Up from Traditionalism

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I became serious about my faith in the spring of 1993. I broke up with my girlfriend, went to confession, and made two phone calls, one to Opus Dei and the other to a firebrand traditionalist priest living at St. Agnes Church in Manhattan. The firebrand called back and became my spiritual director.

He put me on a daunting regimen: fifteen minutes of mental prayer each morning and evening, daily Mass, fifteen minutes of Scripture and spiritual reading, daily Rosary, Angelus, examination of conscience at noon and night, weekly confession and spiritual direction. “And,” he said, “you should start attending the Tridentine Mass.” This was my introduction to Traditional Catholicism and to the Traditionalist Movement.

Father ran a little group called Chistifidelis and I quickly became his chief lieutenant. We ran a weekly study group that met for two hours of close-order drill on The Baltimore Catechism – we were memorizing the whole thing – and two hours studying the Summa Theologiae. We ended each session with a loud and lusty Salve Regina, then knelt for Father’s blessing.

The Tridentine Mass each Sunday at St. Agnes Church was the most remarkable experience. It was the High Mass with schola according to the 1962 missal, a revelation to me after finding the new Mass somewhat thin gruel, and a glorious time for me and for my friends who were going through the same experience, a full-blooded engagement with the Catholic Church and her theological and liturgical traditions.

We started the Torquemada Project in which we studied the works of a heterodox speaker who was coming to town. We would go to the event, separately so as not to arouse suspicion, and descend on the microphone during questions so that he would only get hard questions.

The almost giddy height of my involvement with the Traditionalist Movement was Father’s annual colloquium and Mass. This was a weekend-long event that included a conference and a Vatican cardinal coming to celebrate the old Mass. In May 1996 we somehow got permission to have the Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the first time it had been celebrated there since it had been banned thirty years before.

The Mass was a fairy tale event with 150 priests, 4,000 congregants, twenty news crews and twice-daily coverage from The New York Times. The real highlight, though, was a debate on the liturgy at the home of a millionaire traditionalist. Alfonse Cardinal Stickler sat as judge at the center of the room; on either side sat the luminaries of the Traditionalist Movement including their leading theoretician, Michael Davies.

Davies and writer Chris Ferrara were debating Father Joseph Fessio and Father Brian Harrison about the 1962 missal vs. Fessio’s project called the reform of the reform (seeking to reform the Mass as the Vatican II Fathers really wanted). What I recall most from that night was the feeling of being absolutely at the center of the universe (isn’t that odd?), the short cardinal’s feet dangling above the floor, Michael Davies repeatedly spilling his glass of scotch, and Cardinal Stickler leaving angrily because the traditionalist team was aggressive and uncharitable.

This was just a glimpse of traditionalist tactics that in part led to my departure from the movement. There were other reasons for my departure. We hated the bishops. I can’t put it any softer than that. I recall preparing actually to meet a bishop. We practiced kneeling on our left knees and kissing his ring and later we laughed about his obvious embarrassment over such traditional practices. We saw the bishops as not just befuddled, but as sell-outs to political and theological liberalism.

And it wasn’t just the bishops we hated. We really hated the documents of the Second Vatican Council; they were the root and branch of all the problems in the Church. We felt no need to read or know them, and certainly not to follow them.

We did not hate John Paul II; almost worse, we were indifferent to him. The rest of the Church celebrated each of his new utterances; we shrugged and ignored them.

I looked at myself and the movement and did not like what I saw. In addition to everything else, the mainstays in the movement began to praise the schismatic Society of Pius X. Chris Ferrara and my good friend Tom Woods wrote a vicious book called The Great Facade, a monumentally uncharitable attack on John Paul II (Woods later recanted privately).

And then there were the exotica. Love of monarchy and deep hatred of America and democracy, all presented as traditional Catholic belief. The movement bred oddness and unhappiness.

At the same time two guys starting pushing me to read Church documents. Bill Saunders pushed the documents of the Second Vatican Council on me and I came to the view that rather than causing the current problems, properly understood were a bulwark against them. Keith Fournier began pushing the writings of John Paul II on me. I came to understand what a monumental figure this man was, and to think I almost missed his papacy altogether!

I decided finally that I was a Traditional Catholic and not a Traditionalist one. Traditional Catholics adhere to the all the teachings of the Church including the Second Vatican Council. Traditionalists are more of a political party advancing an agenda. All I wanted to be was a regular pew-sitter holding fast to the barque of St. Peter.

