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Discovering Tradition: A Priest’s Crisis of Conscience

The following letter and my reply are a real exchange. The priest kindly permitted the publication of a version in which identifying personal details have been removed. We believe that there are now many priests in a situation of conscience similar or even identical to what is described here, and that reading this may help them to achieve greater clarity about what steps to take.

Dear Dr. Kwasniewski,

Today I write for a personal reason: I feel that I am in a battle for my very soul, which, because I am a priest, is synonymous with the battle fiercely being waged for the soul of the Church herself at the “crisis point” where it counts the most: the altar of God and the celebration of the Sacred Mysteries.

I have been a priest for just over five years, and I celebrated my first Mass in the usus antiquior shortly after ordination. As a member of a religious community, I became progressively aware of many issues — running the veritable gamut of “issues” that can be faced in the Church today, but centering upon the Sacred Liturgy — which, although somehow “tolerable” for me as a religious brother, became in-tolerable for me as a priest of Jesus Christ. My departure from my community of origin was not only a matter of moving away from what is harmful and/or what “falsifies” the faith, but also a hope to move toward something of greater truth and beauty. I say this not with any animus or anger, but simply as a matter of fact.

The change in my soul upon the conferral of the priesthood brought with it an almost instantaneous clarity of vision and honing of conscience regarding the Holy Mass and all that flows from it. There are, simply speaking, things that, once you know them, you can’t not know. This is the story of my priestly life, for the more I discover about the development of doctrine and praxis (particularly in the modern or “post-conciliar” Church), the more I feel convicted for the Church, my Bride, to “do something” insofar as I am able, with an appropriate acceptance of my own limited role in the Mystical Body. More simply speaking, I can tell you that once I began to discover the Traditional Mass and the way of life and “culture” that organically flow from it and lead to it, I was never able to truly “go back.” This has cost me a great deal.

I have served in two “typical” parishes; in neither place did the Traditional Mass enter in any way into my public ministry, as I was trying to “lie low.” However, I celebrated the Novus Ordo in a very traditional manner, preached on all of the important topics of our faith, and put a great deal of heart and time into marriage preparation, with a particular focus on the virtue of chastity and the sacramental life. I was loved by “the people,” but very soon despised by the clergy who are in positions of power, and who are living very different priestly lives from what I was doing my best to live. I then experienced firsthand the very un-priestly and distinctly uncharitable ways in which priests who are favorable and faithful to “tradition” are treated by shepherds of the “new mercy.”

I have taken some time away from parish ministry in order to heal, and to try to make sense out of the spiritually abusive way in which I have suffered at the hands of shepherds who are in fact commissioned to foster priestly life rather than to destroy it. My time apart has taken place in a religious community dedicated to the so-called “reform of the reform.”

Although our conventual Mass and Divine Office are “traditional,” all community members without exception “must” commit in some way to participation in the Novus Ordo Missae. This in and of itself has created a significant pain of heart and matter of conscience for me, as my time here separated from the daily reality of “business as usual” in parish churches at large has reminded me of what exactly it is that I believe about Holy Mass and the concomitant care of souls; what I believe about the mystery of the Church and the “Marriage of the Lamb”; and how I am being drawn by Our Lord to stand in His Person as bridegroom in intimate relationship with the Church as my Bride, particularly in the celebration of Holy Mass. The “two forms” are presented as equally acceptable realities, almost like a liturgical café in which anything is a perfectly fine choice. This is supported by certain writings of Cardinal Sarah, along with Pope Benedict’s Con Grande Fiducia, the pastoral letter accompanying Summorum Pontificum, which, although I once subscribed to it wholly (and still feel it to be one of his most beautiful and fatherly overtures as Supreme Pastor of the universal Church), I can no longer find adequate to the magnitude of the problem.

With all of this comes much ambiguity, stemming from  liturgical visions. My brothers and I do share the desire for a “beautiful” liturgical life, but for me, this beauty is not a merely aesthetic matter. It is deeper, more philosophical, even ontological: it has to do with what is there in the rites of the Church — or not there. The brethren do share bonds of good will, and I thank God for that…but without an objective standard to which we are subject, how can a community grow in an ordered way? This, Dr. Kwasniewski, is my grief, not only for my community, but for our beautiful and ailing Church.

