Rediscovering my Catholic birthright: How I found the Traditional Mass

In the previous iteration of True Restoration, before I rebooted it in my move to the Midwest, I commissioned guest pieces in a series called, “How Tradition Found Me.” I was fascinated with, as someone who came to Catholicism from the Novus Ordo false religion, the similarities in the stories of how it was that people came to the True Mass and True Religion.

I delayed writing my story at that time, not just because I was commissioning pieces from others and I thought it would be self-serving to insert my own story, but I also felt like my story was still “in motion.” Now, with the SSPX incorporation into the modern Vatican organization imminent, it seems right to finally tell my story. It was also a great way for me to revisit all my points of gratitude for moments of grace gifted to me, a deeply undeserving wretch, by Our Lord.

The Pedagogos

It was 1993. It was the first semester at St. Michael’s College Preparatory High School in Silverado, California. It is an all-boys boarding school, but for those of us, like me, who lived within Orange County (or points further), the boarding experience was only a Sunday night-Friday afternoon thing. We came home on the weekends. I had wanted to go to the local popular all-boys high school, Servite, but my mother intervened because she felt that the Norbertine school would be better for my spiritual life. Boy, was she right.

For those of you who don’t know the ancient order of St. Norbert, it was founded by him as an order of “Canons Regular.” It is not required that a priest celebrate Mass every day, but it is required that he say his office every day. Canons take this to the next level by publicly reciting the Office in choir, in addition to taking the regular vows of a religious. Unlike laxer monasteries of their order, the Norbertines in Orange County say all of the hours of the Office, in Latin, in at least plain chant. The Angelus bell rings three times a day. The conventual Mass is said with six candlesticks on the main altar, which was a powerful thing to me back then, because even though the altar was versus populum, it was made out of intimidating gray granite. There was no dispute or question as to what was being said here: a Sacrifice of Praise (indeed, I remembered the very first time I heard the never-used-in-the-parishes option, “pray brethren, that my sacrifice AND yours may be acceptable…” I was starting to understand that there was a big difference between the priest's sacrifice and my own.).

Now keep in mind, my family was “Roamin’ Catholic”. This meant that we would rove around to find the most conservative parish with the most conservative priests and the most conservative liturgy and sermons. Despite this, we still unknowingly drank innovation. In 4th grade I was involved in a school project in which I and some of my classmates had to design a Mass. It was still a rule that only boys could play the priest, though our teacher made it clear that she hoped one day that would be different. I remember a sex-ed class I took that same year in my parochial school, and I remember thinking this was such an odd, scary topic for me to be dealing with at 10. And finally, I remember my sister being an altargirl, and us not thinking twice about taking Communion in the hand.

Now, I say “conservative Novus Ordo” but I didn’t know a ton of stuff. I had no idea what the Social Reign of Christ was, I didn’t know who the Popes prior to our dearly beloved and blessed and holy and amazing and wonderful (we are so lucky, if only the bishops would stop blocking him!) John Paul II, we love you. While I absolutely accepted the Real Presence and the power of Confession I had no real sense of the majesty of this mystery (I mean, seriously, how much could I have believed and have taken Our Lord in my unconsecrated hands?)

The Norbertines changed all that. Not with fiery jeremiads, but with quiet disapproval of our ignorant ways. When we put out our hands for Communion as new freshmen, you could see the priests hesitate and wince for a moment, and then put Our Savior in our unworthy hands. Later on, our mentors, the senior seminarians (Norbertines go through a 12-year formation: 1 year as a candidate in suit and tie, 2 year novitiate, 3 years of temporary vows and Humanities and the Philosophate, another 3 years of temporary vows and the Theologate, 1 year in Rome and then final (permanent) vows, 1 year as a deacon, 1 year in the parishes or in an apostolate, then ordination.) would ask us quietly if we had ever considered receiving Our Lord on our tongues. They explained how much easier it was for the priest, and alluded to it being an unwelcome innovation to receive in your hands. By gentle persuasion from those we looked up to, we changed our ways. Once they knew they were dealing with pliable young men who they could turn into lions of Tradition, they started teaching us “the old ways.” I was taught the proper way to hold a candlestick and the crucifix and cruets, how to serve Private Mass (I had no idea such things existed), that there was an Old Mass that they celebrated there until 1983 that they had to give up but still tried to preserve the “spirit” of. I learned the difference between Roman and Gothic vestments, and why some priests thought Roman were better and why others swore by Gothic. I discovered black vestments, the burn bag for spent sacramentals, where the holy oils were kept, and basically, anything and everything that I desired to learn about, which in short, was EVERYTHING. I was hungry. I was fascinated with the enchanted universe that I knew that my religion always saw itself in but that I finally saw open out into blissful infinity.

I would be out at class or in a hallway and hear the Angelus bell ring. Some observant boys like me would stop and bow our heads and say the words silently, and even the flippant non-observant types would not disrespect it or talk during that time. We closed every night with Compline and opportunity for mental prayer and confession. I was on a different spiritual plane than I had ever been in my life.

As a choleric I brought all these lessons home to parents who did not resist them. I insisted that we as a family would no longer receive Communion in the hand, and if possible, we should genuflect before receiving. I encouraged monthly, even weekly confession for the whole family. I shamed my sister Clare into quitting altar serving, over the weak protests of our “conservative” pastor. I started subscribing to the New Oxford Review and the Wanderer and clipped articles to give to my parents. I even occasionally pushed them to come to Mass at St. Michael’s so that they could see what the “Real Mass” looked like. I saw my parish Mass as a joke and I did my part as an altar server to bring the “spirit of St. Michael’s” to the parish. At the sign of Peace I refused to shake hands with my fellow altar server (occasionally a girl) and made sure that the candles and cruets were held properly and that responses were crisp and succinct. The “officiating priests” always knew where St. Michael’s boys went to school. We were the Recusants-in-training.

