News Analysis

What happens when a priest is too traditional for his parish?

It’s something of a trope these days. First, a young priest is assigned to a new parish, where he reintroduces elements of the pre-Vatican II liturgy. Younger, more conservative parishioners are thrilled; older, more progressive ones are outraged. Then, the bishop sides with the older folks against the priest and his more youthful admirers. The priest is removed, and what follows is an international uproar.

We saw the scenario play out recently when 38-year-old Fr Nicholas Rynne was removed as administrator of the Meander Valley parish in Tasmania by Archbishop Julian Porteous. He had rankled some of the laity by wearing a cassock, asking his congregation to address him as “Father,” and celebrating a weekly Latin Mass in addition to the regular Ordinary Form Masses. The story went viral on social media after a letter from one influential parishioner was leaked. “You know why you are spat on for wearing clerical dress and I am with those who do so as I think it is ridiculous to wear a cassock and even a collar in this day and age,” wrote one, before comparing Fr Rynne and his supporters to the Taliban.

It’s eerily reminiscent of a story that broke in February in the United States. You might recall the saga of Fr Eddie Dwyer.

Fr Dwyer served as chaplain of Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan, where his liturgical traditionalism was popular with students. The 36-year-old wove Gregorian chant and Latin prayers into the Ordinary Form: a compromise between the Novus Ordo and Tridentine forms common in university chaplaincies. Fr Dwyer was also pastor of Our Lady of Peace parish in Bay City. There too he attempted to incorporate pre-Vatican II elements into one of his Sunday Masses. Again, it was popular with the younger, more conservative elements of the community. But some of the older parishioners were furious.

Eventually, their complaints filtered up to Bishop Walter A Hurley, who was appointed as the Diocese of Saginaw’s apostolic administrator after the death of Bishop Joseph Cistone last October. “This is a serious concern in that our worship should draw us together, rather than divide,” Bishop Hurley wrote in a letter to the laity of Our Lady of Peace. “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.” Fr Dwyer was removed as parochial administrator.

To date, he’s received more than 600 letters of support, sources close to Fr Dwyer told the Catholic Herald. Bishop Hurley has even stated on television that the priest “has done nothing wrong”. And yet Fr Dwyer has yet to receive a new assignment. “A week ago, there were three parishes with no priests. Yet no one, especially Fr Dwyer, has been assigned,” the Herald’s source notes. “Obviously, we have a shortage of clergy here. Now, a few days after another Saginaw priest has been accused of sexual misconduct, there are four parishes without a priest.”

Fr Dwyer’s supporters claim that Bishop Hurley  told the priest he would only consider returning him to active ministry if  he agreed to a one-on-one meeting. Fr Dwyer has asked that his canonist or another third party be present. Bishop Hurley refuses. (A diocesan spokesman didn’t reply to requests to confirm or deny the source’s account.)

Individuals closely involved with Fr Dwyer’s case said they appealed to the Apostolic Nuncio, but to no avail. They said they wrote to Archbishop Christophe Pierre requesting a meeting, but were told that that it would be “inopportune and unnecessary”. Archbishop Pierre reportedly insisted that he does not “interfere with the inner workings of a diocese”. Fr Dwyer’s allies hope that Bishop Robert D Gruss, the newly appointed Ordinary of Saginaw, will address Fr Dwyer’s situation. (The nunciature in Washington, DC also didn’t respond to requests to confirm or deny the source’s account.)

In the meantime, he’s keeping himself busy. Currently he’s living in the rectory of Holy Family parish in the City of Saginaw, where he celebrates the 9am Mass on Sundays. He’s said to have brought the average attendance up from 75 to 150 – at times, more than 200. You can also follow his series of “Lunch Break Homilies”, posted daily on Facebook. “Nothing will keep him from leading people to the Lord,” a source told us. And yet, until he’s given a permanent assignment, Fr Dwyer remains in canonical limbo.

However his situation is resolved, this is one case that won’t simply go away. Clearly, Fr Dwyer has hundreds – even thousands – of vocal supporters. There are several highly influential Anglophone conservatives in the College of Cardinals, many of whom no doubt take an interest in Fr Dwyer’s case, too.

But look at the bigger picture. The gulf between young traditionalists and older progressives continues to grow, especially in the priesthood. A source in the Archdiocese of Boston says that more a third of St. John’s Seminary Class of 2019 is interested in celebrating the Old Mass. And that number will only grow. If bishops continue to side with the Novus Ordo-only parishioners, we should expect resistance to intensify among the priesthood and the laity. It seems unavoidable now: a parish-level “liturgy war” is only just beginning.