I face a critical “crisis question” as to whether or not I can, in good conscience, continue to celebrate the Novus Ordo Missae at all. This crisis is not “new,” nor has it been arrived at capriciously. It has mounted, slowly but surely, with each offering of a form of the Mass that I know to be a significant, vacuous, and even harmful departure from the Church’s organic tradition, and thus from her integrity and her effective care of immortal souls, of which I, as a priest, am a steward.

In my early priestly life, I was “gung ho” for the “Reform of the Reform” and believed that it was “the way forward” for the Church. I simply do not believe this anymore. A not insignificant contributor to my change in mind and heart has been the phenomenon of so often finding myself somehow more thwarted for endeavoring to “beautify” the New Mass than if I were simply to offer the Traditional Mass (!). It is as if the Novus Ordo was built for deconstruction and self-destruction. As Martin Mosebach says in the foreword to your book, Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness, “the Liturgy is the Church.” This goes for any Mass that is celebrated, for “the Church” ritually embodied therein is “made present” through the ars celebrandi of the very ritus et preces of which the Mass of any rite is woven. I ask myself, and now, with great pain of heart: How I can continue to contribute to and perpetuate what I perceive as a liethe lie of equivocation, artificiality, the spiritual crime of neglect and “malnutrition” of the faithful — knowing full well that I am “disfiguring” the Church by the offering of a “disfigured” Mass?

I have grown and developed in my thought on this subject with much time, study, and experience, and with the heartbreak of seeing all over the world the gaping chasm and bottomless lacuna that have opened up and are leaving souls veritably lost because of the Novus Ordo (even when “celebrated reverently”) and all that goes with it. This last line is key for me: “all that goes with it.” For although the problem centers upon the Mass, it is not “just” about the Mass. It is about the Church, my Bride, in her integrity and vital coherence. I am in a “battle for my soul,” which is synonymous with the battle for the very soul of the Church.

Your perspective and “sense” of what I have shared — even your “checking” me on anything I have said that may be out of place, overstated, myopic, “extreme,” or the like — would be most welcome.

With great gratitude to you for your time and the promise of my prayer for you and your family,

Fr. N.

*          *          *

Dear Father N.,

Thank you for your words of appreciation, and for trusting me with the story of your trials. I am grateful every day for what the Lord is doing in His Church, as He leads many souls to see hard but liberating truths. He is making use of this undeniable crisis we are passing through as a giant alarm bell to awaken people to the deeper causes of our malaise.

Everything you described about your path from the Novus Ordo to the traditional Roman liturgy mirrors exactly my own experiences, thoughts, and feelings. As you must know from reading Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis and Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness, for close to thirty years, I was responsible for providing music for both “forms” of the Roman liturgy, directing choirs and scholas at each, and becoming intimately acquainted with the texts, rubrics, ceremonies, and music of each. Over the same period, I studied the history of liturgy as well as liturgical theology. Slowly, the conviction grew on me that the liturgical reform was a disaster for the Church.

I went through all the usual phases. The first “naïve” phase is that the problem wasn’t the reform in itself, but how it was implemented. The second “hopeful critic” phase was that the reform does have problems, but they can be mitigated by good practice and eventually reformed from on high. The third “realistic” phase is that the reform is flawed in its fundamental principles; it cannot be redeemed, but must be rejected in favor of the classical Roman rite.

You know the arguments as well as I do, but it takes time to come to grips with the magnitude of the problem — time, much reading, much experience, much prayer, and a certain intuition, which I hardly dare to call mystical and yet which seems to be given from above: an immediate, unanswerable conviction of the rightness of the tradition and the wrongness of its modern replacement. As you say, one reaches a point where one cannot not know, and feel in the depths of one’s soul and bones, that something is seriously wrong in the Novus Ordo, and seriously right in the traditional worship of the Catholic Church.

The Novus Ordo did not come to be in the way that living things are conceived, born, mature, and reach their apogee; it came to be as machines are built in the age of industry and technology. This helps explain why fabricated rites engender mysticism with the greatest difficulty, and offer scanty nourishment to the contemplative life. Only real food and drink can satisfy our hunger and thirst, can produce healthy eyes, skin, flesh, bones. The Lord in His divine Providence did not give His Church access to sacramental grace apart from sacramental signs; He did not give us signs apart from the rites that situate them; He did not give us rites apart from prayers, lessons, music, and ceremonies. All of this is necessary for a healthy diet, not just “the form and matter of the sacrament,” as neoscholastic reductionism would have it. One might as well reduce a multi-course meal to protein powder and vitamin tablets.

