Rev. Fr. Eric Ensey
Society of Saint John
3 February 1998
My dear friends in Christ,
Since leaving Michigan in late October, I have wanted to send you this letter, though circumstances only now permit me to do so. My intention in writing is to dispel some of the confusion and anxieties resulting from my sudden departure from the Society of Saint Pius X. In so doing, I hope to fulfill what I consider my duty to you in both justice and charity.
From the outset, I want to make clear that there are two essential questions at hand: the one, my leaving the Society of Saint Pius X; the other, the foundation of the Society of Saint John. Though the two things are related, they are, nonetheless, quite distinct and must remain so if we are to see through the present state of confusion.
Finally, know that my departure was after having notified my immediate superior, the Reverend Father John Fullerton, as well as having attempted to notify our common immediate superior, the Reverend Father Peter Scott. Several days after leaving, I sent a facsimile letter of explanation to both of them, as well as to the Society's Superior General, Bishop Bernard Fellay.
Reason for Leaving the Society of Saint Pius X
WHAT DOES IT PROFIT A MAN. . .
Saint Paul tells us in his Epistle to the Hebrews that a priest is a man taken from among men on behalf of men and appointed for the things pertaining to God. The priesthood exists, therefore, for the good of the Church, that intercession may be made between heaven and earth: worship for heaven, grace for earth. Yet, if a priest is bound to seek the good of the people in his care, even to the point of laying down his life for them, he is not thereby entitled to neglect the good of his own soul. In making this decision, I have heeded both the voice of conscience and what have seemed to be the indications of Providence, and that, for the good of us all, whether directly or indirectly.
Just before my departure from the Society, I became aware of recent clarifications on the part of Rome concerning the episcopal consecrations of 1988 and their canonical and ecclesial consequences. Rome's position, since the aftermath of the consecrations, is that both Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer, along with the four men whom they consecrated, were ipso facto excommunicated as a result of the event. The argument of the Holy See, in keeping with past doctrine and discipline on the matter, is essentially that to consecrate a bishop against the express will of the Sovereign Pontiff can never be justified. This is because such an act is a direct attack upon the unity of the Church: hence the serious penalties incurred by the parties involved.
NOT THE BISHOPS ALONE
These sanctions are not considered to stop with the bishops themselves, however. According to canon law, a priest or deacon ordained by an excommunicated bishop is automatically suspended (and in this case, presumably excommunicated as well, for formal adherence to schism). This latter question (that is, of the irregular status of the major clerics of the Society of Saint Pius X ordained after June, 1988) was one of the items treated by the recent document from the Pontifical Commission for the interpretation of Legislative Texts. Because I was ordained in 1995, this question concerned me directly, albeit - due to the formation that I had received in the Society on this subject - I had never considered myself to be under any censure whatsoever. However, after speaking with a priest in Rome who works for the Ecclesia Dei Commission, and then concurring with two other traditional priests on the matter, I decided that, though the issue was not altogether clear in all respects, the presumption was rather for Rome than against it. The question of the consecrations has been and is now again the object of serious consideration and study. However, Rome's attitude seems justifiable and clear, based not upon neo-Modernist innovation, but upon traditional principles of ecclesial theology. The situation for the Society does not look good.
DUTY TO THE SOCIETY: ENGAGEMENT
It was under the weight of this that I became convinced that my personal good standing as a Catholic priest necessitated the immediate cessation of my membership within the Society. In spite of the fact that there yet remained some seven weeks until the foreseen end of my engagement of membership, I could not in good conscience continue my ministry as a suspended priest. Moreover, a promise like the Society's engagement is neither a vow nor an oath. It does not continue to bind in conscience once obedience thereto becomes sinful, as it seemed it would have been in my case, knowing then what I knew.
DUTY TO SELF: CONSCIENCE
I hope that the preceding information, brief though it may be, has made clear both why I thought I needed to leave and the reason for the haste with which I did so. It was not my will to abandon my duty to anyone. However, traditional moral theology is clear in teaching that, when one finds oneself confronted with serious positive doubt, one must first resolve the doubt before proceeding in one's course of action. In this case, the doubt is in the favor of Rome, that is, the normal ecclesiastical authority. With the Holy See's having lifted the aforementioned censures, the doubt has been resolved in my case. I would hasten to add that the experience of the past three months has served to confirm the decision I made at the end of October last. Happily, I have resumed my priestly ministry, in circumstances which I will now explain.
