Editor’s note: This interview was conducted by Julian Kwasniewski at the Sacred Liturgy Conference in Salem, Oregon, at the end of this past June. The text was transcribed and is published here with His Excellency’s consent.
Julian Kwasniewski: Your Excellency, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. It is a real privilege to be at this conference and to speak with you. As this particular conference has a Eucharistic theme, I thought that I would start with some questions on the Holy Eucharist.
St. Peter Julian Eymard once said, “Let us never forget that an age prospers or dwindles in proportion to its devotion to the Holy Eucharist. This is the measure of its spiritual life and its faith, of its charity and its virtue.” How do you think this quotation has been true throughout the history of the Church, and most specifically in our own time of crisis in the Church?
Bishop Athanasius Schneider: Yes, this quotation of St. Peter Julian Eymard is very apt and true, with the devotion to the Holy Eucharist in a deeper and more expressed and public manner that developed in the Church in the second millennium, as we know, and again, surely by the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Church, a deeper knowledge of the truths of the Holy Eucharist, which is the heart of the entire life of the Church.
As we know, there was a culmination of theology with St. Thomas Aquinas. We have from him and the others of his time the most profound theological and spiritual reflections on the Holy Eucharist. At that time also, God awakened St. Juliana of Liège with asking for the institution of a special feast of the Holy Eucharist, Corpus Christi. So it was done by the Church in the 13th century, and also veneration and adoration of this central mystery of our faith through exposition and processions, for example. This was not yet in the first millennium, but started in 12th, 13th centuries and was growing and developing. We can observe that the practice of public worship, a deeper worship of the Holy Eucharist, brought, really, many fruits of the Christian life in the entire society.
The crisis of Protestantism brought an attack on the Eucharist. Again, in the 16th century, the Church restated the doctrine on the Eucharist at the Council of Trent. And all the new saints whom God called in the 16th century to protect, to defend, the beauty and integrity of the Catholic Faith against the innovators of the Protestantism, they all were “Eucharistic saints.” You can observe all these saints, beginning with the 16th century. And the celebration of the Holy Mass became even more devout and profound in the times of the Council of Trent. There were several saints who started to spread the devotion of Forty Hours.
A kind of culmination of this deeper Eucharistic life in the Church was, to my opinion, St. Peter Julian Eymard in the 19th century, and other saints of that time who promoted the Eucharistic cultus and worship. And so we see that this time from the Council of Trent shows a deeper theology and worship and liturgy for the Holy Eucharist. We can see that it was one of the most fertile spiritual times of the Church: the Eucharistic Age produced great missionary zeal, from Trent to its culmination in the 19th century. And the 19th century was one of the greatest manifestations of the missionary work of the Church, with the worldwide evangelization of non-Christians and pagans. All this was linked to the Holy Eucharist and to the public manifestation of this cultus.
God blessed the people who venerated him. There is a phrase in Thomas Aquinas’s hymn for Corpus Christi: “sic nos tu visita, sicut te collimus.” It is in the hymn Sacris Solemniis in the Divine Office of Corpus Christi. I would translate this, “O Lord, visit us with your graces to the extent that we worship you in the Eucharist.” As we worship you, so will you visit us with your graces. And this is true!
So, unfortunately, after the [Second Vatican] Council, there was really a diminution of the veneration of the Eucharist, of the public veneration in the Eucharistic liturgy – of the rites, the ceremonies, and also the purity and integrity of the doctrine. To this there was linked a diminution, a weakening of missionary zeal and of the fruitfulness of the spiritual life in the common parishes.
But at the same time, the Holy Spirit awakened, in the midst of the crisis after the Council, a new Eucharistic movement, I would call it. This is the movement of perpetual adoration, which is, thanks be to God, for some decades, growing in the Catholic Church – for example, perpetual adoration chapels in parishes, which was not so common before the Council. In my opinion, today it is spreading more in the common parishes. And this is for me a sign, slowly, of the renewal of the life of the Church. And this movement of perpetual adoration chapels should also touch the manner of celebrating the Holy Mass itself – the culmination of the Eucharist, the Holy Sacrifice itself, and then on to the spiritual life. But this is a sign from the Holy Spirit of the ongoing, slow renewal of the Church.
