Fr. James Doran on Volume I of Bp. Williamson’s Letters from the Rector

This article was originally published in the December 2007 Angelus.  Fr. Doran was originally slated to introduce Volume 1, but time constraints did not allow that to happen, and we have his review, with thanks to him, here instead.  

Who could not like the 1980’s? For the Priestly Society of St. Pius X it was a continuation of its work and the hammering out of its positions for the resistance against the novelties, innovations, and sometimes silliness which had afflicted the Church of God since the Second Vatican Council. It was a decade of “war” as the then Father Williamson would have said. And he would like it that way: war, in the realm of ideas, causes one to think or die. It can vitalize the senses and sharpen the wits, or it can cause one to wither into a shell of a man. Clarity of thought can be the result of the conflict of ideas as long as a gentleman’s understanding is in place and Christian charity reign supreme.

In spite of being a decade of conflicts, the 1980’s were marvelous years: Archbishop Lefebvre was still alive to interpret, inspire, and assist the Priestly Congregation he had founded. There were also many of the old “troopers” along side the venerable archbishop. These monsignori, canons, and priests would often pass through the seminary in Ecône and through their conferences and contact with the seminarians they passed on to us a sane, and oftentimes brilliant, heritage. It was a tremendous privilege to be in Ecône in those days. It was a time which can no longer be duplicated. A living tradition was embodied in those men who have now gone to their well deserved reward. How do you thank someone for fidelity? These priests were the faithful servants of the Gospel and heroes to the young seminarians. We knew that we lived in critical times.

Sede vacantism, liturgical observances, clerical fidelity, political stance, and the shock of the Assisi papal gathering of religions were among the many subjects addressed during that decade, and certainly not the least of the debates centered on the episcopal consecrations of 1988. What a spectrum of topics! The years from the First General Chapter of the Society in 1982 until the episcopal consecrations in 1988 were filled with controversy and conflict. Should I add “vitality?” Though the course was difficult, and many lost way on the vary subjects, it was a time when ideas and the Faith were vigorously debated. The following decade seems to have been afflicted, in comparison, with a sort of malaise of complacency and inert existence: “I have my Mass and the Sacraments. That’s enough for me.” Many now have been reared and educated exclusively in the ancient Faith of the Church thanks to the work of Archbishop Lefebvre and his priests, and this is an exceptional gift in this day and age. Nevertheless, can it not be asked whether many now, too many, have simply accepted the status quo? Does our Faith not compel us to more? They might assist at Mass, but have too many simply become lukewarm and apathetic?

The letters in this collection deal with the most wide ranging subjects (and conflicts) to be found in the ecclesiastical world of the Society of St. Pius X’s apostolate; they are for this reason perhaps even more important for the readers following a somewhat complacent decade, and who are now more than half way through the first decade of another century. We are commemorating during these years the centennial of the pontificate of St. Pius X, but where is our faith in comparison to the beginning of the twentieth century? Is ours the zeal of the saintly pontiff, or have we accepted that the world have the upper hand? The letters of Bishop Williamson may once again agitate such questions. “Agitate?” Agree or disagree with them, they are at least thought provoking. Letters cannot possibly cover all the details and nuances necessary in such an array of subjects but they are good exposés and they certainly open the debate. They were, and are, matters worthy of discussion.

Discussion must be open and frank. Too many spend their time preoccupied with “nice” façade. This does not mean that discussions are to be harsh if they involve serious ideas, on the contrary! A conversation, even a debate, can be cordial and balanced. It only requires that one remain a gentleman, honest, and be guided by charity. We can still disagree and remain mutually in the embrace of charity. This has been seen in numerous lives of the saints throughout history; the time of the Great Schism not being the least of the examples. What is death to intellectual integrity, is the sort of mealy mouthed protests of “niceness” while all the time planning a covert, and usually backstabbing, attack. This is not the method of a gentleman and certainly not that of one who is meant to be inspired by evangelical charity. Unity is not uniformity. The letters of Bishop Williamson expose to all the world his ideas and by doing so his position is known. This is much to his credit. He knows how to draw the line in the sand, and his is not the method to work “behind the scenes.” In re-issuing these letters he has even refused to re-edit or touch them up to fit, perhaps better, the present circumstances. Written in the 1980’s they remain the letters, integrally, of the 1980’s.

And this brings us to a final consideration. Bishop Williamson has often, dare I say always, seen himself as a provocateur. Complacency and wishy-washy minds are his bane. He “bends the bar past straight” in order to make the thoughts rest justly straight in the end. When he sees sparks of interest and the wheels of thought begin to turn he is delighted. Those who have lived with him know this to be true. It does not matter who the person might be, whether faithful Catholic, pants-wearing feminist, or Orthodox rabbi, he is one who enjoys a good debate and conversation with substance. These letters would seem to show something of this attitude. In conversation, where grey cells are sparking, the bishop is known to take copious notes in his little green notebooks. God alone knows what these may contain after so many years!

The letters of the first volume cover the years when Father Williamson was first vice-rector and then rector of St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Ridgefield Connecticut. Named by Archbishop Lefebvre to these posts, he was certainly a lieutenant for the esteemed prelate. These letters were written during that time of trust and confidence from the founder of the Society of St. Pius X. “Trust” and “confidence” are not too strong of words, as Archbishop Lefebvre, in a sense, confirmed these public writings of 1983-1988, by his choice of Richard Williamson as one of the four men consecrated to carry on his episcopal duties in that fateful year, 1988.

Read them. Appreciate them. Hate them, even. Whatever, as long as the ideas be kept alive and the complacency of so many years be shaken off.

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Stephen Heiner

Stephen lives in Paris, France. He founded True Restoration in 2006.

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