There is a great deal of talent in the ranks of the Traditionalists and I pray for them on the fifth decade of the Rosary, which a Traditionalist priest taught me to pray, every day.

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy.

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  • debby

    I am always moved when I contemplate Jesus’ last prayer before His Passion:”Father, make them one AS YOU and I are ONE” He was about to be torn to pieces & yet His prayer for us is ONENESS in Him.
    We need to pray w/ Christ for this union in His own Body. From those I’ve known, I’ve witnessed Traditionalists living a more Protestant than Catholic life in their lack of fidelity to Christ & His Church. Austin is right; very angry, self-righteous behavior. Kind of Pharasiee style. LORD HAVE MERCY!

  • Debby2

    1 more thing:
    Love is Painful. Humility & Obedience is the fruit of LOVE.
    It’s always hard to not have something our own way, our own idea. I’m thinking the Pardoning of the Good Thief ruffled lots of religious feathers.
    The Catholic Faith is not always comfortable to our flesh–but sooo good for the soul! Let’s love each other and trust God with His Church.
    may we all be ONE in Him. Protestants, Pre-Vats, heck, even pagans! He longs to save & sanctify ALL of us!

  • Dan

    Yes, traditionalists tend toward a sort of paranoia that derives from isolation (the anti-semitism that is sometimes (not always) found among them owes to this). Reuniting the SSPX into the Church might somewhat help ameliorate this paranoia by reducing the traditionalists’ isolation and would at the same time enrich the Church through further inclusion of the many merits of traditionalist attitudes and practices.

  • William H. Phelan

    I believe it was Mr. Ruse who referred to George W. Bush as a “Catholic” president at a Prayer Breakfast. A simple question: In what Catholic group is one more likely to hear this quote from Christ? “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, as wide the gate and easy the road that leads to damnation, and narrow the gate and difficult the road that leads to eternal life, AND FEW THERE ARE WHO FIND IT”? Or, “It is easier to pass a camel through the eye of needle than for a rich man to gain HVN.”?

  • Steve

    So, I’m trying to understand how Opus Dei fits into all this. OD has always supported the Novus Ordo and the reforms of Vatican II, albeit more tilted towards the “reform of the reform.” The daily regimen also sounds very similar to the daily plan of life suggested by St. Josemaria Escriva.

  • Christopher Ferrara

    Hi, Austin, a friend of mine alerted me to your comments about me on this website.

    I am glad to see that you have found peace and contentment in the sty of Republican Catholic conformism. But I am sad to see that your rigorous spiritual regimen has not caused you to rise above your penchant for vicious calumny. I remember the time you accused me of clinical insanity, only to apologize for your outburst the next day. Maybe you should change your Rosary intention.

    Chris Ferrara

  • Chuck

    Welcome to orthodox Catholicism. Christ told us that the gates of hell shall not prevail against his church, he promised to be with us and to send the holy spirit to guide us in all truth. that’s good enough for me, so I follow the church and its teachings.

  • Thomas C. Coleman, Jr.

    We Owe the Trads
    If Traditionalists like Davies and Ferrera had not stood their ground we wouldn’t have access to our rich Catholic heritage at all. In the shell of what was once Christendom, clergy and laity spread error and herersy and shriek when politely corrected. More listen to McBrien than Fr. Fessio. Nearly all contracept and mock those who don’t. You’ll find none of this among Trads! Despite their faults, they perfrom great service to Our Savior and HIs Church.

  • Ron

    Is It Worth It?
    It was with relief that I read Mr.Ruse’s explanation of his Traditional as opposed to Traditionalist loyalties. Bu unlike him I cannot write off as a quirky “Love of monarchy and deep hatred of America.” Having followed the events carefully in the secular and Catholic media I find beginning the process of embracing such bigotry and defiant reaction and doing so apparently without consultation with the very Vatican Office charged with such matters mystifying.

  • Lee Gilbert

    Even in very genuine spiritual movements, there is always the temptation to great pride. Word comes down, “The Pope approves!” Soon the question arises, “But do we approve of the pope?” But these excesses only ratify what we already know about human nature. They leave untouched the central discoveries or re-discoveries of the movement. And there are many, many people who love the Latin Mass, love the Church, appreciate Vatican II, are charitable and do not want restoration of the monarchy!

  • Austin Ruse

    The way Opus Dei fits in is that I knew they were solid so when I wanted to begin the practice of my faith, I called them. It’s true the norms pf piety the traditionalist priest put me on sound like Opus Dei is because, as I found out later, that’s where he got them! Funny old world.

