In Dutch there is a proverb: ‘To be more Roman than the pope’, meaning fanatical extremism.
Hailing from around the world, a group led by an excommunicated bishop call themselves a ‘resistance’ movement against Vatican reforms. The response from the Vatican was swift and unequivocal: ‘Excommunication is automatic’
Jonathan Watts in Nova Friburgo and Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Rome
Wednesday 1 April 2015 11.00 BST
In a secluded monastery in south-eastern Brazil, a breakaway group of ultra-conservative Catholics gathered to participate in an act of rebellion against the pope.
The setting could hardly have been more tranquil: rolling green hills, purple-glory trees, palm leaves swaying in the wind and a temporary chapel made of breeze block walls and a tin roof left partially open to the elements.
But the 50 or so priests, Benedictine monks, nuns and other worshippers who file into Santa Cruz monastery on Saturday were no ordinary congregation. Hailing from Europe, the US and Latin America, they described themselves as a “resistance” movement against Vatican reforms.
In favour of Latin services – and fiercely opposed to ecumenism, freedom of religion and closer relations with Judaism – they had come to defy the authority of Rome with the ordination of a new priest by an excommunicated bishop, Jean-Michel Faure.
It was the second such ceremony in the past month: Faure was consecrated here without papal approval only two weeks ago by the Holocaust-denying British bishop Richard Williamson. In response, both clerics were automatically ejected from the church, but this has not stopped the group’s drive to build an unsanctioned clergy.
The ceremony harked back to an earlier, more conservative age. Women sat on one side of the aisle, their heads – even the youngest girls – covered in scarves. Over three hours, the liturgy was almost entirely in Latin, as were the hymns sung by a choir of monks accompanied by a nun on an electric organ.
Before his ordination, brother André Zelaya de León prostrated himself before the altar and then rose to his knees for a blessing on his tonsured head by Faure. At times, the prayers were so quiet that they almost drowned out by the cicadas and birds in the trees.
Apart from the digital cameras, cellphones – and the electric organ – the ceremony would have been recognisable to centuries of Catholic believers before what today’s ultra-conservatives consider to be the wrong turn taken by the Catholic church with the democratising reforms of the 1962 Second Vatican Council.
After the mass, Faure told the Guardian the Vatican was smashing tradition, and going against the teachings of Pius X, a staunch conservative who was pope between 1903 and 1914.
“We do not follow that revolution. The current pope is preaching doctrine denied by Pius X. He is less Catholic than us,” he said. “He does not follow the doctrine of the faith that are the words of Jesus Christ.”
The Vatican’s response to the ordination was unequivocal.
“Excommunication is automatic,” a spokesman said. He added: “For the Holy See, the diocese of Santa Cruz in Nova Friburgo does not exist. Faure can say what he wants, but a Catholic, and even more so a bishop, obeys and respects the pope.”
Faure, a French cleric who has worked in Mexico and Argentina, said he did not accept this ruling.
“Canon Law states that excommunication is valid if it follows a mor[t]al sin. But ours is not a mortal sin. We’re just following our religion. To do this, we need priests, and to have priests we need bishops.”
He compared his situation to that of other Catholics in history, such as Joan of Arc, who were initially excommunicated but later recognised for their contribution to the Church. “Although we are a minority now, if you look at history, we are a majority. There [are] all the saints, 250 popes and all the Catholics who think exactly as we think.”
Faure said he only reluctantly become a bishop in case Williamson died in an accident, which would leave the group without the means to ordain priests.
Though he did not say it, the French bishop may also be replacing his British counterpart as a spokesman for the movement. Williamson has repeatedly stirred up controversy with comments denying the Holocaust, … warning that Muslims are taking over Europe, and claiming that women are dominating corporations and the military because they are not fulfilling their natural role “making babies”.
Williamson was one of four bishops illegally ordained in 1988 by a French Roman Catholic archbishop called Marcel Lefebvre, the founder of the Society of St Pius X and an outspoken critic of the liberalisation of certain church practices following the Second Vatican Council, including the widespread use of vernacular language rather than Latin in mass, inter-faith dialogue and efforts to communicate with the secular world.
Lefebvre and all four bishops were immediately excommunicated for participating in the illicit ordinations, but their movement has been a thorn in the Vatican’s side ever since.
Only about one million Catholics – or .01% of the Catholic population – describe themselves as followers of St Pius X, but successive popes have attempted to heal the rift with them.
In 2009, Pope Benedict ignited controversy by lifting the excommunication of the four bishops and even promised the rebel group autonomy from bishops they considered too liberal.
This quickly backfired when it was revealed that Williamson had alleged that no Jews were killed in gas chambers, that the US orchestrated the 9/11 terrorist attacks and that freemasons were conspiring to destroy Catholicism.
The Vatican said at the time that Benedict had not been aware of Williamson’s views on the Holocaust. …
In contrast to his predecessor, Pope Francis has paid little attention to the ultra-conservatives.
Williamson has declared that he does not intend to start a new society, but the movement has now created a new bishop and a priest, and Faure claimed that there were at least two bishops in the Society of St Pius X who sympathised with the self-styled “Resistance”.
“If Bishop Lefebvre makes a deal with Rome, many people will leave the society. They won’t accept capitulation,” he said.
In conversation, the traditionalists appear to be hoping for a divine and dramatic intervention. Williamson, who describes himself as a “bloody-minded Brit”, has said he expects a “gigantic chastisement” such as Noah’s flood.
Faure talks more of a coming third world war.
“It would be horrible, but it would change the world. But the day after wouldn’t be like the day before,” Faure said, pointing to the conflicts in Ukraine, Syria and Iraq. “It would change many things in the world. It would be a new approach in many aspects and why not, in religion.”
For the moment, however, their group of roughly 55 rebel clergy has to rely on stubborn faith.
René Trincado, a priest from Chile, who was expelled from the Society of St Pius X in 2013 because he opposed an accord with the Vatican, is among those at the Santa Cruz monastery, which he described as the base of the resistance operations in Brazil.
“We’re not afraid of excommunication. It has no validity,” he said.
Additional reporting by Shanna Hanbury