How would you say that the Rosary and the Mass complement each other in the spiritual act of being open to the word of God? Mary was open to the Word of God to such an extent that God chose to dwell in her womb – and the Mass is also supposed to bring the Word of God into our hearts, both by Scripture and the Eucharist. So how do the Rosary and the Mass work together?
The Rosary: It is simply a synthesis of the Gospel. The Rosary is a beautiful synthesis of the entire mystery of the Incarnation, redemption, and work of salvation. And the Holy Mass is the recapitulation of the work of salvation. Christ became incarnate for what reason? To offer Himself as the Lamb of God and to offer Himself on the Cross for the salvation of humankind, and to glorify the Father. This is what it means. When we pray the Rosary, which we can pray even during Mass, we do participate very actively in the joyful mysteries, centered around the Incarnation – and the holy Mass is a continuation of the coming of Christ in the Incarnation, under the veils of the sacred species of bread and wine. And then the sorrowful mysteries, of course, they are the specific meditation of the holy Mass: they help us to contemplate the real presence of Golgotha under the sacramental veil. And then the glorious: Christ present in the holy Host is the Risen, the Glorified, with His luminous wounds.
So we have in the prayer of the Rosary a really beautiful synthesis of the entire Mass. And therefore in ancient times, those who could not read, I mean the peasants and farmers, did participate in the Mass with the Rosary. And often times after the Council, priests ridiculed these people, and humiliated them for praying the Rosary. But this is bad; it is unjust. They participated more deeply with praying the Rosary because they are meditating what is now going on at the altar with the Rosary, the prayer of the Gospel, because the words of this prayer are of the holy Gospel. And so, of course, I do not want to say that we should only pray the Rosary during holy Mass, but it is a possible way of participating – not the only one, maybe not the main one, but it is legitimate. This I would say for people who have a special affinity for this.
In our times, many religious and laity continue to discover the Roman Rite in its more ancient forms – for example, in the Holy Week and Pentecost ceremonies of the 1948 missal. Along the same lines, do you think there is a good reason to re-examine the breviary reform of Pius X?
Yes, because, as you mentioned, the old rite of Holy Week, the pre-1955 – already this reform was substantially a revolution, the likes of which had never happened in the entire history of the Church. There had never been, I would say, a substantial, revolutionary reform. The popes always kept very carefully the tradition of the liturgy. And they changed something only when there was a clear abuse or something that had crept in over time that was in se not healthy. But there was not a substantial change of the rite itself, never. There could be, sometimes, a shortening where reasonable, but not change; or an addition of something that was meaningful. But it was a small addition, it was not perceived as a revolution or a novelty of substantial value.
Unfortunately, the ’55 reform, in its elements and structure, shows revolutionary changes, which are not comparable with the beautiful rites of Holy Week before. The changes made were not necessary. Maybe some few little elements could have been shortened, but not changing the rite itself. What was put in its place was manufactured. And this was already an exercise in advance of the post-conciliar revolutionary reform of the Order of Mass and of all of the liturgies of the sacraments – of the entire liturgy, even of the breviary.
Well, this is to say, in answer to your question, that the reform of the breviary under Pius X, in 1911, was unfortunately also a revolutionary reform. It is for me an enigma how he could do this, Pope Pius X, because he changed completely the entire structure of the psalm distribution, which the Roman Church kept almost inviolably since the times – even before – of Pope Gregory I. So, already from the 6th century, maybe even earlier, the Roman Church had from this time, substantially, through at least 1,300 years, always kept the order of the distribution of psalms in the breviary during the week. The order of psalms was called the cursus romanus – cursus, meaning the course or sequence: the psalms are running through the week, from Sunday to Saturday. It was very harmonious, very logical, when you observe it. And Pius X completely, radically, changed the entire distribution of psalms. It never happened thus in the Roman Church. This is for me an enigma. How could he make such a revolution?