The Society of Saint John
A LONG-STANDING HOPE
After leaving the Michigan priory, I joined a group of clerics in the diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Here, we are presently working on the foundation of a new, traditional clerical society of common life, the Society of Saint John. As some of you know, I have been for several years closely associated with certain of these priests and seminarians, all formerly of the Society of Saint Pius X. Initially, we did not realize the weightiness of Rome's arguments concerning the gravity of the Society's situation, because, as indicated earlier, our seminary formation within the Society had been deficient in some matters of ecclesial theology and canon law. In fact, our original intention was that our work would be a companion and complement to the Society, not its competitor or adversary. The scandal of division (which is not the same thing as the harmony of diversity) had preceded us sufficiently, and we did not want to be the cause of still more.
Therefore, we had intended to prepare a proposal for this new work, which would then have been duly presented to the superiors of the Society of Saint Pius X for their consideration and we hoped, their blessing. Thus, it should be clear to all that the founding of this new society is something altogether distinct from the present difficulties within the Society of Saint Pius X. Indeed the plans for it have existed in our thoughts and hopes long before we realized the seriousness of the Society's situation. The reason for the establishment of this new group, therefore, is not to contend with the Society, as the work envisioned is a quite different one (see the enclosed brochure).
Refutation of Some Rumors
Although we had hoped for a friendly parting from the Society, as says the old German refrain, "although man proposes, it is God who disposes." Providence did indeed dispose differently than we had hoped. The events of the last few months, aggravated by human faults and miseries - from which none of us claims exemption - have contributed to misunderstandings. There is even a certain spirit of paranoia on the part of some Society superiors, and much of what is passing for logical argument is rather the stuff of emotion, particularly fear. All of this manifests their unwillingness for such a work, and lately this has taken the form of unbridled opposition, especially as the seriousness of the Society's situation has come to be known. Much now is being said in criticism of our group and its members, and there appears to be given no little place to the wagging tongues of gossip, from which, at times, both detraction and calumny - intended or not (God and the gossipers, know) - issue forth.
However, contrary to the popular assertion and rumor, we have not made any compromise regarding the Catholic Faith. In seeking to found a new community, we have sought the permission of legitimate ecclesiastical authority, knowing full well the necessity of obtaining the official approval of the Church for us and our proposed work, approval which is beyond the power of the Society of Saint Pius X or any other human institution so give. The moral approval, or blessing, of the Society was sought in the beginning for our work, but it could not have been, even in the most favorable of circumstances the substitute for an ecclesiastical approval. This is both theologically necessary and canonically decisive, assuring that a work be linked to the essential apostolic mission of the Church and willed by God as a work of the same, no matter how inherently good or useful it may seem in its own right. For, "How can they preach unless they be sent?" and, "Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it." (The Society of Saint Pius X itself always has based its existence and activity on the official approval received from the then Bishop of Lausanne, Geneva and Fribourg, Monsignor Francois Charriere . . . in 1970, no less, with the era of the Novus Ordo Missae and so-called "new church" well under way.)
STILL FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT
The regularization - not, be it noted, re-ordination - of our status as priests and deacons within the Church was followed by the permission from Rome for the continued celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass according to the traditional Roman Missal. The subsequent granting of full diocesan faculties by Bishop James Timlin of this diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania has given official approval to our priestly ministry. Meanwhile, the work of founding our new society steadily progresses, God's blessings being abundant in both consolation and the Cross of Christ. Bishop Timlin has been nothing but paternal and welcoming in our regard, asking of us no compromises whatsoever. Hence, I heartily protest the vile and bitter attack being made upon his generous person and benevolent character by some members of the Society of Saint Pius X. I remain steadfast in my attachment to Sacred Tradition, and I do here state in the most forthright and unequivocal way that I have in no way, shape, or form "given up the fight" for either that Tradition or the Church whose living Magisterium is the sole authentic interpreter thereof. The war in which the Church finds Herself engaged today is one of many fronts and battles, and I do but fight on a new field, where the struggle promises to be no less arduous . . . no less worth fighting and dying for.
Relationship with the Fraternity of Saint Peter
NO PROMISE OF SILENCE
In that field of battle, our rapport with the Fraternity of Saint Peter is essentially one of beneficiaries and tenants, since I and my companions presently rent a portion of their Saint Gregory's Academy. The Fraternity superiors know perfectly our intentions regarding the formation of a group distinct from themselves, and they respect our status as such. Contrary to popular rumor, neither group has promised "silence" in the face of either sin or error, and so we are united in the general defense of Catholic truth and justice, just as we are united to anyone else in the measure that they are working for the restoration of the Faith and Christendom. We have accepted only one condition. Confronted with those reforms of the Second Vatican Council and thereafter which seem difficult to reconcile with traditional Church teaching or discipline, we have agreed to pursue a path of serious, well-studied and non-polemical discourse with the authorities of the Church for the resolution of those difficulties. "Non-polemical," be it noted, does not mean "not public." Never have I or my companions agreed to a policy of silence concerning the present crisis. Rather, we are resolved simply that, in all discourse with Church authorities, the interest of truth be not so zealously and intemperately pursued that that of charity and justice suffer loss: " . . . if I have all faith so as to move mountains, yet do not have charity, I am nothing."