For reasons not germane to this article, I left St. Michael’s after my sophomore year. While I was physically leaving the school I was not spiritually leaving the Abbey and indeed I took care to remind the Servite Fathers who ran the school I now attended (that Novus Ordo school I wanted to attend as a freshman) just what lines I had drawn in the sand. I visited the Abbey as often as I could, and I kept in touch with the seminarians, now deacons, soon to be priests, who had formed me. I served in their ordination Masses, and was forever touched by the prostration and Litany of the Saints at the first ordination I witnessed. This, I thought, was Catholicism. This, I thought, was what a Priest of Jesus Christ was. Dignified, in proper, regal vestments, following rubrics and saying prayers and imparting blessings as his forebears did. Not in rainbow vestments, starting Masses with jokes, and discouraging confession. Counterintuitively, I only grew more militant as I was not at St. Michael’s five days a week. I fancied that I would hold the line “out in the trenches” from my masters who had schooled me in real Catholicism.

What was lost, was then found

In 1996, I ran into a fellow “recalcitrant,” a young man named Richard Pyune. We were discussing Vatican II and the changes and I repeated what I had been taught at St. Michael’s: the Council was hijacked by liberals and all the changes going on now were NOT authorized by the documents. Indeed, it was a very orthodox Council (I, like 99% of all Catholics, Traditional and otherwise, had just listened to priests I trusted. I had never read one word of one Council document) but was “pastoral” and as such, not binding. Richard laughed bitterly. “You have no idea what you are talking about.” Always precocious, even at 16, I demanded to be given documentation. Show me (I was a Missourian in spirit even then) and I’ll believe.

He fatefully handed me, two days later, two books: What Has Happened to the Catholic Church? by the Fathers Radecki, CMRI, and Open Letter to Confused Catholics, by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. These two books changed my world forever.I couldn’t put either of them down once I had started. My horror grew page by page as I started to grasp the depth of what had been stolen from me. I found out, among other things, that:

  • John Paul II and his predecessors were not by any definition on any planet “conservative.” Indeed, he had taken part in religious ceremonies with leaders of other religions. I did not grasp the gravity of such acts at the time but even as a child I knew them to be wrong.
  • The “spirit of the Council” canard was a lie. There were real problems with the documents of the Council.
  • The Social Reign of Christ had been actively worked against and in some places entirely suppressed by claimants to the Papacy.
  • Paul VI had invited Protestant observers to actually comment on and consult on changes in the Mass.
  • The Mass I attended was SUBSTANTIALLY different from the Mass as had been heard by Catholics for centuries.

I was furious, angry, confused. I immediately went to the Norbertines. I wanted to know why they had hidden this from me, and how did they tolerate this nonsense. They gave me sympathetic words and understanding glances. They took me to the seminary library and checked out Michael Davies books for me to read. Rather than abandon me, they knew they had prepared me for this discovery. Rather than blunt it, they wanted to control it. I asked for training and permission to serve the Tridentine Mass and was reluctantly and very cautiously granted both.

I went home and found among my father’s belongings my grandfather’s Missal. It was pre-1969, and while not a pre-1955 Missal, contained the Roman Canon in its entirety.

For those of us who attended the Novus Ordo Mass, the Roman Canon was very rarely used, even at St. Michael’s. We always asked the “old-school” priests, like Fr. Prior, who insisted on using it, as to why and how it was different from #2 (never EVER used at St. Michael’s and infamously the “fastest epiclesis in the West” as coined by Fr. Anthony Cekada) and even #3 (very frequently used) and #4 (almost never used, except when we asked a particular priest, Fr. Subprior, to use it just to experience the different prayer).

But as I flipped through the Missal, it wasn’t the semi-familiar Canon that reduced me to tears. It was what came before, which was the Offertory. I remember gaping, at the verge of tears, the first time my eyes read these words:

Suscipe, Sancte Pater, omnipotens et aeterne Deus, hanc immaculatam hostiam, quam ego indignus famulus tuus offero tibi Deo meo vivo et vero, pro innumerabilibus peccatis, et offensionibus, et negligentiis meis, et pro omnibus fidelibus christianis vivis atque defunctis: ut mihi et illis proficiat ad salutem in vitam aeternam. Amen.

I knew the Latin, as I had been taking Latin since I was 10, but I still read the English for full effect:

Receive, O Holy Father, almighty and eternal God, this spotless host, which I, thy unworthy servant offer unto Thee, my living and true God, for mine own countless sins, offenses and negligences, and for all here present; as also for all faithful Christians living and dead, that it may avail both for my own and their salvation unto everlasting life. Amen.

This was, as St. Thomas said, the entirety of the doctrine of the Mass and the Eucharist, right there. In later years, I would often say that prayer to myself as a way to remind myself of the majesty of Mass and the importance of what we as Catholics died to protect throughout millennia. And I wept for shame at having presumed to stick out my dirty, unworthy hands to receive Him. I wept too at His resignation to my ignorance, and his condescending to still dwell in my heart and vivify my life with the ex opere operantis graces that were supplied even when doubtful sacraments robbed me of the ex opere operato graces. These amazing offertory prayers had been suppressed in the New Mass (and, not coincidentally, in the first iteration of the Lutheran Communion Service) and their absence had deprived me of a proper understanding of the Holy Sacrifice.

