About half a century ago two
ladies were pushing their prams through a park when they came across a
statue of the Virgin Mary. The elder woman took out her grandson and
lifted him towards the Mother of God.
“Every day,” she told her friend, “I pray that little Michael will
become a priest.”
Fifty years on, that Michael, not so little anymore, is sitting in the
Brompton Oratory wearing a long black soutane. Mgr Michael Schmitz has
turned out, one would think, exactly as Großmutter
might have hoped. There is a lot of the 1950s about him: thoroughly
coiffed hair stands rigidly on his scalp, while underneath, wiry
spectacles make neat rings around his eyes.
Mgr Schmitz only found
out about his grandmother’s supplications to Our Lady after his
ordination. Clearly the discovery still affects him profoundly. “It is
all very miraculous to me,” he says in his thin yet clear German
accent. “You see the hand of God so many times in the life of every
His voice calls to mind that of Benedict XVI. Indeed, Mgr Schmitz knows
the Pope quite well. He was ordained by Cardinal Ratzinger in 1982 and
has met the Pontiff a number of times since.
Like Pope Benedict, Mgr Schmitz has a powerful mind that shimmers
through his conversation. He speaks with almost poetic precision, and
his mastery of Latin informs his excellent English.
As vicar-general of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest
(ICRSS) and Provincial Superior of its American branch, Mgr Schmitz is
a well-known figure in traditionalist circles. The Institute, a rapidly
expanding society of priests and seminarians, has a strong presence in
France and America and is now beginning to serve in Britain.
The community represents a sort of elite corps of the growing
neo-traditionalist brigade. ICRSS seminarians are thoroughly
“Romanised” for eight years before their ordination and vigorously
drilled in Latin and plainsong to facilitate the celebration of the
Mass of 1962.
Not that Mgr Schmitz would appreciate the military allusions. “We are
thoroughly unmilitant,” he insists. “The little that we have been able
to achieve has been entirely through grace.”
Certainly, these are exciting times for those devoted to the Latin
liturgy. It is expected that there will soon be the eagerly anticipated
motu proprio to lift restrictions on
the Tridentine Mass.
Yet Mgr Schmitz is not getting too excited. “Recently, we have been
thinking that any day it will come,” he says. “But we may still be
thinking that in 30 years’ time.”
Can we be certain, though, that the Holy Father wants this reform?
“Before he became Pope,” Mgr Schmitz observes, “he offered many
indications that there should be continuity. The Church cannot ban a
liturgy that has been hers for the greatest part of her history.”
Mgr Schmitz suggests that the reform would be a “logical continuation”
from Sacramentum Caritatis, Benedict’s recent
exhortation on the majesty of the Eucharist.
In that document, the Pontiff called for better music and the wider use
of Latin, both of which the Institute of Christ the King has been
promoting since its foundation in 1990.
“I believe that within the text of Sacramentum Caritatis
there are some hints,” Mgr Schmitz ruminates. “A return to what we call
the traditional Mass would have a logical connection with this
But, like Oliver Twist, he wants some more. “A
document alone, with the best intentions, does not create a new world
“We would be even more grateful if by an official document the Holy
Father would make it known that the Mass of always is still the Mass of
always and has come out of the closet.”
Moreover Mgr Schmitz is very keen to point out that the revival of the
traditional rite is not a matter of “turning the clock back”.
“First of all, that is a banality,” he says with Germanic aplomb. “You
cannot turn back the hands of time. Secondly, Christians do not believe
in a wheel of time that we turn, but in a directed time. Our philosophy
of history, our theology of history is always, let us say, orientated
towards something that happens now.”
Some of the faithful, however, are alarmed by the popular revival of
the Old Mass.
argue that what the “neo-trads” refer to as “the Mass of always” is in
fact the product of the Middle Ages, whereas the liturgies that emerged
following the Second Vatican Council are connected with the older,
patristic heritage of the third or fourth centuries.
“Very well,” Mgr Schmitz returns with a hint of frustration. “This
distinction between historical periods is not a Catholic thing to do. I
believe that the Holy Ghost is present in every age and in every period
of the Church.
“To divide the history of salvation into little drawers that you
yourself label with certain qualities is a very narrow view of the
history of the Church. As a matter of fact, we are not medievalists, we
are not concentrated on the third century or the 17th.” Very well, but
what then can we make of the last 40 years of Catholic worship? Does
the Novus Ordo not also belong to this organically evolving Church? “We
don’t exclude anything,” Mgr Schmitz answers gently. “We simply want to
open the window, so that the wind of tradition, the good Roman Catholic
tradition, can blow through into what has often become a rather stale
This is hardly an extremist position, yet a large number of bishops and
high-ranking priests want to keep their church windows firmly shut.
Mgr Schmitz turns diplomatic on this subject. “I don’t want to judge
anyone,” he says. “But the resistance comes from the older generation.
It is kind of a strange phenomenon because we have many younger people
in our churches who have never seen the Latin Mass in the past. Yet
they want it.
“It seems that a generation after the Second World War has broken with
its own past and now cannot understand that this past is actually the
present. So the opposition comes from them.
“We notice that the younger bishops are very open. Even if they
personally have no great leaning towards the traditional liturgy, they
are easy-going about it.”
The situation, then, is peculiar: liberals are acting like
reactionaries while conservatives speak about freedom and letting young
people do what they want. It is perhaps because of this
generational difference that youthful traditionalism is often
confrontational in tone. Mgr Schmitz, however, is on guard against the
“spirit of rebellion”.
He emphasises that humility and charity are paramount in the struggle
for holy life. “St Francis de Sales says we have to cook the truth in
charity until it tastes sweet,” he recalls. “This is our goal, and it
“We should not turn the mysteries of God into weapons of ideological
aggression. Obedience has always been the great challenge. If you
suffer for being obedient, the graces that come afterwards are
Yet there are plenty of Catholics in England and Wales who would say
that they have suffered quite enough.
They would like to see the Institute of Christ the King running
parishes in this country, sooner rather than later.
“Everywhere I go I hear the same question,” Mgr Schmitz observes,
laughing. “Why are you not here? Unfortunately, we cannot clone our
priests and you cannot rush a vocation. It takes time.
“It is not that we do not want to go to England, it is just that it is
technically not possible at this moment.”
Nevertheless, he concedes that if an English bishop rang up to ask the
Institute to save a parish, his community would not decline the offer.
“We are Italian enough – for the founder studied in Italy – to find a
solution. If a bishop really wants us, whether it be in America, in
Germany, or here in Britain then we will find a solution.”
This throws up a difficult question. If the Institute is willing to
rescue dying parishes, why are English bishops closing
churches rather than giving the traditionists a try?
Mgr Schmitz is unwilling to be drawn into a reply. “You will forgive
me,” he says. “I will not discuss such matters.” For him, the great
enemy is not obstructive prelates, but division within the Church in an
age of increasing godlessness.
“We seem sometimes in the Church like little tribes engaged in a
useless battle with wooden swords, while behind us an atomic
ticks. We should turn around, throw our swords away and find a
defuse the bomb.”