The Society of St. Pius X should be known to many. But the Fraternity of St. Peter? In this interview, Father Bernhard Gerstle, German District Superior, speaks about the objectives of the Fraternity.
|Fr. Bernhard Gerstle, FSSP|
Q.: Fr. Gerstle, the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) arose by breaking away from the Society of St. Pius X. You were directly involved. What exactly happened?
A.: I entered the Society seminary in Zaitzkofen in the Fall of 1985, and hoped that there would be a reconciliation with Rome as soon as possible, as there were favorable indications at that time. A shift occurred in 1986 as a result of the interreligious summit at Assisi, which Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre rejected. Efforts were made on the part of Rome, especially by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, to prevent the unauthorized episcopal consecrations of 1988 and come to a mutual understanding. This was almost achieved via a written agreement, which was signed but then rejected by Lefebvre shortly thereafter. I think the whole thing came about due to a lack of trust toward Rome.
Q.: And you, as well as other members of the Society, didn't want to go along with the coming break?
A.: The decision was clear to me from the beginning: in case of a break with Rome, I would stand on the side of the pope. Many of my confrères desired reconciliation with Rome, but didn't risk taking the leap. Thus, it was only a few priests and seminarians who then left the Society. The foundation and ecclesial recognition of the Fraternity of St. Peter - which came about largely as a result of the efforts of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger - was unforeseeable at that time.
Q.: In what ways does the FSSP distinguish itself from the Society of St. Pius X?
A.: First, one has to recognize that there are different currents within the Society. One must distinguish between the moderates and the hardliners. There exists a larger number of moderate priests, especially within the German-speaking region, who want to avoid a permanent break with Rome and are interested in an agreement. Then there are the hardliners who largely reject the Second Vatican Council - for example, freedom of religion or ecumenism - and of these, there are some who even doubt the validity of the new liturgy. The Fraternity of St. Peter, on the other hand, agreed to undertake an impartial study of the documents of the Council and has come to believe that there is no break with earlier magisterial teaching. Nonetheless, some documents are formulated in such a way as to give rise to misunderstandings. Since then, however, Rome has issued relevant clarifications, which the Society of St. Pius X should recognize.
Q.: Are there any additional differences?
A.: It is for us a matter of course that the 1983 Code of Canon Law is normative. It appears to me that, for the Society of St. Pius X, there remains here a need for additional clarification. Also, phrases such as "Institutional Church" (Amtskirche) or "Conciliar Church" (Konzilskirche) are to be avoided. We reject them not only because they suggest a kind of distance, but also because, for us, there is no "pre-" and "post-Conciliar" Church. There is only the one Church, which goes back to Christ. Additionally, our apostolate always operates with the consent of local bishops and priests, and we work to maintain good relations. Almost everywhere we are active, our priests have a good relationship to the local ordinaries. We do not want to polarize or divide; on the contrary, we attempt to convey an ecclesial attitude to the faithful in the communities we serve. This means that, while those grievances and abuses which undeniably take place in the Church must be addressed, this must be done in a differentiated and moderate manner.
Q.: Nonetheless, the FSSP, like the Society of St. Pius X, is described as "traditionalist." Do you like hearing that?
A.: I don't like hearing the term at all. We are not "traditionalists;" we're simply Catholics. And as Catholics, we treasure Tradition. But not in the sense that we completely block ourselves off from organic adaptations and changes.
Q.: What are the core objectives of the FSSP?
A.: First and foremost, the celebration of the liturgy in the Extraordinary Latin Form. To strive for the reverent celebration of Holy Mass combined with faithful preaching is an important service in the interest of the Church. Concern for salvation of souls, as Pope Francis is fond of stressing, must remain our central objective. We must once again communicate to people that eternal life is at stake, which is decided here on earth. Especially the message of Fatima, where the Mother of God appeared a century ago, should be brought to the fore in the minds of the people. Unfortunately, the Last Things have been pushed into the background by matters of secondary concern over the past few decades, such that many Christians no longer understand what life is about. This has led to a downplaying of sin and a large-scale collapse of the discipline of confession.
Q.: Do you reject the new liturgy?
A.: We recognize the new liturgy as valid and licit. But we do not close our eyes to the fact that the liturgical reform brought with it many developments which have taken on a life of their own and which lead away from the meaning of the Mass according to the Faith of the Church. The sacrificial character is frequently pushed into the background, or there is a lack of reverence shown toward the Blessed Sacrament. We are very thankful that Pope Benedict XVI pointed out these negative developments. For example, celebrating ad orientem and the reception of Holy Communion kneeling and on the tongue are barely practiced today. The question poses itself whether the changes made to the external form have facilitated a rather protestantized understanding of the Mass among priests and laity.