After some time I insisted to my father that we attend the local “Indult” Mass, as I found out it was called. It was said by a priest ordained pre-Vatican II, and in preparation for that Sunday I read the unchanging parts of the Missal over 30 times. When I showed up for Mass at St. Mary’s by the Sea, I couldn’t contain my excitement. I asked to serve. Father assumed that someone who would present himself to serve must have served it before (but I never had), and so I attended my first Traditional Mass at the Gospel side, attending as an altarboy. I knew all the responses by heart, and while my service was not nearly as crisp and paced as I wanted it to be, I was absolutely thrilled. I knew I was home, and I knew I could never really “go back.”

Bringing my family over

My father attended with me that day and he was brought back to fond memories of his youth. He was a willing partner to coerce my mother and my young sisters into coming with us. My mom, a convert from Buddhism to Catholicism and arguably the most fervent and prayerful in our family, also loved this Liturgy. We had spent a year in the Byzantine Rite during our “roamin’” days and so beautiful, well done, Traditional Liturgy was not lost on her.

Now that I had dealt with the Mass issue (we were DONE with the Novus Ordo, in my mind. My family would never attend a Sunday English Mass again, if I had anything to do with it. I accepted weekday Novus Ordos as "penance."), I turned my studies to this Archbishop Lefebvre, who had referred in his Open Letter to something called the “Social Reign of Christ.” I also had read Is Tradition Excommunicated? which while thin, made it clear to me that one could not be “excommunicated” for attending an SSPX Mass.

My mother was not yet ready for “irregular” canonical Masses, and my father and I served as the advance scouting party. I still remember to this day getting in the car with him and asking him jokingly if he was “ready to be excommunicated.” My father, even though he was/is par excellence a “rule-follower,” was quite impressed with the arguments against “excommunication” and laughed as he nodded his assent.

We attended Our Lady of the Angels, a modern, yet majestic in its own way, church in Arcadia, California. The church was pastored by Fr. Charles Ward, who as a dependable worker in the SSPX US District House for a decade, had been sent to secure the fort against Fr. Eugene Berry, who was laying claim to a parish not clearly legally left to the SSPX. Msgr. Donahue, like Fr. Francis LeBlanc and Abbot Leonard Giardina after him, would try to toe both sides of the SSPX/sedevacantist divide, so as to keep as many parishioners as possible (though his sometimes caustic personality often drove many off). I would later learn that Mel Gibson helped fund a great deal of the construction of the church. Fr. Ward was impressed with my reading and that it had only been a few weeks since I had read Open Letter. I was voracious for more and he recommended They Have Uncrowned Him and other works.

I then began the 3-month task of bringing my mother to the SSPX. We were a split family during that time. We had only been attending the Indult for a couple months, and I was insistent that we needed to attend a parish in which the Real Mass was said all the time and that “other thing” which I had begun to despise but did not consider invalid was never said. I would sometimes go with my mom to the Indult but every Sunday I made my case for why the SSPX was “not excommunicated” and brought in the Norbertines for backup when the indult priest, Fr. Daniel Johnson, told her otherwise. The Norbertines were only partially helpful. They conceded that canonically, under the Old or New Code that it was impossible to excommunicate someone simply for attending Mass. But they did start speaking to liceity in sacraments (“licitness”) and I had to begin studying canon law, a field previously unbeknownst to me, just to encounter the arguments with a modicum of informed thinking. The Norbertines supplied me with a Latin/English of the Old Code and I got to studying the whole thing (you might reasonably ask at this time if I got any high school homework done. I’m a nerd and I’m half Asian. I made time for this stuff.)

There is a great gulf fixed between you and me

Senior year came and I was at a public school (again, a story for another time). My schedule was such that I could attend Mass almost every morning and as a Fulton Sheen devotee, I had begun to make a daily Holy Hour after school. A few episodes in particular (three of which I will recount here) made me realize that I had learned too much and that I could no longer have anything to do with the Novus Ordo, which I came to see more and more as an alien, imposter, usurping religion (though it would be years before I articulated it as such).

The first came one humiliating morning at the conclusion of Mass. At this point, nearly a year after I had first read Open Letter, I was full-on kneeling at Novus Ordo Masses for communion on the tongue, and like most hard-core conservative Novus Ordos, I had mastered the “quick down and up kneel” so that the priest wouldn’t be irritated at us “holding up the line” because lighting-speed in distributing Communion was what mattered, not the devotion of the faithful.

Father Doug (I’m not making that up, that’s how we knew him), who had a long ponytail, paused right before the Final Blessing. “Some of you seem not to be aware of some of the changes now in effect because of the Second Vatican Council. We do not kneel for communion and it is disrespectful to your fellow Catholics to try to stand out while receiving Communion. Communion is received (he then turned and looked at me, and so did the other 20 people there) STANDING UP.”

I was crushed.

After Mass I sank down in the pew and knelt and I tried to hold it together as long as I could. When I was sure that almost everyone was out of the building, I started to cry. It wasn’t the timid crying either. It was the heaving, choking, hard-to-breathe crying. I was 17. I was confused. I asked Our Lord what I was doing wrong. I was trying to honor Him; why were His priests so hateful of my (I thought harmless) gesture of reverence? Why did that priest hate that I received on the tongue, and kneeling? I was hurt and I complied with the "command" not to kneel, as the Byzantines had taught me that standing is also a sign of respect, but I held on to communion on the tongue. Indeed, one Saturday afternoon I slipped the pamphlet "Communion in the hand: a sacrilege" into roughly 100 bulletins. I don't know who I might have reached.

