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Discerning the Priesthood: One Form or Two Forms?

“Red-pilled” Catholic men these days who are thinking seriously about priesthood or religious life are wondering if it makes any sense to enter a Novus Ordo seminary or community. Could God be calling them to be “infiltrators” who usher in a more traditional future? Or should they interpret their growing love for the old Latin Mass as a sign that God is asking them to take the more radical step of following an exclusively traditional path?

The following discussion was based on a real email exchange, which has been edited for compactness as well as to remove personal indicators. The name of my interlocutor is a nod to 1 Samuel 3. Also, please note that while this article’s title uses the language of “one form” and “two forms” as a convenient shorthand (in keeping with Benedict XVI’s legal terminology), it fully recognizes that there is only one authentic Roman rite, which currently coexists with a fabricated “modern papal rite.”

Samuel: God may be calling me to serve Him as a priest — and I want to respond with a resounding yes, if that is His will. Initially, I just thought I should make inquiries with the vocations director of my diocese. But as I continue my discernment, I’m in a bind. I’ve been exposed to the Latin Mass, and this made all the difference to me. It put a fire into my spiritual life. I can see that this Mass, along with the different kind of Catholicism it represents, has to be a significant part of my life. So I want to discern in a serious way, but I’m stuck at the first step: should I go to my diocese and ask for admission to the seminary, or should I explore a religious order or community (I don’t know exactly what to call them) that uses the TLM? For my whole life I have looked up to St. John Vianney — even chose him for my confirmation saint — and I still really believe that diocesan priests like him can make a huge difference, and that we need to have good ones coming into the parishes so we can reach the vast majority of Catholics where they’re at.

Dr. K: You are right. We need good diocesan priests, and they will someday be in charge; they will not always suffer under the thumb of the Generation That Doesn’t Get It. This middle-aged bureaucracy, lording it over us now, will soon be senile, and the clergy next in line will have their day. If you decided to go this route, the key would be to enter seminary in a diocese that not only has a genuinely Catholic bishop at its head, preferably a good number of years away from retirement, but also has been nurturing a lot of Ratzingerian clergy for quite a while. Then, if the terrible day arrives when Francis or Francis II puts a modernist in his place, there will be a support network of like-minded clergy who will not be easily suppressed. It’s far from ideal, but then again, neither is any particular monastery or religious order or society of apostolic life. In any state of life, one is making a radical entrustment of oneself to another, be it a spouse, a superior, or a bishop.

Samuel: I was speaking to a diocesan priest friend about this matter a few weeks ago. He just retired from being pastor of a rare diocesan parish that celebrated the old rite (he called it the “real rite”). I brought up what I took your argument to be: the Ratzinger Generation will have its day, and then its adherents can make tradition prevail. He disagreed, saying: “Consider what habits the so-called Ratzinger Generation will have to cultivate for their initial years serving in parishes. They will spend their young priesthood compromising and making concessions with what they know to be wrong, hiding their spirituality even though it is meant to shine, living an isolated and fearful intellectual life — and acting in such a way more to please men than to please God. These habits will affect every aspect of their priesthood, from the way they celebrate Mass to the advice they give in the confessional. And the habits will become ingrained. Do you think these habits will serve them well in their mature years? Do you think they will suddenly be able to divest themselves of such habits once they turn, say, 50? That would be asking a great deal from human nature — more, I think, than it can give. In my opinion, the system wears down commitment to principles as it prepares the next generation of bureaucrats who live off the status quo.”

Dr. K: Your friend is more straight-talking than most. As sobering as that sounds, I’m afraid it’s a pretty convincing portrait. I guess that’s the death of my argument! Unless one wants to take the very existence of your friend as evidence that not everyone is corrupted by the system…

Samuel: He continued: “In addition, no one may do something bad for the sake of something good. This is consequentialist ethics, and there’s a flavor of consequentialism in the generational argument. That is why I do not accept it.”

Dr. K: Do you think he might be right?

Samuel: What he says makes sense to me. And there are obvious liturgical implications…

Dr. K: Yes. One of the realizations that pushed me all the way over to tradition was when I came to see how easily the Novus Ordo is held captive by its overlords. The traditional Latin Mass  —  and this is true of the entire preconciliar liturgy  —  is governed by a tried and true centuries-old set of protocols that are not likely to be changed any time soon (and if an attempt was made, I think we’d have a minor revolution on our hands). The Novus Ordo is flexible, adaptable, full of options — and that means manipulable by those in command. In other words, even with the best intentions in the world, a lowly parish vicar will have to do — or at least, not contradict — his pastor’s and his bishop’s will in regard to how to “do” the Novus Ordo. Put simply: The road to a beautiful and reverent celebration of the Novus Ordo is steep and narrow, while the road to an abusive ego-pleasing celebration of it is broad and easy. This is what shreds the nerves of some young clergy: the conflict between their innermost desires and the institutional mediocrity, narcissism, and corruption that surrounds them.