Readers have sometimes stumbled over my tolerance for the Novus Ordo, which I admit is an attitude met with in the aforementioned pair of books. This benign toleration is now a thing of the past. It is just as you say with regard to Con Grande Fiducia and Summorum Pontificum: these are watershed documents for their place and time, considering the unofficial dogma of never questioning the Council or anything done in its name, but they are frightfully compromised by the constructivist assertion that there is no rupture, which is patently false, and by the liturgical relativism of multiple forms of a single rite, which mirrors the doctrinal and moral relativism characteristic of our times.

But now I am preaching to the choir, or at least to a cantor. What I had meant to say is that some readers have found my attitude towards the Novus Ordo troubling, because they, being quicker than me (as St. John was quicker in reaching the tomb than St. Peter), had already, possibly long ago, reached the conclusion that the new rites could not be endorsed and must be avoided. A philosophy professor from Europe wrote the following to me:

You expose the flaws of the Novus Ordo in a very compelling way. The whole thing has been a disaster and deprives too many souls of the good they’d receive for sure were they introduced to the traditional Mass. Now I was wondering: how is it that you still (according to what you write in Noble Beauty) work for the Novus Ordo with chants and music even though you repeatedly claim — and rightly so — that the whole Bugnini invention should disappear? I understand the idea of liturgical peace and allowing for people who attend the New Mass to get a glimpse of real sacred music and so on, but don’t you think that this supports the surviving of what would best be dead and buried once and for all?

I answered:

I have struggled with this question for decades. Up until recently, my responsibilities included directing music at both the usus antiquior and the usus recentior, but I found myself loving the former more and more, and hating the latter; serving the one, and despising the other. In fact, it became a psychological torture to attend the Novus Ordo. I knew that I should leave it behind forever. Now I am attending the old Mass exclusively and I am “in heaven” — at least in the liturgical reflection of heaven. For me, my work with the Novus Ordo was always practical or pragmatic in nature: it was part of my job, and I wanted to do the best I could (for my own sake, too, not just for the congregation: the Gregorian chant made the Pauline Mass bearable to my psyche and my sensorium, if not to my intellect). But I agree with your general point, that it would be better to let this “banal on-the-spot product” perish, and to put all of one’s energy into worshiping the Lord in the way most worthy of Him and most perfective of us. That is what I am doing today, and my future books will demonstrate my own journey on this matter.

The only substantive difference between your path and mine is that you came to see all these things through the grace of ordination and the daily round of priestly duties, while I came to see them as a musician, oblate, and liturgical theologian who couldn’t help noticing “one thing after another…”

Thus, I do not think you are “crazy,” “extreme,” “ideological,” or whatever labels your enemies or your fears might put on you. Rather, you have been following in a serious way the instinct of faith, the movement of charity, the requirements of devotion, the demands of the virtue of religion — the need for total consistency among the lex orandi, the lex credendi, and the lex vivendi. Continual exposure to the traditional liturgy with all that accompanies it, as you rightly add, together with a willingness to absorb and ponder its lessons, will necessarily show the bankruptcy of the ersatz liturgy constructed by Pistoian rationalists, communist sympathizers, and probable Freemasons, and the entire project of (as some call it, scorchingly but accurately) “neo-Catholicism.” It is a hard but salutary awakening. Some traditionalist writers use the cultural meme “red pill” to describe this process of the scales falling from the eyes.

(I hasten to add that some traditionalists don’t have the philosophical and theological education that would enable them to make distinctions and to draw only those conclusions that are demanded by the evidence. For example, seeing serious faults in the reformed liturgy, they draw false conclusions about its validity; seeing the repeated abuse of the papal office, they draw false conclu­sions about the incumbency of the see; attending to the elements of modernism in John Paul II, they draw the false conclusion that his entire life’s work is to be rejected out of hand. One could multiply such examples indefinitely.)

We know that God can bring good out of evil, and this is why He can and does sanctify souls even with the instruments of an unholy reform, as He can raise up sons of Abraham from lifeless stones. Yet His ordinary modus operandi is to raise up sons from fathers, not from stones, and in like manner, He raises up the Church from its paternal tradition, at the hands of priests who are truly fathers in that tradition, handing down the family name, blood, and inheritance.