  • Liz

    I think many of us were disappointed at the outcome of Vat II. However, now in late middle age (and having spent 35 yrs as an Episcopalian) – I am a re-vert – I found that Vat II was not the problem, – it was the interpreters of Vat II. I am happy to learn Pope Benedict is being called the “reformer of the reform” – maybe if more people studied the Vat II documents we may have an understanding of what Vat II was all about – it was not about summer camp liturgy, silly songs, or hand waiving.

  • William H. Phelan

    It might interest Mr. Ruse to know that the priest who was his mentor at Christifideles has had his faculties removed. It seems he has rather extravagant tastes which require monies and items to be stolen from Churches. After all the responses his column engendered, I find Mr. Ruse’s reply very, very lame.

  • Ken

    No mention of getting involved and marrying a USCCB official? My guess is that played into the newfound hatred of the traditional Latin Mass and those who say and hear it.

    It’s sad to see a so-called conservative Catholic bash his traditional brethren so hard. So much for Vatican II’s ecumenism!

  • Charlotte

    I’m so happy someone alerted me to this article! I’ve been looking into Traditional Catholicism for the last month or so, and I’m not impressed by what I see.

  • DTS

    The timing of Mr. Ruse’s comments are imprudent and ill considered.

    The Pope is under extreme attack both internally and externally so you know he has done the proper and wise thing in attempting to bridge the so-called “Traditionalist” gap. The Tridentine Mass is key, because its externals bring the sacrifice of Christ to the forefront in such a potent and visible way. This makes Satan very unhappy.

    Hence, we get calls for the Pope to resign as Drudge reports.

  • Austin Ruse


    My exit from the Traditionalist movement predated meeting my wife who is also a traditional Catholic like me. She no longer works at the USCCB, a place where I am not much welcome. I do not hate the old Mass. I love it. I just broke with the Trads who I found were getting increasingly exotic.

    William McPhelan,

    I am aware of the sad situation with the priest who created and ran ChrisitFidelis. He lost his faculties years after I made the break with the Traditionalist movement.

  • Joseph K. Woodard, PhD

    VP, Canada Family Action
    Mr. Ruse is shocked–shocked–to discover charity lacking among traditionalists. But the heresy of Traditionalism (Cath.Encycl., 1912) is a small fringe, compared to the growing number of Catholics who (like Pope Benedict) long to recover the beauties of the Roman Liturgy and Gregorian Chant. Mr. Ruse, please read the Holy Father’s Summorum Pontificum (07/07/07): the old mass was never “banned,” and you are out of step with the Pope. He wants it as a corrective to the Kumbaya mass.

  • Austin Ruse

    Mr. Woodward,

    I don’t know how much plainer I can make it. I love the Mass of Blessed John XXIII, otherwise known as the Tridentine Mass. At the same time, I revere the Novus Ordo said reverently. On these two points I am right in step with successive Popes.

  • Thomas C. Coleman

    Not Just the Mass
    Dear Austin Ruse,
    It’s not just about the Mass or the use of Latin. I meet educated cradle Catholics who can’t say the Rosary, never go to Confession, and sincerely believe that contraception is now licit. One preist told me that pious pracitces such as the Stations are no longer needed. Another told me fasting is no longer Catholic. Yet another from the pulpit mocked Indulgences. Again, there’s none of this among Traditionalists.

  • Malta

    Grumpy Trads
    I count myself as a grumpy Trad. I think St. Peter was a bit grouchy when he drew his sword and cut off the ear of a guard, or Jesus when He overturned the money changers’ tables. Somehow, after two many re-runs of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and Zefferelli’s hippy version of St. Francis’ life, “Brother Son, Sister Moon,” everyone thinks charismatics are somehow “spirit-filled,” as they laugh and clap, and, even, dance during mass. But us pharisitical Trads are down, and somber, etc. Medjugor

  • Malta

    Grumpy Trads
    …Medjugorje isn’t helping things: Where once Our Lady told St. Bernadette that she wouldn’t find happiness “in this life,” and our Sr. Lucia of Fatima saw her two co-seers die as children, and she herself lived as an austere, cloistered nun–now, the “seers” of Medjugoje dive expensive cars and jet-set over the globe, sometimes maintaining more than one residence. No wonder people are confused! Actually, some of the funniest, most jovial people I’ve met are Trads–J.R.R. Tolkien was a Trad!