PRESENT GRATITUDE FOR PAST GOOD
I remain, notwithstanding the present trials, devotedly indebted to the Society of Saint Pius X, including both its official leaders and members and its associated laity. God knows the good that Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the Society have done over the years, for so many of us. I do not hesitate to say that neither the Fraternity of Saint Peter nor the Society of Saint John would even exist were it not for the work of the Society of Saint Pius X. Present problems do not erase past benefits, nor do they excuse from one's duty of gratitude.
UPON THIS ROCK
In saying this, however, I must add that the Society of Saint Pius X would not itself exist were it not for the Catholic Church. Let us resolve to do all in our power, then, be it "only" by our prayers and sacrifices, to work toward a reconciliation between the Society and Rome. This necessarily entails, on the one hand, avoiding a campaign of bitter zeal that would only intensify the spirit and, where it exists, the reality of division, and on the other, holding fast to principles in the face of human respect. These are difficult times in which to live, but they are, by Divine Providence, our times. Men and human institutions can falter, and we do both them and ourselves a great disservice in thinking otherwise. Do I here suggest that we admit defeat? God forbid. "If God is for us, who can be against us?" He has promised that His Church will withstand even the gates of hell. We must indeed labor for the restoration of the Faith and Christian civilization. However, we must take care to ensure that our efforts do not exceed the limits traced by the Church's own constitution. Moreover, let us always remember that, in the final analysis, it is not we who save the Church . . . rather, it is the Church Who saves us.
Open Lines of Communication
TRUTH IN CHARITY; CHARITY IN TRUTH
My dear friends, you are in my thoughts and prayers. None of you as excluded from my charity and good will. The remembrance of the many acts of kindness and charity shown to me during the course of my nearly two and one-half years as a priest in the Society, and of the spiritual and material support that I received during my seminary studies, will ever be with me. I welcome any communication on your part, whether approving or disapproving, ready and willing to discuss these issues. All I ask of you is that same commitment to "truth in charity" that I demand of myself. Indeed, in this letter I have deliberately refrained from writing anything which I cannot at this time substantiate, or which I simply do not see in such a way so as to responsibly convey it to others, though this might be enough for me. Although there is much going on in the Society of Saint Pius X that concerns me greatly, for now it seems better to keep a reserved silence on these matters, pending the completion of our study of the same. Though my departure has been an occasion of sorrow and distress for many of you, none was intended. I do not consider myself to be the judge of the Society of Saint Pius X, and in no way do I seek to attack it or its members. This letter, as I declared from the outset, only aims to answer two questions: namely, why I left where I was, and where I am now. Please weigh what you have read here and what you have already known about me against what you have lately heard - and will no doubt hear - and, following the Gospel admonition, judge justly.
Conclusion and Exhortation
Let us believe in the Catholic Church and in the God who has promised to be with Her until the end of time. The Church, like Her Lord, has both a human nature and a divine one . . . and, like Her Lord, She can and has suffered in that human nature. Though we Catholics are accustomed to seeing our God nailed to a cross, we are not always so ready to accept a like crucifixion of the Church. Such is, however, part of the mystery of the Mystical Body, and the only possible attitude in the face of mystery is that of a respectful and adoring silence. Our Lady, Saint John, and the Holy Magdalene did not need to understand fully the reality of the Cross in order to remain faithfully at the feet of the Crucified. Neither do we need to comprehend fully the mystery of the crisis of the Church in order to remain her faithful sons and daughters. Let us be true to her in her time of suffering, striving with all the strength of our souls to live the Gospel, utterly confident that in spite of every possible indication to the contrary, it still both can and must be lived. It is the heart of our holy Faith, the light shining in the darkness of this world . . . a light whose beacon will never fade nor direct amiss. Keeping our eyes on Christ and our hearts in Heaven, let us walk as the adopted children of His Father that we are, ready to follow Him wherever He leads us.
May God bless and keep you, one and all, and may Our Lady's mantle be your sure protection in every danger, and her heart the way that leads you to Him. For my part I remain the man, adopted son of God, and priest that I heretofore was, resolved to stay faithful to Him and His Catholic Church and Priesthood to the end of my days. So I am, by the grace of God. So may I, by that same grace, ever remain.
Ever your devoted friend in Christo Iesu per Mariam,
Fr. Eric Ensey