The second incident came not long after. I was at a Catholic Worker Mass (Again, wow, another story) and they used leavened bread for Mass. They passed around the bread at communion time and horrified and cornered, I had very carefully torn off a piece of the consecrated bread for myself (the loaf was being passed around and there wasn't a way for me to refuse it without causing a scene). Afterwards, the paten and chalice had been left aside like dirty dishes while everyone went in to dinner. I pretended that I had to go to the bathroom but when everyone had left, I performed the dual ablutions like the Norbertines had taught me. I knelt in front of the makeshift credence table, laid prostrate in apology to Our Lord, and then got up and quickly did makeshift ablutions. I cleaned every visible crumb I could into the chalice, and then took my thumb and forefinger and rinsed them with leftover wine. I drunk everything and then poured in water. I drunk everything again and took a purificator and cleaned out the paten and chalice until it shone spotlessly. I silently apologized to Our Lord again for such disrespect, and following the example of the Norbertines, had quietly fixed the problem without causing a scene.

This incident lingered with me, as too when I watched people chewing gum in Mass and taking it out right before they received Communion, that these people could not possibly believe that this was Jesus Christ, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. Their actions, like mine before I had learned better, spoke that the law of worship really was the law of belief and my (and their) irreverence towards the Blessed Sacrament spoke just how poorly we had been catechized.

The last incident I will share with you occurred on St. Blase's feast day. I suspected that the Eucharistic ministers would try to "bless" the faithful after the Mass. As the main server at daily Mass for months now, I had refused to wear the white robe and red rope that other altar servers used and had bought my own cassock and surplice. My fellow Mass attendees knew where I stood on "the old ways." I handed the candlesticks to Father and stepped back while he started blessing throats.

A Eucharistic minister "psssssted" at me from the sacristy. I slowly ambled back. "Yes?" I asked knowing full well what he would ask. "Where are the candles?" "Why are you asking?" "Because I want to help Father." "You can't help Father." "Why is that?" "Because you're a layman, and you have no power to impart a blessing."

He paused. He stuttered, "What are you talking about?"

"Look, you can distribute Communion if you want, but giving a sacramental blessing, only a priest can do that."

"Look kid, give me the candles." "I can't, I hid them" (I really had).

His eyes blazed with anger and he shouted: "You WILL give me the candles!" I was startled. As always, the guiding principle of the conservative Novus Ordo took over: stand your ground, but don't cause a scene. I climbed on top of the cabinets and retrieved the candles I had hidden from him. But his victory was Pyrrhic. As he triumphantly strode out of the sacristy, Father was placing crossed candles on the last attendee of daily Mass that morning. My delaying tactic had worked.

I was quietly unvesting when he slammed the candles down in front of me, glared, and walked out. "Extraordinary" minister indeed.

The Society of St Pius X

In 1997, as a result of what we had learned about Tradition, my father pulled my sister Clare out of the conservative Novus Ordo boarding school she attended and sent her to St Marys, Kansas. She was reluctant, but often says it was when she started reading the encyclicals of the preconciliar Popes that she realized she had been lied to as well. She would eventually find her husband in St. Marys. So too would my sister behind her, who attended the Academy also. My youngest sister, when it was her time, was sent to an SSPX boarding school in England.

I still kept up contact with the Norbertines, but our relations were becoming increasingly strained. I was frustrated because they were the ones who had led me to Tradition, only to disapprove as I wanted the full-parish-life that only the SSPX could offer, and which the Indult could never aspire to.

In 2000, I myself went to Kansas and attended St. Marys College, where my grandfather had attended when it was a Jesuit institution, and finished an AA in Liberal Arts. I had the luxury of the Traditional Latin Mass and the largest Traditional parish in the world. I tried to take advantage of all the sacramental benefits, but spoiled now with easy access to Tradition, I stand guilty of missing sacramental opportunities, though I was incredibly gifted by the opportunity to attend my first Ignatian (and silent) retreat.

During my time at St. Marys I started to “go deep” into learning the Traditional Faith, and apart from reading every encyclical by Popes since the time of Gregory XVI it was in 2001 that I finally laid my hands on Romano Amerio’s masterwork Iota Unum. While Amerio stops short of the damning implications his book lays bare, it was clear to me: the Novus Ordo was, to paraphrase Archbishop Lefebvre, a bastard religion, with bastard sacraments and a bastard Mass.

I read back copies of the Angelus and every Si Si No No that had ever been printed. I read back copies of the Papa-Stronsay-published Catholicas well as the Remnant. In these various sources I learned about the theological prowess of Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, who as a priest had assisted Archbishop Lefebvre with the 1988 May 5th Protocol. I also admired his studies which had laid the groundwork for the famous “intrinsically evil” arguments regarding the New Mass that had raged in the pages of the 1997 Remnantbetween Fr. Jean Violette, Fr. Peter Scott, and Michael Davies. I had even once stolen him for 10 minutes at the 1997 ordination of Fr. Frank Kurtz, and walked up and down a hallway with him in Winona as he explained what was meant by “intrinsically evil” and what the SSPX’s official position was (this was in the years before Bishop Fellay mandated that even bishops were not to speak without his explicit permission on such matters). I was 18 years old.

