Fr Edwin Dwyer looks like he stepped out of a time machine. With his shaved head, thick red beard and piercing blue eyes, he may very well have celebrated Mass on one of the cold stone altars of medieval England. Like so many young priests, he clearly has no interest in merely blending in among his flock in Bay City, Michigan.
There’s a paternal authority in his bearing that surpasses his 36 years. He’s a priest of Christ’s Holy Church, and he certainly looks the part. Yet Fr Dwyer, who used to serve as parochial administrator for Our Lady of Peace parish in Bay City, was removed on January 30 by Bishop Walter Hurley, the apostolic administrator of Saginaw. The reason? “He brought in a style of worship that many people found very difficult,” according to Bishop Hurley.
Fr Dwyer’s “style” is fairly innocuous. He incorporated Gregorian chant into his Masses, used incense and bells during his procession, and wore a cassock. He led his flock in the Agnus Dei instead of the “Lamb of God”, and “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus” instead of “Holy, Holy, Holy”.
Yet evidently some parishioners reacted negatively to Fr Dwyer incorporating traditional elements into the Mass. “This is a serious concern in that our worship should draw us together, rather than divide,” said Bishop Hurley. “It is important that we seek ways to unite the parish in our common mission of being evangelising disciples and grow in our relationship with Christ, each in our own way.”
During Fr Dwyer’s final remarks to parishioners at Our Lady of Peace, the text of which was obtained by the National Catholic Register, the priest explained that he was not being removed for any wrongdoing. “It is very important for all of you to know,” he said, “that it was not due to any allegation of misconduct of any nature on my part that Bishop Hurley decided to revoke my appointments as chaplain of [Saginaw Valley State University] and as parochial administrator of Our Lady of Peace Parish.”
It should be emphasised again that Fr Dwyer’s modifications did not go against canon law or Church discipline. On the contrary, senior prelates such as Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, have strongly urged pastors to reintroduce pre-Vatican II liturgical custom that emphasised reverence. He urged priests to consider the “small rituals and gestures” that are “capable of expressing these attitudes filled with love, filial respect and adoration toward God”.
Moreover, in his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict XVI made it clear that “the priest needs no permission from the Apostolic See or from his own Ordinary” to celebrate the traditional Latin Mass. And Fr Dwyer does not even intend to go that far. As he explained: “I do not know how to offer [the Extraordinary Form], and I do not see a pastoral advantage to learning it at the moment.”
If Fr Dwyer is free (at least in theory) to celebrate the Extraordinary Form Mass whenever he likes, one would assume he was free to incorporate individual aspects of tradition into the Ordinary Form. Yet, at least as far as his bishop is concerned, this seems not to be the case. No doubt many traditionalists will accuse Bishop Hurley of contradicting the spirit of Summorum and abrogating Fr Dwyer’s prerogative, which was laid down so clearly by the Pope Emeritus while he still sat on St Peter’s Throne. The bishop is likely to respond by saying he was concerned that the liturgical changes created divisions in the parish.
And this debate is much larger than the Diocese of Saginaw. Fr Dwyer’s experience suggests the rupture is, ultimately, a matter of age. Before the controversy which led to his removal, he observed in a message to parishioners that “no less than five young adults have asked me about learning this chant. Younger Catholics have told me how much they enjoy that music and look forward to its regular use… Believe it or not, tradition works.”
“So-called ‘old ways’ are quite popular among younger Catholics,” he continued. “Smells, bells, classic hymns, chant, prolonged silence, and, hold on for this one, Latin are all largely embraced by the younger generations of the Church.” Indeed, one of the great ironies of the modern Church is the division between older priests and laypeople, who are devoted to the reforms of Vatican II, and younger, more traditional clergy and communicants has become one of the main fractures in the Church today.
It is likely that young, traditionally- minded priests will continue to assert their own liturgical prerogative. If priests actually feel comfortable celebrating the Extraordinary Form Mass or incorporating pre-Vatican II customs into the Ordinary Form, we may be shocked by how frequently they occur, from Los Angeles to Saginaw. This could be the beginning of liturgy conflicts the likes of which we haven’t seen since 1964 – only now, the young turks are on the side of tradition.
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