Q.: This wouldn't have happened if we had retained the "Old Mass," in your opinion?
A.: Presumably not to this extent. Surely, this isn't to be attributed solely to the changes in the liturgy. The training of priests today must also be reconsidered. But the liturgy is an important part of the whole - after all, it is the visible expression of the Faith. It is precisely the many signs of reverence and adoration prescribed by the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, as well as its prayers, which make explicit the sacrificial character of the Mass and express the great Mystery taking place on the altar.
Q.: The Council called for a more active participation of the faithful. How can this be realized in the old liturgy when the priest is more or less the sole actor and the Latin language represents an obstacle to conscious engagement?
A.: One must examine the conciliar document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, very closely. One observes significant discrepancies in comparison to what was later put into practice. For example, the text never mentions that the Latin language should be abandoned, merely that the local vernacular should be given due place. And this is something that we actually practice insofar as, for example, the readings in our Masses are recited in German. Nearly all the faithful who come to us have a German-Latin missal, and they manage quite well. I don't see language as an obstacle to conscious engagement in the Mass.
Q.: But what about the active participation of the faithful?
A.: In my opinion, the Council didn't intend for as many laypeople as possible to serve as liturgical actors within the sanctuary. Rather, that the faithful should be drawn more intensly into the unfolding of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. This does not mean activism, but rather that they participate through reaping greater spiritual fruits. In the past, many simply prayed the Rosary during the Mass. The Council wanted to put a stop to that and motivate the faithful to a more conscious participation in the Mass.
Q.: With his Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, Benedict XVI granted a general allowance for the celebration of the old liturgy. Are things supposed to go back to how they were before the reform of the liturgy?
A.: I realize that we can't simply re-introduce the old liturgy in parishes everywhere and, as it were, impose it upon the people. That just won't work. As I see it, Pope Benedict intended to set a standard for the Reform of the Reform. Both forms of the Rite should enrich each other mutually. I am convinced that certain elements of the old liturgy could improve the new, and also that elements of the new liturgy could enrich the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite: I'm thinking, for example, of the broader lectionary, or a period of quiet reflection after the reception of Holy Communion. Likewise, the calendar for the Extraordinary Form should be updated in the foreseeable future.
Q.: So, you're expecting a new liturgical reform?
A.: I don't think this is an issue at the moment. Pope Francis is not as concerned with the liturgy as was Pope Benedict. He has other priorities. Nonetheless, it should be noted that interest for the old liturgy, especially among younger clerics, is growing. An increasing number of priests celebrate the Mass in the Extraordinary Form at least occasionally. This, in turn, influences the manner in which the new Mass is celebrated, so that the Sacred becomes more apparent.
Q.: In the German Church, dwindling vocations are a big problem. Does the FSSP share this concern?
A.: Of course we are impacted by the problems of the age. After all, we don't live in isolation. Though, we did have a total of 16 priestly ordinations last year. Both of our seminaries - in Wigratzbad in Allgäu and in Denton in the US - are filled with over 100 seminarians. The average age of our priests is currently 37 years. All in all, we're doing quite well, but it's not as though we are drowning in vocations.
Q.: What about the number of faithful?
A.: In the German-language region, we have 23 branches or houses through which other apostolates are conducted. The number of faithful varies considerably. In the larger communities, between 100 and 180 faithful attend Sunday Mass. The trend, however, is upward. Moreover, all age groups are represented, though in our communities, the average age of the faithful is considerably younger than in other parishes.
Q.: Why is that? Do young people feel attracted to the old liturgy?
A.: In a certain sense, the old liturgy is the new liturgy for young people. They read about it on the internet and become interested. They come to our Masses out of curiosity, and are often fascinated by the atmosphere of the sacred. Of course, this has to be followed up with good catechesis and pastoral services. When that happens, then people come to see that we can offer them the spiritual food that they need.
Q.: Rumor has it that an agreement between Rome and the Society of St. Pius X is on the horizon. How is the relationship between the Fraternity and the Society today, and what does the future hold?
A.: Recently, there have been multiple indications that an agreement with Rome is coming. It cannot be overlooked that there has been a certain opening on the part of the official leadership of the Society over the last few years. Some of their priests are also strengthening their contact with us. The moderate wing is apparently ready for an agreement, which is being energetically pursued by Rome and the current pope. Still, the hardline wing remains. The Society has to accept the possibility of significant losses, perhaps even an internal split. I think that the current Superior General, Bishop Bernard Fellay, will have to decide between unity with Rome and unity within the Society. The realists among the leadership will hopefully recognize that there is no alternative to reconciliation with Rome.
(Original [German]: katholisch.de)