Samuel: In that case, it seems the diocesan route is extremely risky. I mean, more risky than a vocation ought to be, if things in the Church were not so chaotic.

Dr. K: Then we have to move to the next logical question. Why would you not try your vocation with a traditional community? If you already see the goodness, even the superiority, of the TLM, then it’s something you yourself should have regular access to, for your own spiritual benefit — and, if God makes you a priest, it’s something you should share with the faithful, for their spiritual benefit.

Samuel: It’s a fair question. For one thing, my parents are not too keen on the old Mass. They see that young people are going to it, and they’re happy that I’m practicing my faith, but I think they find it all a bit “fringe.” Why would you go out of the normal, mainstream Church world? Anyway, I do love the E.F., but I don’t see myself entering a traditional monastery, or joining the Fraternity or the Institute.

Dr. K: But let’s say your parents would resign themselves to your decision, or maybe even be won over to it in the long run. What’s your hesitation?

Samuel: While I greatly respect the work of groups like the Institute and the Fraternity, I guess I’m just nervous about the phenomenon of people completely abandoning their regular parishes and attaching themselves to special parishes and oratories. It’s like a parallel universe. I don’t think it’s healthy to have a bunch of traditional Catholics in one place, while the other parishes are sort of abandoned to decay.

Dr. K: I disagree. In my view, we need these all-traditional parishes or chapels or oratories more than ever. Man is a social and political animal, so he seeks to band together with others from whom he will receive support, encouragement, strength, guidance. Living in society is meant to bring us blessings, not simply aches and pains. When I see a flourishing Fraternity or Institute parish, I see a powerful cell of renewal in the midst of a body racked with cancer. Such a parish multiplies its inherent good by first concentrating it and then diffusing it like a fragrance that attracts others in search of an integrally Catholic life. It may seem a severe mercy to let other parishes wither on the vine, but it is not as if we are wishing actively that they wither. The worst thing for us would be to wither along with them, out of a misplaced Simone Weil-like wish to “suffer in solidarity.” As St. Thomas explains, the first duty of charity is to love oneself, to love the good of one’s own soul by doing all that one can to achieve union with the supreme Good. Our union will always be imperfect in this life, but we are not permitted to positively seek out imperfection. It can only be tolerated when it cannot be removed or avoided.

Samuel: I get what you’re saying, but how would you respond to the objection that this approach could ultimately lead to the collapse of the local parish system?

Dr. K: With how diversified liturgy and theology have become since the Council, people are already accustomed to go shopping around for their parish — that was happening way before the TLM came on the scene. Ratzinger has commented on how our great mobility in modern times has rendered increasingly meaningless the idea of parish boundaries, and the out-of-control pluralism of the liturgy has balkanized the faithful. Let’s face it: the liturgical reform dropped the atom bomb on parish life. In such a scenario, it is not clear to me that the Fraternity and Institute apostolates are not modeling a new, better, let’s go ahead and call it “postmodern” type of parish — or at least one that is necessary in our times.

Samuel: That’s interesting. The old diocesan priest I mentioned before said something like this when I was talking to him: “The parish model is not effective against the modern backdrop of hyper-mobile and unstable secular society. To scatter parishes here and there at which one or two priests live in the midst of a wider society hostile to the Church is an ineffective campaign strategy against the evils of modern living. To live in proximity to a much stronger foe requires very strong defenses. Contemplative community life will be a far more effective deterrent than a mere parish rectory, which is largely modeled on the presumption of the Catholicity of the state. The Church is a visible society, not a multi-national corporation with franchises, which is how it largely appears to people today.”

Dr. K: Well, that’s a whole separate question — whether the priesthood can flourish again without the adoption of communal priestly life, as was normative in the Church for most of her history. From what I can tell, the new traditional communities do all they can to staff their apostolates with pairs of priests (or more than pairs, if the demand calls for it).

Samuel: Okay, so circling around to the big question: Do you believe, in your heart of hearts, that it’s ever a good idea to become a Novus Ordo priest, and possibly face a situation where one would be prevented, for practical reasons, from offering Mass in the traditional rite? I mean, what if a young man starts off idealistic, hoping to work his way quietly to a parish where he can freely spread his wings with the Latin Mass, only to discover a few years into his priestly ministry that he is likely to be stifled and held back for decades due to opposition from all sides? Wouldn’t that be a horrible fate?

