I begin with a sentimental longing. The longing is inspired by a scene from Willa Cather’s Shadows on the Rock. The passage takes place in 17th century Quebec, and concerns St. Francois de Laval, the first bishop of Quebec. Behold how the saintly Laval called his flock to Mass every morning:
“The Bishop got up at four o’clock every morning, dressed without fire, went with his lantern into the church, and rang the bell for early Mass for the working people. Many good people who did not want to go to Mass at all, when they heard that hoarse, frosty bell clanging out under the black sky where there was not yet even a hint of daybreak, groaned and went to the church. Because they thought of the old Bishop at the end of the bell-rope, and because his will was stronger than theirs. He was a stubborn, high-handed, tyrannical, quarrelsome old man, but no one could deny that he shepherded his sheep.”
My sentimental longing is for God to grant us such stubborn, high-handed, tyrannical, quarrelsome old men to shepherd us Catholics. “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking care of it, not by constraint, but willingly,” urges our first pope (1 Peter 5:2). Laval was a bishop who did just that. He fed his flock not with vague accompaniment, but with exigent suffering, the kind which destroys acedia and self-love. Another name for Laval’s actions is charity.
Fast forward to 21st century Catholicism. I have little confidence that my salvation, nor the salvation of my fellow lay Catholics, is of concern to many current shepherds. I think of a recent Mass I attended where our priest was reading a letter from the local ordinary. In it we heard the bishop urging his flock to stop sinning. “Wow!” I pondered with real surprise. “That’s a first. Great to hear!” Alas, it soon dawned on me that our priest, with his heavy Polish accent, was actually explaining that the bishop wanted us to stop singing, for fear of spreading coronavirus. St. Augustine was wrong, to sing is to sin twice. And so, the concern is not for the soul, but for the body – or rather, to avoid getting fined for spreading a virus. The point is that many faithful Catholics do not trust their bishops to truly care for their spiritual wellbeing. To put it mildly.
I cannot help but think specifically of traditional Catholics. Many must wonder if their bishops are not only unconcerned for their spiritual wellbeing, but actively work against it. It is a heart-wrenching feeling to know that traditional Latin Masses are shockingly rare, or even forbidden, in far too many dioceses. It is demoralizing to realize that some bishops plot secretly against traditional Catholicism. It is downright abusive when traditional Catholics are told that Holy Communion is only for those who receive on the hand at a Novus Ordo Mass. It is Unreal Catholicism, void of any semblance of the faith for which so many saints sacrificed their lives. I wouldn’t trust such a bishop to borrow my used baseball glove, much less direct my soul towards heaven.
It is not my intention to simply put down bishops. Incessant anger grows old, quickly. A bishop is an essential person with a near impossible task. But it still merits asking, if the relationship between faithful traditional Catholics and countless modern bishops is so fractured, why not appoint traditional Catholics their own dioceses and bishops?
Traditional bishops in charge of traditional Catholic dioceses sounds perfectly reasonable to me. Check that, it sounds heavenly. However, I imagine screams of bitter refusal would resound. There are already dioceses, with bishops as overseers of each one. How dare we divide the Church! Might as well be in schism. If you’re not already in schism, that is.
Oh, but the Church is already divided, and the current set up of dioceses already is inexplicable. Consider an important geographical area in my country of Canada, where there currently resides a cardinal as archbishop. He shepherds millions of people, and will have as many as four auxiliaries, technically bishops of other areas, assist him. Yet there is another bishop serving the Syro-Malabar Catholics in the same geographical area. Same for the Maronite, Ukrainian, Slovakian Byzantine, and Chaldean eparchies, to name but a few. To make matters worse, some, such as the Ukrainian bishop, serve multiple eparchies. It is the land of bishops. Bishops everywhere.
Who, might I ask, is the overseer (episcopus) of this central area? All of them? Or, just the one you choose, perhaps depending on what part of the world great-grandpa emigrated from, and what language he spoke (and perhaps did not pass on)? In other words, the current state of eparchies and dioceses is a hot mess. Adding in a bishop for traditional Catholics would not create confusion. The confusion already exists.
Meanwhile, the benefits of having traditional Catholic dioceses seem apparent. To name but a few, traditional bishops would work to grow the Mass, and not suppress it. Such a bishop’s financial appeals would (hopefully) not be used to fund scandalous projects. Both priests and laity would not have to tiptoe around progressive diocesan policies. Most of all, it would taper the current animosity between traditional Catholics and their shepherds.
But the benefits of traditional dioceses would extend to Novus Ordo bishops as well. Just think of the sales pitch one could make to the progressive modern bishop. Don’t like traditional Catholicism? Then you don’t have to deal with it. Control your diocese as you want. Teach that Catholicism is just a privileged way. Or, have your flock pray to Pachamama. Focus, without complaint from “trads”, on the New Evangelization, while ignoring the same tired results. Simply sing this new Church into being – or not, because you have forbidden singing – and finally forget about those pesky traditional Catholics. What a breath of fresh air! Serve your own enlightened agenda. As for them and their house, they can serve the Lord.
Of course, traditional dioceses would not be without difficulties. Would traditional Catholics continue infighting? Would Rome try to infiltrate the bishops in charge? Is water wet? And what of the Society of St. Pius X? Questions would surely arise, as they always must. But just perhaps, with the proper person placed in charge (Bishop Athanasius Schneider?), there would at least be a glimmer of hope to disheartened traditional Catholics. To be permitted to practice the traditional faith, as it was prior to Pope Paul VI’s intrusion, with reverence, tradition, orthodox theology, and abundant vocations, is a heavenly thought.
Alas, the inevitable. The dream of traditional dioceses must come crashing to a halt. Never mind the canonical issues which would arise, or even the expected power struggle aided by jealousy. Rather, to have traditional dioceses is to acknowledge one inconvenient fact: that the Novus Ordo Mass is vastly different from the traditional Latin Mass, that these Masses are not in continuity with each other. A thousand times over, they are not. If they were, there would be at least some degree of harmony between traditional Catholics and modern bishops. There is not. And so, creating traditional Catholic dioceses would be to admit of a tragic mistake: namely, that the post-conciliar Church went adrift of its roots. Shall such a thing be admitted? My only comment is to continue with St. Peter’s exhortation, “for God resisteth the proud, but to the humble he giveth grace” (1 Peter 5:5).
And so, faithful Catholics, particularly of the traditional Latin Mass, are left to suffer for the faith. Mistrust and bewilderment will continue. But I will still yearn for a day when maybe, just maybe, some holy cantankerous bishop will awaken me at four in the morning, call me to a frosty, dark church – because his will is stronger than mine – and in charity insist I offer my all to Our Lord. A true shepherd for the sheep.
May it be so again one day.
Dan Millette is a husband and father of four. He teaches in Saskatchewan, Canada. Millette is a graduate from Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College in Ontario and has a Master of Arts degree in theology from Holy Apostles College in Connecticut. His personal blog is www.bravestthing.com.