The following is a personal reflection and commentary written by Joshua May, a traditional Catholic living with his family in Warsaw, Poland. May and his family currently attend a chapel of the Society of Saint Pius X. The following views are those of the author, however.
Seemingly every week, we wake up to the next in an unending series of more or less complete suppressions of diocesan Latin Masses. Little Rock. Savannah. Chicago. Rome, of all places. This time, the conciliar grim reaper hit struck the Archdiocese of Washington, DC. I had the privilege of attending DC’s St. Mary Mother of God parish for only a year, but it was long enough to see for myself why St. Mary’s is a household name in the U.S. traditionalist movement. Where else in America, indeed the world, is there a diocesan parish that boasts monthly solemn Mass, a three-decade indult pedigree, and an actual red carpet rolled out for the not infrequent visits of actual Habsburgs?
Now it is gone. With Cardinal Wilton Gregory’s diktat, St. Mary’s is living on borrowed time—both the traditional community, which effectively came to an end this month, and likely the parish itself, which once deprived of its very raison d’etre, almost certainly will be forced to close its doors sooner or later, ending 175 years of parish life.
But this is not an article about St. Mary’s—far better homages have been penned to the lovely lady of Chinatown by parishioners far longer established there than I was. This is, rather, an article about way the parish went down: death by diocese. After all, it was St. Mary’s status as a diocesan parish that made it the latest victim in a now year-long spree of Latin Mass closures that has taken out so many parish communities across the fruited plains and on both sides of the ocean. It is only ever half the story to say that Bishop X or Cardinal Y killed a given parish; that may be true in the immediate, material sense, but ultimately, a bishop couldn’t have done it with his bare hands. If we concede that in this case the bishop is the assailant, we must recognize that the diocese is his weapon. What I mean is that a bishop without a diocese is as harmless as a fly. He can rage against the Mass of Ages, he can write diatribes against Tradition, but he is ultimately powerless. With an apostolic mandate in one hand and a stack of police-enforceable property deeds in the other, a diocesan bishop is armed and dangerous.
This leads me to a controversial but perhaps inescapable conclusion: traditionalists no longer have a home in the dioceses. It is time for us to leave.
This is far from the first time I’ve felt utterly betrayed by the dioceses in which I’ve lived. Like virtually every other diocesan Catholic on Earth, I had the doors of my parish slammed shut in my face in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Setting aside questions of how bad the virus was or seemed to be, I remember feeling hurt and anguish at the total passivity—nay, active hostility on the part of my bishop, as he worked fastidiously to deny the sacraments to his flock. In those dark days of the earliest lockdowns, I found myself seeking shelter for the first time in an extradiocesan refuge: the “car Masses” run by the local Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) chapel.
I had to drive my pregnant wife ninety minutes from home to a rural county fairgrounds where we listened to the Mass over a conference call and couldn’t even exit the car for anything but communion and confession, but it was a dedication and a creativity that was utterly lacking in the halls of the diocesan curia. Other bishops surely hid behind governors’ church-closure orders to avoid making this kind of effort for their flocks; our bishop had no such prohibition placed on him, and I have yet to hear an explanation as to why the Diocese of Arlington couldn’t have done something similar. To my dying day, I will never forget Palm Sunday 2020: the lonely figure of a priest and his sole acolyte, moving from car to car with a bucket of palms, the ghostly whispers of the Pueri hebraeorum crackling over our phone speakers. All the while, 70-odd church buildings in the Diocese of Arlington sat locked and barren, their pastors nowhere to be found. Such was my first lesson with the fickleness (at best) or treachery (at worst) of the dioceses.
I remember wondering to myself why I should have to resort to Berlin-Airlift-levels of time, money, and effort expended simply to get to Mass. After nearly 2,000 years, it felt like we were suddenly back in the first century. I discovered Tradition the year Benedict 16 left office. Not having lived through the darkest days of the 1970s and 1980s, to me that original manifestation of the treason of the dioceses was something academic, a horror story passed along by old timers, but not something I could ever have seen happening again. Not until Covid did I get the first inkling that perhaps the stability of the diocesan TLM was more illusory than I thought. If I had any doubts, they were answered on July 17, 2021, when Pope Francis all but set in motion the end of the Traditional Mass in dioceses the world over. Fully unleashed, diocese after diocese tripped over themselves to ban or restrict the Latin Mass. By this point, I had already made the decision to begin regularly attending our SSPX priory here in Warsaw, Poland, where I now live. But I watched in horror as St Mary’s—our last American parish before moving to Poland—was placed on the chopping block. It took the one-two hit of Covid and Traditionis Custodes to spell it out, but I finally see it now: we can only sit safe and secure outside the dioceses.