Almost 10 years later, in 2006, I started blogging under the title of “True Restoration.” The title of the blog bespoke my own hope of what was truly needed: no half measures, but a gutting of the post-Vatican II changes and a restoration of the proper liturgy and catechism and code of canon law. I had been inspired by my new friend Nicholas Wansbutter's blog (who I came to know first through his blog Traditio in Radice. He has since rebooted his work under a new collaborative site called Durendal). I also made some new friends in the blogosphere, including New Catholic over at Rorate-Caeli, who had started his site roughly one month before me.

I wanted more visibility for my website, so that I could have more readers and more discussion of these issues I felt so passionately about, and an opportunity came with a pitch I gave to Michael Matt, editor of the Remnant. Let me interview Bishop Tissier de Mallerais when he comes to California in a few months, I said, and I’ll give you the text for free (I had never been published, and I thought my proposition might break the barrier. Print would legitimize my nascent blog, I thought. I was right.). The interview was jarring, to say the least. It came out in print in the April 30, 2006 Remnant, and at the time was the longest SSPX episcopal interview ever done. It went supernova, amassing over 16,000 worldwide views, in large part due to link-aggregator Seattle Catholic, and sparked controversy and discussion, and it started a whole new line of questioning that I had never allowed myself to think about before.

My policy at the time was that I always presented a completed text of the interview to the interviewee (this doesn’t happen anymore in my video interviews, but at the time I had a tape recorder and transcribed everything). Bishop Tissier had “forced” the interview to go down a different track as I sought to wrap it up:

S.H. Well, that’s all my questions, my lord. Now, when I type this I want to make sure all my quotes are accurate, so I will get you a transcript before you go to Veneta…
H.L. No, no, these questions, you have not addressed the essential things – I appreciate your questions but you did not touch anything essential in your questions…
S.H. What more, my lord?
H.L. Well, for instance, that this Pope has professed heresies in the past! He has professed heresies! I do not know whether he still does.
S.H. When you say “has professed,” do you mean he still does?
H.L. No, but he has never retracted his errors.
S.H. But my lord, if he has not retracted them, does he not still retain them? What are you speaking of, can you be more specific, I must admit I am no theologian and I have not read any of his works. Was this when he was a Cardinal?
H.L. It was when he was a priest. When he was a theologian, he professed heresies, he published a book full of heresies.

I had been trained as a Marine and we are always taught to shift and adapt when you are surprised. So, I went with it.

What I’ve never made public until today, because circumstances now make the revelation relevant, is that Bishop Tissier used the word “heretic” five times during the interview to describe Benedict XVI. I worked all night to transcribe the audio and the next day Bishop Tissier sent back his revision of my transcription. Among minor corrections to text and and clarification of an exact quote in a 1960s era book by the then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, he had mandated that everywhere he had said “heretic” that the text was to be changed to “professed heresies” (It was a good thing that I kept this signed document as well, as the District Superior of the United States at the time, Fr. John Fullerton, was upset that I had not “run the interview” by the District Office. Foolishly believing that a bishop outranked the District Superior, I remember sending a copy of the signed fax to Fr. Fullerton via Fr. Kenneth Novak, after which time Fr. Fullerton could no longer be upset with me. This was back when I cared what the hierarchy of the soon-to-become Stalinist SSPX thought of me and my work. I wanted access to interviewing priests and I couldn’t get that access if I didn’t play nice, so I did.). The issue was, however, that I had to deal with the fact that Bishop Tissier, a man I respected deeply, had called the Vicar of Jesus Christ on earth – or at least the man I thought was at the time – a heretic. He had later parsed his words to read, “professed heresies,” but to me this was a semantical PR ploy, a distinction without a difference.

Again, I didn’t know the consequences of such assertions, but something felt deeply wrong. The day after the interview with Bishop Tissier in April 2006, I reached out by telephone to Fr. Anthony Cekada, a known sedevacantist and former classmate of Bishop Tissier, because I wanted the “fair and balanced” aspect of the interview: comments from “the other side.” It was during this first discussion with Fr. Cekada that I began to glimpse the importance of making decisions and drawing conclusions from a coherent set of theological principles, properly referenced by accepted authorities prior to Vatican II, not by vague references to some vagary like possessing or not possessing a so-called “Catholic spirit.” Such intellectual and theological rigor was not encouraged in an SSPX that was mostly (and is still today) largely anti-intellectual. I was heartened by it, and began to study sedevacantism in earnest.

In 1996, it was an SSPX bishop, Archbishop Lefebvre, who had first awakened me, through his writings, to the problems of the Council and the New Mass. Ten years later, one of his spiritual sons, Bishop Tissier, awoke me to the problem that Bishop Sanborn so famously termed, “The Crux of the Matter,” which of course was the Problem of the Papacy.

Now what?

I do not say that the Pope is not the Pope, but I do not say that you cannot say the Pope is not the Pope.” (said at table to fellow clergy, to laughter, for the phrase in French sounds like a tongue twister.) –Archbishop Lefebvre

I only dared confide to my closest friends that I was even considering that sedevacantism was a coequal, simply different, approach, to the problem of the Council. It was a thought-crime to say such in an SSPX which increasingly sought to marginalize sedevacantist ideas. I did frequently discuss the issue with someone who had become, dare I say, a new friend in the wake of the Tissier interview: Bishop Richard Williamson.