Dr. K: Yes, now that you push me…I will come out and say it: once you taste the beauty, the glory, the depth, the richness, the intense prayerfulness of the traditional rites of the Church, you never want to go back to their modern lightweight replacements. It would be like trading a Rolls-Royce for a run-down thirdhand Hyundai, or better, a taste of the heavenly banquet for a fast-food drive-thru. I once had a letter exchange with a priest about this very issue. In the end, he had to pull out from where he was, which was a painful ordeal, in order to pursue a calling with a 100% traditional religious community. As a matter of fact, I know several priests who have gone through or are going through this kind of crisis and transition. They want to be priests with their whole mind, heart, soul, and strength, so that they can love God and His people to the best of their ability.

Samuel: I don’t believe there are easy solutions to any problem in the modern world, but I have to admit that the full-on traditional priests I’ve met seem happier and calmer individuals.

Dr. K: Of course. They are not attempting to square the circle as their daily job. They have what they need and love, 24/7.

Samuel: The impulse of generosity is to give everything one has to that which glorifies God the most and best sanctifies the Church on Earth.

Dr. K: Right. If the reformed liturgy is flawed — and by this time there isn’t just a mountain of evidence for this view, but several mountain ranges’ worth, depending on what angle you come at it from — then it seems that pursuing a vocation within a diocese for one’s local church, which by definition is wedded to the liturgical reform (at least until a powerful traditional pope comes along, which I’m not holding my breath for), would stand permanently in tension with the desire to give everything one has to that which glorifies God the most and best sanctifies souls.

Let me try to explain why I think a full-on traditional priestly life is the way to go, the only way to go.

The liturgy is an icon of Christ. When we celebrate the liturgy, we are face to face with this icon, paying homage to its archetype. However, we are also being formed by the very icon we see, taught by it, habituated by it. The image it shows is not only an image of the archetype, but also a model to which we are to be assimilated. Now, icons can be done well or badly. The liturgy, too, can be a good icon or an ugly one. If you are going to become a priest and spend your entire life praying in front of this icon of Christ, taking on its image, and honoring Christ-God through it, would you want the icon to be ancient, mysterious, profound, and beautiful — or modern, streamlined, superficial, and unattractive? This is the choice between being a priest for the old Roman liturgy and a priest for the new Roman liturgy.

Which icon do you want to be looking at for the rest of your life? This is what a priest is doing, most fundamentally: looking at the icon of the liturgy and asking it to be the face of God for him, the source of his identity, the pillar of his strength, the guide of his interior life, a solace for his weariness, a joy for his mind, and a gift he can proudly and unhesitatingly give to Christ’s faithful.

Which one would you rather spend your life in front of, venerating, and thus endorsing and passing on as the visible face of the Faith by which future generations will come to know Christ?

Samuel: When you put it that way, the answer, I have to say, is very clear.

Dr. K: And I haven’t even touched on two other huge issues — first, what kind of education and formation you would receive at seminary, and second, the psychological burdens of living within a broken system. As for the first, contrast the orthodox instruction in philosophy and theology and the age-old spiritual priorities and practices of a traditional seminary with the program of life and studies at a conventional seminary—eclectic at best, and modernist at worst. As for the second, think about the cumulative psychological effects on a priest of being forced, by circumstances, to tolerate or collaborate with abuses endemic to Novus Ordo culture, such as putting Our Blessed Savior into the hands of standing communicants and offering Mass facing the people — practices over which one has almost no control, regardless of the options theoretically available. In order not to suffer a nervous breakdown, one would almost have to harden one’s heart or shut off one’s mind! “I just have to not think about it too much…” is hardly a good slogan for life. The refusal to compromise with what one knows to be wrong has led to a steady trickle of priests leaving their dioceses to join traditional orders or religious communities where they can embrace the liturgy and all of its disciplinary provisions without reserve, second-guessing, or an uneasy conscience. (You might have seen this moving account of just such a priest, as well as this poignant letter from a priest “in the trenches,” trying not to choke on the enemy’s poison gas.) Is it important and necessary for there to be men in the trenches, fighting on the front lines against the odds of machine guns and barbed-wire? Yes, no doubt about it. But one may sincerely wonder whether this battle is winnable, and whether what is needed is a different long-term strategy. In any case, I believe that when the Lord places in a man’s heart a special love for Catholic tradition, an awareness of its beauty and power, this may be His way of saying He needs you for his “Special Ops,” His Marines or SEALs, so to speak.

Samuel: Thank you for taking time to field my questions and for giving me a lot to think and pray about. Please pray for my discernment — I’ll pray for you, too.

Dr. K: Count on it. May Our Lady, Queen of the Clergy; St. Joseph, her most chaste spouse; St. John Vianney; St. John the Beloved; St. John the Baptist; your holy patrons; your guardian angel; and all holy priests and religious intercede for you and obtain for you the grace to know Our Lord’s will and to follow it bravely.


Update on Sept. 15: To read a reaction to this post written by Archbishop Thomas Gullickson, Papal Nuncio to Switzerland and Liechtenstein, please visit his blog Ad Montem Myrrhae.

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