Look at St. Mary’s. If a parish that has faithfully followed diocesan TLM regulations, no matter how asinine, since the 1980s, a parish with a remarkably moderate parishioner base (even compared to other TLM parishes in the area), with a pastor who swore his loyalty to Vatican II and to the Cardinal until he was blue in the face—if such a parish is not safe, no diocesan parish is safe. St. Mary’s, after three decades and as many popes, had every right to believe it was safe. It was not. It can happen anywhere, at any time. Here we see the fundamental premise of my argument: no matter how good, how holy, how friendly-to-Tradition your parish, priest, or bishop are, it is all fleeting. Priests come and go, as do bishops. The dioceses cannot be fixed—again, I stress, regardless of the personal holiness of any diocesan priest or even bishop—until Rome is fixed. Unless and until the errors of the liturgical reform and—yes, let’s say it—the Second Vatican Council are repudiated, anathematized, and censored, nothing will change. The current state of things will continue to be a recurrent nightmare. The whole world has groaned, as Jerome might have said, and is astonished to find itself conciliar. Devout parish priests whose blind adherence to a malformed understanding of obedience will cave, or they will be railroaded and carted off. Good bishops will be banished, and their successors will with the flick of a pen upend years of stable TLM parish life. Just because it hasn’t happened in your diocese yet (and pray God it won’t), the fact remains that because of the fundamental reality of the crisis in the Church, it can happen anywhere, at any time, and perhaps with little warning.
And since we cannot trust the dioceses as institutions, it behooves us to take preemptive action and get out now. I am a father. How can I bring my children to the parish down the street, seeing clear as day the Sword of Damocles hovering over their head, a sword which in six months’ or six years’ time might come swooping down to deny them the rite of baptism or confirmation that their forebears received through countless centuries? I am a husband. How can I look my wife in the eyes and tell her that St. Such-and-Such diocesan parish is place where we can build a real Catholic community, when at any moment an episcopal fiat can snuff it out and scatter us all to the four winds? I am a Catholic with dignity. How can I continue to walk through the very church doors that were shut and locked in my face for months and months, as if it never happened?
I realize I paint a gloomy and dystopian picture. To be clear, I am not saying to never again attend a diocesan Mass, nor do I fault those who, unlike me, choose to stay and fight it out. You have every right to fight for what is yours, and you do not deserve the spiritual abuse you have constantly endured or may soon endure. And very likely, there will be a fair number of dioceses where Tradition can indeed prevail despite all Rome throws at it; strong Catholic warriors are needed to man these barricades, and I can only salute you if that is your calling. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord in an environment where my children can receive the respect and stability that they deserve as children of God. I don’t ever want to have to look my children in the eye and tell them that we can never again go to the parish they were raised in, or that we have to go to the local Novus Ordo parish on the holiest days of the year, because His Eminence has not seen fit to allow the celebration of traditional Christmas Mass. I simply cannot keep taking my family to a diocesan parish. Like a loved one who is addicted to drugs, at a certain point they need to be cut off. If my diocesan parish will not receive us, nor hear my plea for stability, going forth out of that church I shall shake the dust from my feet.
For myself and for my family, we have found a home in the SSPX. I realize that is not feasible—physically, or in conscience—for all. I begrudge no one their decisions in this trying and confusing time. But here in the Society, I see a stability that the ravenous wolves in the episcopacy cannot touch. This is not to say that the Society is infallible or immune to the errors of the world. But surely, if anywhere is safe, it is with an order of priests whose very existence is tied to preserving the traditional sacraments and the faithful priesthood. I was overjoyed to read in our bulletin recently that the Society’s priory in Warsaw alone will send nine men to seminary this year. That is indeed a treasure that the rust and the moth do not consume, and which thieves (or Cardinals) cannot break through and steal. It is beyond heartbreaking to leave diocesan parishes where we have lived and loved and worshiped for many years. It is emotional for me to think that I cannot go back to the parish where l first cracked open a hand missal or learned to serve the Traditional Mass for the first time. But our true family is not any one parish, our home is in the Church and her Tradition. And so long as there is a place where the traditional faith is taught, where the sacraments are given by priests who have personally told me, both privately and from the pulpit, that they would sooner to go to jail than abandon us—then how can I not bring my family to such a place? I pray that the dioceses may be restored one day, and that the philistines who plunder our temples are turned back. But until God’s good time, when He sees fit to save us from this morass in which we’ve entrapped ourselves, I will remain faithful to the unchanging stability and wisdom of the Church’s eternal Tradition.