Of course, he had some pastoral motifs about unburdening the secular priests, to lighten their burden. But this could be done in a way not touching, substantially, the order of psalms, which the Roman Church always kept. The problem was Matins, because it had 12 psalms in the weekly office, and for some diocesan priests it was too much. The pope could have avoided touching the cursus romanus psalmorum and allowed the diocesan priests to pray maybe only half of them, six for example. So Matins would already be lightened. But the religious priests and the nuns who have to pray as their first duty, they would pray all of it. Unfortunately, the pope changed everything, even for the nuns and for all religious, maybe with the Benedictines as the only exception, who were allowed to keep their traditional psalmody. So I repeat: it would be sufficient to make a provision specifically for the clergy who are in pastoral work to lighten the burden of praying the amount of psalms, without changing substantially the order or structure of the millennium-old Roman liturgy of the Divine Office.
I hope that in the future, the Church will return to the traditional Holy Week, pre-’55, substantially, maybe with some slight modifications that will not touch the substance. And the same with the breviary – to return to the pre-Pius X breviary, which I call “The Breviary of All Ages,” with maybe some modifications that would be reasonable. But I repeat: not touching the substance of it. I shall repeat: the Church has to do all these things very carefully, and she had always done this wisely in the past. The popes have to be conscious that they are not the owners of the liturgy and the rites, but the keepers and the guardians of them. As Pius IX said when he was asked by some bishops to introduce the name of St. Joseph into the Canon of the Mass, he refused, he declined to do this – even though he was already a deep devotee of St. Joseph. He answered the bishops: “I am only the pope, I cannot do this.” This should be the attitude of the Church towards what is most sacred to us, the holy liturgy. I am not against sound growth in liturgy, but it has to be done very carefully and over a long time, without revolutionary matters and contents.
Your Excellency, your episcopal motto caught my attention because it is somewhat unusual. Unlike most, it is very short and it is also in Greek. Could you explain its particular significance to you?
Yes, when I was appointed bishop, I had to choose a motto…and it spontaneously came to me: kyrie eleison. First, I very much like this prayer, kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy. It is a prayer not only of repentance, when we go to confession, but also because we must always have our heart in a repentant attitude. Cor semper paenitens. To remind us that we are sinners – this is my first reason.
But the Kyrie eleison is not only the expression of a repentant heart but also of trust. Jesus, I trust in you. Kyrie: “it is the Lord!” I love the word kyrie: Lord! It is expressing all my belief in Him as my Lord and my God, and all my trust in Him. Lord: It is also an expression, in my personal opinion, of loving. And for this repentant heart, it is trust, and then also the profession of His divinity and kingship. Jesus is the only King. So when I proclaim this word Kyrie, Lord, I proclaim His kingship and His majesty.
And then, eleison: have mercy. What every one of us and the entire world needs is the mercy of God. This we do need. Have mercy on us. It is a prayer of petition, of trust, and so on. Have mercy: eleison. This is a very short prayer, and it is a liturgical prayer. It is in Greek, and even so it is in the Latin Mass! It was not translated into the Latin language. It should be “Domine, miserere” in Latin. But we celebrate the Mass in Latin with the exception of these words in Greek. The Latin Mass kept still these words in Greek to show the connection with the beginnings of the Roman Church, when, in the first centuries, the liturgy was in Greek. Also to show the connection to the Sacred Scripture of the New Testament, which was written in Greek. The first proclamation of the Gospel was made in Greek, officially, and then, of course, in other languages. It also shows the connection of the Latin Church and the Greek Church, that the Church is East and West, that it is one Church. These are the “two lungs” of the Church, the oriental and the occidental, the Latin and Greek. So these were my reflections and intentions when I chose Kyrie eleison to be my motto.
You have been outspoken and clear about many issues in the Church today. However, some might say that bishops should stay out of the business of other bishops and dioceses. In your opinion, what is the responsibility of an individual bishop toward the universal Church?