Many priests, religious, and laity have written to me over the years, saying, in essence, “This modern project is hollow and harmful, and I can’t pretend to support it anymore; I don’t want to lend it the slightest credibility, or even brush up against it.” They wonder what in the world to do next: “Can I still go to Mass at my local parish?” “What order should I join?” “Can I even celebrate the new Mass again?”

The Lord gives us intuitions and convictions this powerful in order to move us to take suitable action for the glorification of God, our own sanctification, and the edification of the entire Body of Christ. In this sense, “riding it out,” “getting along,” “offering it up,” seem to be self-destructive options. Unless one is comfortable running the risk of spiritual schizophrenia, nervous breakdown, or the violation of one’s conscience by turning away from God’s inspirations, a decision eventually has to be made for or against traditional Catholicism.

Such decisions are fraught with peril and anguish. One priest wrote to me who had been transferred multiple times because he kept refusing to distribute Holy Communion in the hand or to use extraordinary ministers. Several priests I know of have been suspended for preaching against homosexuality (this will happen more and more). A priest who had rediscovered the Faith via the charismatic movement joined up with a new religious order, and finally had to leave it when he learned how to celebrate the old Mass and saw, as if for the first time, the essence of the Mass as propitiatory sacrifice, as humble homage, as ardent supplication of the Most Holy Trinity, as the sovereign prayer both public and personal. A diocesan priest wrote to me in agony because his soul longs to celebrate the traditional Mass but he is stuck celebrating an English versus populum “Ordinary Form” for a congregation that hardly believes anything. There are even a few bishops about whom one could say all the same things.

You have accurately perceived the heart of the ecclesial crisis, which is the crisis of the liturgy and therefore also of the priesthood. We will remain in this crisis until the traditional liturgy is fully restored and the modern experimental liturgy is repudiated.

One cannot be both traditional and modern in liturgy, since the principles are contradictory. One cannot believe that the Holy Spirit was guiding the Church all through the ages, and then embrace a liturgy whose fundamental premise is that the liturgy was lacking for centuries many features it ought to have had, and was chock-full of corruptions that had to be removed. One cannot praise the spirituality of the great saints, from the Desert Fathers to the Benedictines to medieval mystics to the Carmelites to the doctors and beyond, while effectively contradicting them in liturgical and devotional practices.

What is to be done? It seems to me that the only way forward is to join a religious community or society of apostolic life that is clear-sighted and courageous enough to celebrate only traditional liturgy, be it the Roman Rite or a use specific to the order. Along this way lies peace of conscience and comfort of soul, light for the mind and warmth for the will. Along this way lies the most exacting and rewarding exercise of the gift of the priesthood, together with the most abundant fruit for faithful Catholics who are seeking God in the sublime mysteries of His love.

Do you know the book In Sinu Jesu: When Heart Speaks to Heart — The Journal of a Priest at Prayer? Here are three passages that I would like to share with you, in which Our Lord speaks:

I will not abandon or forsake you. I am faithful. I have chosen you and you are Mine. Why do you doubt My love for you? Have I not given you signs of My favour? Have I not shown you that My mercy has prepared for you a future full of hope? Did I not promise you years of happiness, of holiness, and of peace? My blessing is upon you and the designs of My Heart are about to unfold for you. You have only to trust Me. Believe that I will keep you as the apple of My eye. You are safe under My Mother’s mantle. I hold you close to My wounded Heart. Trust that I will bring about all that I have promised you.

Go forward in simplicity, free of fear and trusting in My merciful providence to prepare all things for a future full of hope. Leave the preparation of the future entirely in My hands. Your part is to remain faithful to the adoration I have asked of you.

Offer the present to Me, and I will attend to repairing your past and to preparing your future.

I will raise up prayers for you to the Father of Lights, asking Him, by the intercession of Our Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, St. John Vianney, and your holy guardian angel, to send you the light you need to know your next steps and the strength to persevere in spite of all obstacles. The Church is passing through a crisis that can be surmounted only by heroic faith. Good people will be pummeled and shaken up, yet by this means the chaff will be drawn away and the fat of wheat prepared as a sacrifice to the Lord. This, too, is one of the works of Our Lady, through which she will bring to birth a purified clergy and a purified Church.

Your brother in Christ,

Peter Kwasniewski

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