automatically annulled by the Church if the couple wanted a divorce; that, clearly, was a problem. The remark made Fr Michael Mary wonder, though: if the SSPX has “supplied jurisdiction”, as it has always claimed, why does it need to ask Rome? (Bishop Fellay later claimed that he did not make this remark.)
Several weeks later, on New Year’s Eve, 2007, Fr Michael Mary went to bed early. As he was going to sleep, he was struck by a very strong feeling. It was, he says, a “complete turnaround”. He got out of bed and wrote these words on an envelope: “I, Fr Michael Mary, believe tonight that Pope Benedict XVI is the true Pope of the Catholic Church, and that I must now do everything possible to live in union with him.”
Fr Michael Mary rustles his rosary beads loudly as he talks. Occasionally, when trying to remember something, he takes off his glasses and holds them in the air, his eyes directed at the ceiling.
He says he was eager, then, to resolve the question of jurisdiction. It boils down to whether the SSPX founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, was right to claim “a state of necessity” that meant he could ordain bishops without permission from the Pope.
First, he contacted French Dominicans. These, he says, were the experts: they had huge libraries and produced dense periodicals. But when he asked them about jurisdiction, expecting them to have a treatise on it, they said they had nothing of the sort. He mimics their response to his question: a very knowing, drawn out, “Ah, bon…” They told him that to ask that question would be “the revolution” in his community.
After that he got in touch with Fr Josef Bisig, founder of the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter (FSSP), who broke from the SSPX in 1988. Fr Bisig said he would email over the FSSP study, and wrote: “Excuse me for saying my personal opinion, but I think you probably are schismatic.”
Reading the FSSP document, says Fr Michael Mary, was depressing. “I thought, ‘this is bad news’. We are actually in a difficult situation.”
He printed off the study for each member of the community, and suggested they read it three times, letting it filter through. They reached the conclusion that they should seek communion with Rome “at all costs”. In March 2008, they had a vote. Each member put a bead in a voting box: a white bead for “yes”, a black bead for “no”. All the beads were white.
Without Summorum Pontificum, says Fr Michael Mary, they “would not have dreamed” of becoming reconciled with Rome. They were struck by the graciousness, and courage, of the Pope, and by his admission that the old Mass had never been outlawed. “Because nearly everybody would tell you it had,” he says.
At first they kept their vote a secret. After all, they did not know who to tell. Their contact with the mainstream Catholic Church had, for 20 years, been “zero or negative”.
On the advice of Fr Bisig, they arranged a meeting with Fr José Monteiro Guimarães, a Redemptorist official in the Congregation for Clergy (he is now Bishop of Garanhuns in Brazil). They travelled to Rome, staying in a hotel. It was, he says, very daunting. “We had the feeling that we should go back, that we had made a big mistake. We were completely out of our camp.”
In the months that followed they met officials at Ecclesia Dei, the body set up to negotiate with the SSPX. They met its prefect, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos. Their priestly suspensions were lifted. Later they wrote a constitution, lifting parts of old Redemptorist constitutions from 1921 and 1936. That has been approved. All that is needed now is for Bishop Moran, their local bishop, to issue a “decree of erection” that will put them in canonical good order. (Last Friday Bishop Moran issued a statement which said he was waiting for guidance from the Congregation for Religious, to whom the matter has now been passed.)
The process, though, has not been smooth. Some in the community have family who are in the SSPX. Four Brothers left, two without saying a word to Fr Michael Mary. One priest, based on the next-door island of Stronsay, split off immediately, taking most of the parish with him. Another, Fr Clement, left more recently, for a traditionalist parish in Melbourne. “Nobody expected it to take this long,” says Fr Michael Mary.
Subscriptions to their monthly newspaper dropped by half, from 4,000 to fewer than 2,000. They received hate mail from people they thought were friends. They had to withdraw seminarians from an SSPX seminary in Australia after the rector told them they would never be ordained unless they defied Fr Michael Mary and started their own breakaway group. Fr Michael Mary is hurt by all of this. “When you leave the ghetto, the stones don’t come from the front, they come from behind you. If they can get you in the back with a good boulder – that’s how it felt.”
Despite all these hardships, the community has a joyful feel to it. At recreation there are roars of laughter. One brother, who wears Doc Martens along with his habit, has an apron that says: “Danger: Men Cooking.”
They are also very young – in their 20s and 30s, mainly. Two brothers are about to be ordained as priests; four more are seminarians. In total there are 15 in the community.
It is not an easy life here: in winter there are only six hours of sunlight, and the winds are ferocious — sometimes up to 120mph. “If you are small and frail,” says one brother, “you stay inside.”
Brother Jean-Marie, 32, and Brother Yousef-Marie, 35, are both from warmer climes. “When you first come here,” says Brother Jean-Marie, from India, “you feel like there’s ice on your face.”
Brother Jean-Marie was a student when he felt called to the religious life, but the orders he knew did not really impress him. He then came across a small leaflet about the Transalpine Redemptorists. “People were actually wearing their habits, they were not ashamed of it. I thought, this is something I feel inspired to give my life to.”
It attracted him partly because it offered what he describes as a masculine kind of Christianity. “You’re not just sitting on your thumbs. You’re mixing cement, slaughtering cows, handling boats and ropes. In monastic history, monks always did work, they built the monastery themselves. They didn’t have people to do it for them.”
Brother Jean-Marie and Brother Yousef-Marie, from Sydney, have an intensity about them. They have both just finished their studies and, once the community is canonically erected, they can be ordained. Right now they are in limbo. “It is not a pleasant feeling,” says Brother Jean-Marie. “But ultimately God is in charge.”