In 2006 I penned an obituary for the Angelus for Fr. Carl Pulvermacher and I pitched Fr. Kenneth Novak on flying down to La Reja to interview Bishop Williamson on the 30th anniversary of his ordination to priesthood. I offered to do the story for free in trade for the Angelus picking up 60% of the flight. If it had been anyone other than Fr. Novak, a huge devotee of Bishop Williamson, the answer would surely have been no. As it was, I had a chance to spend a week at that beautiful and peaceful seminary, and began to get to know more deeply a man whose ideas I had resisted, especially on women’s pants and on the Sound of Music. But I got to know him one-on-one and found him funny, incredibly cultured and educated, and most importantly, absolutely in deadly earnest about his refusal to compromise the Truth (and even the small-t truth). After the interviews had been wrapped, we discussed the possibilities of my bringing out his letters into print and I urged him to restart “Letters from the Rector” in some new form. The books, of course, came out, and so did the digital column which True Restoration Press underwrote until last year known as Eleison Comments which to this day runs weekly. We also saw Letter from La Reja, a feature which appeared in the Angelus from time to time (again, an initiative by Fr. Kenneth Novak, a man who would eventually be displaced by a non-native-English speaker but guaranteed yes-man of Menzingen: Fr. Markus Heggenberger). I even managed to coax the Literature professor in His Excellency out, and we worked together on a Poetry Series.

Bishop Williamson had fought sedevacantism for years but he saw in my own questioning what at the time I framed as an “alternative” but not “exclusive” response to the Council. I thought that you could “choose” resistance or sedevacantism, but it was folly and hubris to claim that your position was required for salvation. With different saints backing competing claimants during the Great Western Schism, what surety had I? All I could do was follow the conclusions I drew from the studies and research I conducted.

From 2006 to 2009 I read all of the texts the SSPX wrote about sedevacantism and also all the competing articles from I came to see a recurring theme: the SSPX using tenuous, recycled, flimsy arguments with out-of-context documentation, while sedevacantists over and over took care to footnote all of their assertions and conclusions with traditional Catholic sources. I’m not here trying to pretend that sedevacantists are morally superior or “better” than SSPXers, but what was clear to me was that sedes were usually scholarly and Scholastic, while the SSPX often only pretended to such attributes while utterly failing in counter-arguments, particularly on the issue of the Pope.

I was once again at a loss. Had Our Lord taken me away from the Novus Ordo cult only to show me that even what I had taken for granted, an SSPX parish and Mass, was operating under the false, anti-Catholic notion of “Recognize and Resist?” I was terribly sad, and given that I knew so many SSPXers (I had somewhat made my bed within the organization, though I had always kept both of my feet of independence outside the tent). In 2009 when I did my first of three London interviews with Bishop Williamson (I have kept the third unpublished to this day), I had “come out” as a sedevacantist to him, in the same manner in which some SSPX priests had done, i.e. they were “privately” sedevacantist…they did not discuss the matter from the pulpit. This was reminiscent of an early policy of the Archbishop, and supported by Fr. Schmidberger, who himself was sedevacantist in illo tempore, even going to the length of publishing a pamphlet about it as a seminarian. The Bishop understood my objections, made his case, but did not desire to stop our collaboration, which at that time was reaching so many new souls via the internet. Indeed, one of the many “felix culpas” of the whole Swedish TV incident, when it did happen, is the known conversion of at least one Jew to Catholicism, who had been led to investigate by the interview and later reached out to the Bishop in gratitude for starting that avalanche of grace. True philo-semitism: conversion!

I then spent the next 2 years studying the “una cum” question. Some colleagues that I respected, both John Daly and John Lane, who despite living in France and Australia, respectively, made time to chat with me about the subject. They weigh in that it is permissible to attend a Mass “una cum Benedicto” though I still felt a lingering guilt about attending a Mass where I professed to be in communion with a notorious heretic (as Bishop Tissier, who has studied Benedict XVI’s work more deeply than 99% of all Traditional Catholics, and certainly more than the other three SSPX bishops, called him) who was destroying the Church.

At the end of 2011 I made the personally difficult decision to stop attending the incredibly convenient SSPX Mass with the generally kind and welcoming people at St. Vincent de Paul in Kansas City. There is yet no one, cleric or otherwise, who has provided a satisfactory answer to Fr. Anthony Cekada's "Grain of Incense" article and when one is examining the opinions of a layman (amateur theologian) and a cleric (professional theologian), I'm going to choose a cleric every time. At the same time I tried to make clear to my closest friends and my SSPX-attending family my own take on the sedevacantist issue: that I don’t roam around the countryside seeking to “convert” people to sedevacantism (indeed, Dr. David Allen White had taken care to warn me that all the men he personally knew who had become sedevacantist became irrationally obsessed with the matter, talking of nothing else). In all of my initiatives, projects, and writings, I’m trying to talk about Catholicism, both its cultural roots and relevant implications in the modern age as well as the way we Catholics have to deal with the current crisis of faith theologically and liturgically. In the words of St. Thomas More, “I wish none harm, I say none harm.” It is required that to be saved all must submit to the Roman Pontiff ("We declare, say, define, and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff," Unam Sanctam, Pope Boniface VIII). I do not dare submit myself to a known heretic, despite how long that means I must wait for a true Pope. As for others - that's a decision to be made by themselves in consultation with evidence, grace, and prayer.

We must all, in the best way we can, as aided and inspired by grace, live the Catholic life we are called to live, within the time we have been given. A reflection I take away at this stage in my journey comes from insights from Padre Pio and Our Lady of Fatima: one day we will no longer have the Mass, but only the Rosary. My faith is enriched by the Mass, but like the Japanese Catholics who kept the faith for two centuries without it, my faith does not require the Mass. I diligently try every day to correspond with those who have questions, learning more about myself and my Faith as I reflect or sometimes research in response. Please pray for me, that I may always serve Him as best I know how, humbly formulating my own response to this crisis, while never presuming to think ill of those who choose otherwise, or who are at different stages of the journey to Tradition. It is, very much, a journey.