  • BakerStreetRider

    Very poor timing. The pope is attacked by liberals all over the world for showing mercy to the SSPX. Why write about this now? All it does is give fuel to the progressive “Catholics.”
    One experience with a priest whose actions later condemned him isn’t enough information to judge the movement of millions worldwide. There are crazies in every group, but it is exaggerated by those who are angry at the Catholic moral values held by the group. As usual, sexual license is the hidden crux of the issue.

  • David M.

    Amen! It is so easy to get caught up in hate rhetoric (which is what is spewed forth by so-called traditionalists), most of whom really have NOT read the documents of Vatican 2. It is also easy to equate triumphant, glorious Liturgies and Medieval splendor with Truth….and ’tain’t necessarly the same. You are now on the right path. God bless you. +

  • Timothy

    “Ruse” indeed.

    I, too, resisted traditionalism for years because of the fringe elements. However, at 45, I do not want to fritter away the second half of my life. I need a sense of the sacred. I need mystery. I need reverence. I need a holy centerpoint to the week. I need beauty. I need the Traditional Latin Mass. I most certainly do not need the Novus Ordo.

  • Richard Janniello Sr.

    K of C/District Deputy
    Mr Ruse’s blog “Up from Traditionalism” unmercifully trashed a very holy priest that many love and emulate. His recounting of the Christifideles Appstolate was pure fiction. This was not intelligent Catholic commentary but a slanderous diatribe of this self proclaimed lieutenant of this now defunct movement. His “tell all” rant was very uncharitable and childish. Perhaps the daunting regiment of daily Holy Mass and frequent confession was too much for our Traditional Catholic friend to handle.

  • Daniel Marengo

    Dear Austin
    Since ChristiFideles’ demise, there has been a dearth spiritual guidance for young professionals in NYC. I miss it greatly. Though I agree with your assessment about the loonier traditionalists, there are larger fish to fry: the lack of Catholic teaching in our Catholic schools and sloppy Liturgical abuses. I know the good work you’ve done for C-Fam and highly recommend supporting your efforts. The pope’s latest encyclical is titled Charity in Truth. Your article fell short on both counts.

  • Austin Ruse

    Both Dan Marengo and Richard Janniello, both of whom I know from those days, have accused me of lying. Can each of you be specific? What am I lying about?

    And Richsard, how did I trash a Holy Priest?

  • Dan Marengo

    Comment Cont.
    Regarding your Monarchy remark: Christ is King and our Blessed Mother is Queen. The Cardinals are considered Princes – we do not elect them. ChristiFideles did not hate democracy or America. I assume your venting is about the loonier trads we’ve met. Please don’t take it out on the good Father who brought you to the Church. He deserves some credit for making you a good soldier and your great work at C-Fam. You really owe ChristiFideles and the good Father an apology.

  • Austn Ruse

    One more thing, Dan. You have an obligation to receive things as they are intended. Do you really think I was mocking the Kingship of Jesus Christ when I criticized the trad obsession with Monarchy? If you were not sure, you should have asked. What I was referring to is the trad obsession with the Catholic monarchies of Europe, specifically France. This is America! We are not a monarchy and never will be!

  • Austin Ruse

    My column should not have been read as a criticism of Father Perricone. He was a voice of sanity on the goodness of democracy, the wrongness of the Society of Pius X and much else. He taught us so much. He did, however, encourage us to dislike the bishops, Vatican II and JP II.

    I made a comment in one of the comment boxes several weeks ago that Father Perricone did not have his faculties in his Archdiocese (Newark). I checked with the Archdiocese and he does. I apologize for the error.

  • Dan Marengo

    To close this thread on my part: Again, what Fr. highlighted through examples [e.g., errant bishops, the purpose of Vat II and lax papal leadership] – you interpreted as ‘encourage us to dislike.’ I always came away better informed on those topics. I appreciate your correction to Fr. and his faculties. This is the kind of misinformation that causes confusion. Thank you.

  • Suzanne

    To Liz, who wrote that the problem was “the interpreters of Vat II”. A Council should be clear enough never to produce errors… if it has produced misunderstandings, errors and heresy (modernism), then it should be considered as a problem!

  • Christopher Gawley

    Sorry — just ran across this — what vicious hate mongering against Fr. Perricone — wow, a public apology should be made for this. I have known Fr. Perricone for years — he does not do any of the things you claim. Shame, Shame and Shame on you. Shame!