Firstly, I have to say that I have never, in my statements, entered into the concrete issues of a diocese, of a certain bishop. I have never meant this, and it should not be done, because this is not my task; it is the task of the pope. So in my statements I only stated and defended the general truths of the Church, and the general crisis, which afflicts almost the entire Church, and the main signs and symptoms of crisis in the entire Church, which are [seen in] the liturgy, the Eucharist, marriage, the family. So it is not an issue of one concrete diocese. …
But every bishop is consecrated, and by his appointment from the pope, he becomes also a member of the entire body of the episcopacy. And so the Second Vatican Council states that every bishop must also be aware and have concern for the state of the faith in the entire Church. He cannot say, “I have jurisdiction here, I have no interest in what is happening in the entire Church. I will be silent, I will speak nothing.” I think that is not correct. In times of crisis that afflict, touch almost the greatest part of the Church, the bishops have to raise their voice for the sake of the entire Church. This is a help for the pope. Of course, the pope is the first responsible supreme pastor of the entire flock of Christ, the Church, and has to defend the faith and strengthen the bishops and priests. But the bishops have to help him also in this task by everyone stating the perennial truths of the Church and by expressing desires of healthy reforms.
We are a family, the Church. We are not a business, but we are a family. The bishops are responsible for the health of the entire Church, especially in a time of crisis. And now we are in a crisis. And only a blind person – spiritually blind – could deny that we are experiencing a deep confusion currently in the Church, doctrinally, liturgically, and morally. And therefore, when bishops shall raise their voices to defend the truth, they are doing, in my opinion, a good work, and helping in some way the pope and their brothers in the episcopacy.
So do you think that episcopal conferences have helped or weakened the witness of the bishops to the Catholic Faith?
It is different in different regions. Usually, in the western parts of the world, the bishops’ conference statements, most of the time, weaken the personal responsibility of each bishop. It becomes a structure of bureaucracy, and so it is against the divine structure of the Church. Bishops’ conferences are not divine structures; they are only human structures. And this is a collective board, administrative, bureaucratic, which in some way silences and weakens and paralyzes the voice and activity of the individual bishop, who has to teach and speak by divine institution, as a pastor of his flock, and to have responsibility. So this was clearly, undoubtedly, a negative effect of bishops’ conferences in the last fifty years.
Of course, there have been in some countries bishops’ conferences that made a really good contribution to strengthening the faith of the people, with strong statements on issues. But in general, it has been more or less a weakening of the divine duty of every bishop to teach, govern, and sanctify. In the future, revision should be made of the statutes of the work and methodology of these episcopal conferences.
In conclusion, Your Excellency, what would you say is the most important element of tradition for Catholic youths to hold on to at this time?
For the Catholic youth, the most important thing is to deepen their faith, the knowledge of their Catholic faith, and the apologetics that they know. The young person has to say: “I know whom I believe,” as St. Paul said. They have to deepen the knowledge of their faith, and also to have tools of apologetics, how to defend their faith, because we are living in a new pagan society, the entire Western world, which is continuously attacking and mocking our Catholic faith. So the young people have to be educated to be courageous witnesses and to foster in them the spirituality of being real soldiers of Christ, to have only one pride: to be Catholic. Other prides are bad; there is only one good pride. This, in my opinion, is the most important thing for the people.
Then, not to be conformists with the lifestyles of this new pagan world. This means to keep and develop in them the virtue of chastity. This should be concretely practiced by young people today, the virtue of chastity, of purity. This will distinguish us as real Christians from the surrounding, degraded, sexualized society and youth. A chaste and pure young man or woman: they have not to speak too much, then. Their life radiates already a spiritual power that the others perceive instinctively. Young people, with the grace of God, and with the help of good priests, and formation, have to foster and develop and keep a chaste form of life. Concretely, [this means] to avoid all those forms of degradation that are very common, such as pornography, and other things that are not fitting to someone who is a disciple of Christ.
This we have to remember: when the pagans persecuted the Christians, in the first centuries, they were astonished at the attitude of Christians. They said, “O, look how they love each other.” This was not common for the pagans themselves. They hated; they were cruel. Our current society is also becoming ever more cruel and filled with hatred. So we have to lift up the true love, charity. But also today, the new pagans will say: “O, look how chaste they are.” And just as in those ancient times the mutual love of Christians led many pagans to Christ, today, I think, the chaste life of young Catholics will attract other young people to Christ.
And then, all this that I have mentioned, it has to be accompanied with prayer. Young people have to be exercised in personal prayer. These are the weapons. And they always have to have their weapon in their pocket. This is the Rosary. This is the weapon of the young.
Julian Kwasniewski is a freshman in college who has a strong interest in the fine arts: he is an avid harpist, lutenist, illustrator, and printmaker.