I am, however, firmly convinced that the Novus Ordo religion is a counter-Church, and that it is impossible for a man to be both the head of an anti-Catholic “new” “conciliar” “bastard” church/religion while simultaneously being the Vicar of Jesus Christ on earth. I find it absurd that I would call a man "Pope" and yet simultaneously reject his Mass, his Code of Canon Law, and his Catechism, all universally promulgated. I find such contradictory thinking, very generally accepted and specifically articulated on sites like this, which calls on a Pope to “convert from Modernism,” to be, at best, inherently heretical and un-Catholic.

And now you know, the rest of the story.

Sedes Sapientiae, ora pro nobis.

Stephen Heiner

Stephen founded True Restoration in 2006 and served as its first President until 2023. He now lives in Reading, Pennsylvania.

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13 Responses

  1. Wendy Haught says:

    Thank you for this and all your previous work. I started reading your first blog when I was new to Tradition and have learned much from you. I appreciate your candor. Dr. White gave good advice. You seem to be applying it well. God bless.

  2. Picard says:

    Re universal laws/universal promulgation:

    Sed contra: The NewCode and NewMass are not uniersal, they only belong to the the Latin, western Church. So they are not universal (except for/of the laws that are not restricted to the West).

    What do you do with this argument?

    in Christ through Mary

  3. @Wendy: Thank you!

    @Picard: This is a fair point/question, but one made by Fr. Scott a long time ago. And it unfortunately comes from a misunderstanding of "universal" in relation to "rite."

    Canon law is separated into Roman and various other Eastern divisions. But when a canonist calls something "universal" it doesn't necessarily mean it applies to all rites simultaneously. It is in reference to the territory in which it is considered in force.

    In this case, my allusions to the New Code and New Mass and New Catechism…I'm referring to their being in force worldwide, or "throughout the whole Christian world.”

    For reference…

    D. Prümmer, Manuale Juris Canonici (Freiburg: Herder 1927) 4. “b) Ratione extensionis jus ecclesiasticum dividitur: a. in jus universale, quod obligat in toto orbe christiano, et jus particulare, quod viget tantum in aliquo territorio determinato… e) Ratione ritus jus distinguitur in jus Ecclesiae occidentalis et jus Ecclesiase orientalis.” His emphasis. See also G. Michiels Normae Generales Juris Canonici 2nd ed. (Paris: Desclée 1949) 1:14.

    Also, any "universal decrees" have the character of true law: “general decrees which are addressed to the universal Church (of the Roman Rite) have the force of universal law.”

    Ref in the original:

    Oppenheim, P. Tractatus de Jure Liturgico. Turin: Marietti 1939. 2 vol.

    2:54. “Quae decreta pro universa Ecclesia … rationem verae legis habere, nemo est qui dubitet.”

    2:63. “Decreta generalia quae ad universam Ecclesiam (ritus romani) diriguntur, vim legis habent universalis.”

  4. giancarlo says:

    Mr. Heiner: I have often wondered what Bishop Williamson meant exactly when he called sedevacantists "sterile". Have you any idea?

  5. Thank you for sharing your story. I'm always excited to see the newest thing you've written or who've you interviewed lately. It seems we all have our own stories to tell.

  6. giancarlo

    I think the Bishop was referring to the fact that sedevacantists don't have large numbers/new religious orders/schools everywhere much like the SSPX does. In such a framework/mindset, the proof is in the growth.

    My answer to that is the Legionaries of Christ, who prior to their exposure had hundreds of priests and thousands of seminarians. Numbers alone are not compelling.

  7. _ says:

    Will we ever see the third +Williamson interview, or at least learn what it was about?

  8. When the time is right, I'll release it. I don't know when that will be, if ever.

  9. @ Picard.

    The argument that the Code et al. is not infallible is false, and this can be demonstrated with logic.

    The differences in the "Western Church" and the "Latin Rite" to their legitimate colleague Rites (as it were) are purely accidental (i.e., not substantial; otherwise those alternative Rites would be immediately illegitimate).

    Consider that if tomorrow everyone were to become Latin Catholics. Nothing in the Code et al. would need to be changed, though now it is clearly "universal" (in the sense of that the word is used in the argument [against the infallibility of the Code, for example]). However, if there was a single error or evil in that Code – which becomes possible if the Code is not infallible – then the universal Church (on earth) would be everywhere demonstrably practising and possibly even believing errors and evil, if not outright heresy and committing even sacrileges regularly.

    Consider the Law in the Code that permits unbaptised catechumens to be given a Christian burial. This is clearly justified by the doctrine of baptism of desire; however, if it were false, then the Code would be giving a law to practise a monstrous sacrilege no different than, for example, permitting Christian burial to Infidels, Jews, manifest heretics or apostates, et cetera. Now everyone agrees it would be impossible for the Church to give such a law to all; however, it is not impossible that (again for example) everyone were to begin using a legitimate Rite of the Church (e.g., the Latin Rite).

    The same goes for catechisms in general. It could be speciously argued that, for example, since the Catechism of the Council of Trent was introduced i) at a certain period of time (as if to create the impression that it was not always (universally) preached, taught or believed), and ii) only meant for priests (and not the laity) that it therefore is not "universal" and does not enjoy the charism of infallibility. Everyone, however, sees that this is false, since the priests all believed it and taught it to everyone, and the distinctions introduced are accidental and irrelevant for, in practise, the Catechism of Trent is effectively, and manifeslty, universal.

