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‘The Church is not a group of friends’

The growing popularity of Mass in the Extraordinary Form may be one of the more surprising cultural developments of recent years, though it has gone little noticed outside the Catholic world. But it is a trend that may reverberate down the years, or at least represent a deeper, underlying cultural change. If that does happen, historians of western culture will surely note the Brazillian experiment that started at the beginning of the 21st century.

The Personal Apostolic Administration of St John Mary Vianney is a “particular church” for those with an attachment to the Extraordinary Form. It shares the same area as the Brazilian Diocese of Campos in an experiment begun by Blessed John Paul II to see whether those attached respectively to the new and old forms of the Mass could live side by side.
Five years after the experiment began Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, then prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy, said that the late pope’s project had been “partly proved” and that “peaceful coexistence” could be “a beautiful reality”.

There can be little doubt that this prepared the ground for Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict’s 2007 apostolic letter which liberated the older form of the Mass. As Bishop Fernando Arêas Rifan, apostolic administrator of the Personal Apostolic Administration of St John Mary Vianney, said at the time: “Our very existence and our good relations spoke in favour of it.”

Since then, the Extraordinary Form Mass has begun to thrive around the world, much to the bishop’s delight. “It’s growing everywhere,” he tells me when we meet during his recent trip to Britain at the invitation of the Latin Mass Society. “This is a richness, a treasure of the Church. The Catholic Church has many different rites – more than 20 – even though we have unity of government.”

The Extraordinary Form was never abrogated, he points out. “It’s not a contradiction. The Pope said that in his opinion we can liberate [the Extraordinary Form] and with Summorum Pontificum he freed us to celebrate everywhere. He intends to have liturgical peace in the Church, not everyone fighting against each other. One can give benefit to the other. The new form today perhaps privileges the participation of the people. The old sense privileged the mystery, respect. Both forms, I think, are very good.”

Bishop Rifan is said to be close to Pope Benedict, who he admires, loves and respects in a way that is very disarming. During our interview he powers up his iPad to reveal a screensaver of the then Fr Joseph Ratzinger and shows me an album of papal photos. And yet there was a time when Bishop Rifan was on the outside, and things could have turned out differently.

Born in October 1950 and raised in Campos, Fernando Arêas Rifan was an only child with suitably cosmopolitan Brazilian parents. His mother was a mix of Spanish and Swiss, his father a Lebanese Catholic. Ordained a priest in 1974 Fr Rifan had joined the Priestly Union of Saint Jean-Marie Vianney, a group founded by Bishop Antônio de Castro Mayer of Campos, who until his retirement in 1981 had refused to accept the New Rite. In 1988 Fr Rifan was assistant presbyter at the famous Écône consecrations during which Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre consecrated four SSPX bishops in defiance of Pope John Paul II. After Bishop Mayer died in 1991 the Priestly Union chose Fr Licinio Rangel, who was consecrated bishop without papal mandate by three of the SSPX bishops, to serve as administrator.

In 2000 Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos established contact and the following year the Priestly Union requested reconciliation. The Personal Apostolic Administration of St John Mary Vianney was established in 2002, with Bishop Rangel as Apostolic Administrator. Fr Rifan was then named as Bishop Rangel’s coadjutor. After the bishop’s death at the end of the year Bishop Rifan became the leader of the Personal Apostolic Administration of St John Mary Vianney.

Today the Personal Apostolic Administration has 10 churches, plus a cathedral, seminarians and parishes. Thanks partly to help from the British Friends of Campos, the apostolic adminstration supports schools, orphanages and a house for elderly people. Members built a cathedral in 15 years and the bishop shows me pictures of a Mass and various public processions. The scenes are lively, colourful and full of young people.

The bishop argues that the apostolic administration has been good for the Church and says there has been a fair amount of learning on both sides. He says he has a good relationship with the Bishop of Campos and there is a lot of mutual consultation and regular visits.

I ask the bishop if he understands why some Catholics find the Extraordinary Form rather off-putting.
“I think they are afraid of losing Vatican II, the new form, but the Pope has dealt with these issues,” he says. In Brazil, “like here, there are bishops against, and bishops for”, but ”year by year the bishops are coming around to the Extraordinary Form”.

And what about the personal animosity Bishop Rifan receives from traditionalists who are not in full communion with Rome? He shrugs. “I have proceeded with my conscience and supported by the Pope. I conserve the traditional Mass, but in communion. To be in communion with the Church does not mean I agree with
any confusions or abuses or heresies.”

He attributes divisions among Catholics to the fact that “the Catholic Church has two parts: the divine part and human part”.

“The divine is the constitution, grace, doctrine, infallibility, the assistance of Our Lord,” he says. “The human part is the bit where we are: jealousy, confusions, problems and the history of the Church. If we regard only the human part we risk losing the faith. The leaders of the heresies said they wanted to reform the Church because they see only the human part.

“We can be inside the Church to combat these problems. The Church is not a group of friends, it is a family. In a family we
have good people and bad people. The Lord said the Kingdom of Heaven is the net and there are all kinds of fish. The separation is at the end of times.”

If you would like to support the apostolic administration you can send a cheque payable to “British Friends of Campos” to 3 Marder Road, London W13 9EN. Email [email protected] for further information