  10. trent13 says:

    RE: the attendance of "una cum" masses

    The issue never bothered me either way regarding the legality of attending or not attending. I don't consider sedevacantism to be a position required for everyone else to hold, but I hold it and that is all that matters. Why would I attend a mass celebrated by priests who do not espouse the same theological principles I do? Until the Church declares on the situation, I don't see how anyone else could be at fault for attending, unless they are going against their conscience.

    On a related point, my husband had brought up the point, which I thought true, in reference to several of your comments re: the SSPX being too dictatorial, that it is of necessity that +Fellay be so. Given that the purpose of the SSPX existence in the first place is to "recognize and resist", it would be entirely out of keeping with placing oneself under the authority of the SSPX to digress from that line of thinking.

    It would be tantamount to a professed Jesuit not following his fourth vow because he disagreed with it – such a disagreement would have to be dealt with and such dissent from the rule would have to be discouraged. In that sense, the manner of +Fellay's running the order is not out of keeping from any other SG from any other major order in the past.

    If one disagrees with what the SSPX believes and teaches, leave them. But if one decides to remain, don't try to undermine the authority of the established hierarchy. Yet, it is obvious to me that the theological position of the SSPX will lead to such issues since they themselves are bucking what they consider to be the highest authority on earth.

    Ideally, in a world without THE CRISIS, we would have no such problems, but things being what they are the question may legitimately be asked, how can they expect their adherents and priests to unquestioningly tow the line, when the foundational purpose of their order is to resist?

    My point is that on a practical order, given the SSPX position re: the current hierarchy, the SSPX priests should be able to expect the right to disagree, but from the perspective of moral principle (if that is the right term), from the perspective that there exist such a thing in this world as right authority, they should not, or if they do, they should leave the SSPX altogether.

  11. @Trent: I agree with the bulk of your comments and I think some of that spirit is being addressed in my new series of featured pieces.

    However, as far as your husband's point analogizing the Jesuits to the SSPX, might I say, with all due respect, that's balderdash.

    Entering religious life is certainly a cross and one in which one will have to "obey" many times when one does not agree, however, it is not a license for religious orders to use tyranny sub rosa an enforced piety. Those religious orders you refer to have constitutions – those constitutions are inforced by a relevant Congregation in Rome. The SSPX original constitutions, written by the Archbishop, which I have with me, have been altered significantly…and you know who has done the most significant changes? Bishop Fellay.

    Sure, you have to follow the rules, but when the rules were written by someone not the founder, who doesn't even obey the constitutions anyway, and who doesn't report to anyone and is "self-regulating" the crisis requires some push back. Apparently 3 men, 2 of whom are roughly 20 years older than Bishop Fellay, and who have certainly been priests longer than he have, thought that a pushback was relevant. That's because bishops weren't covered under the original SSPX constitution…until Bishop Fellay altered those in his favor.

    Bishop Fellay isn't some bete-noire to me. He's just a politician who has no doctrinal chops. That's not someone who should be in charge of a congregation during such a crisis.

  12. trent13 says:

    Balderdash – ha, I like that, it's a better form of another B-word, but still gets your point across. As to your argument, your points, which I think most are unaware of, myself and my husband included, definitely carry weight.

  13. pclaudel says:

    Dear Mr. Heiner: Sad to say, you (and not you alone, of course) seem now to be required to explain to your readers in words of as few syllables as possible that it is just plain wrong to equate "autocracy" (whether in an administrative, organizational, ecclesiastical, or governmental setting) with "absolutism." Yet the idea that, for good or ill, authority writ large or the decision-making process belongs either to a single individual or to the mythical democratic mob, with no middle ground whatsoever being desirable or even conceivable, has so little relation to actual human history or to the history of the Church that it is a wonder that it ever got a foothold in people's minds, let alone replaced every other view of the matter.

    I blame it on the pollution of mind and character by the secular and "religious" education people have had inflicted upon them for a century and more. Americans—actually all people now living in once Christian lands where "cosmopolite" forces now reign supreme—have been made drunk on the plonk of democracy and self-government, two satanic lies whereby the gullible many are led to accept at the autonomic level (1) that they actually have a real say in who governs them and how they govern them and (2) that they have the moral right and the intellectual competence to have that say.

    So we are left with the unappealing sight of considerable numbers of people who believe they are Catholics thinking that they are rejecting "secularism" by embracing a misconceived authoritarianism as an ideal. Things might be slightly different, at least for Anglophones, had King Aethelred the Unready been canonized either instead of or in addition to Edward the Confessor. The existence of a sainted monarch whose primary earthly woe was "unreadiness"—which in the Anglo-Saxon English of his time meant "lack of sound counsel"—might have served as a much-to-be-profited-from instance of the ills that will certainly befall an autocrat who exercises authority in a fashion that God alone is equipped to exercise it. (NB: I am neither urging the cause of the ill-counseled Aethelred [not that there's much of one to be made] nor denigrating the saintedness of Edward. I am merely making a point.)

    I am convinced that Archbishop Lefebvre's primary reasons for desiring a priest as the SSPX's superior general are the strictly traditional ones, one of them being that a man entrusted with the apostolic successorship of the episcopacy ought to bear the burdens appropriate to his office, which are seldom to be wholly identified with administrative duties. Yet surely such differentiation emerged in part because, fallen human nature being what it is, division of authority was long ago perceived to be something tending to limit authority's appeal to human vanity and maximize its focus on divinely ordained ends. Whether Bishop Fellay's success at concentrating authority in his own hands is serving God's purposes or his own is, sadly, the very matter in controversy.