Diocesan priest speaks out on tradition, the Mass and the Pope's MP
Editor’s Note: We are very pleased to present the following interview of Father John Echert— pastor of the Church of St. Augustine (site of the Indult Mass here in St. Paul/Minneapolis since 1984) and the Church of the Holy Trinity (So. St. Paul). Ever since Pope Benedict XVI released his historic motu proprio in July of this year, we have maintained that not only the prayers of traditional Catholic laypeople have been answered, but also those of countless tradition-minded priests within the diocesan structure of the Church. It is also our contention that a seismic shift in the direction of Tradition is taking place. As persecution of the Church throughout the world becomes imminent, it shouldn’t surprise any Catholic that God in His mercy would allow this dramatic restoration of the Old Mass (even on a daily basis) as part of the process by which we might all strengthen our resolve and prepare our souls for whatever eventuality may be in the offing. Fr. Echert’s courageous compliance with the wishes of the Holy Father is well worth considering and perhaps could be seen as a model for other diocesan priests trying to return to Tradition during these turbulent days in the life of the Church. MJM
Michael Matt: Can you give us some background on your priestly career thus far, i.e., your areas of expertise and maybe a word or two on the apostolates you’ve served?
Fr. John Echert: I was ordained twenty years ago, though my awareness of a vocation to the priesthood goes back about forty-five years (I just turned fifty).
Even as a little boy I knew that I wanted to be a priest, and expressed that dream to my parents and any priest who would listen. Without doubt my vocational awareness was awakened by the traditional form of the Mass, even at that young age. My parents were in the church choir and I have lasting memories of the beautiful music, the smell of incense, and the graceful movements of the priest in the sanctuary. Were it not for those early experiences which occasioned a very strong desire in me to be a priest, I do not know that I would have found sufficient inspiration in subsequent years.
As for my assignments as a priest: after having served three years in a large suburban parish, I was sent away for studies in Sacred Scripture to the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, after which I spent a dozen years teaching in my field at the local major seminary and Catholic university. During this period I also served as a Catholic Chaplain in the Air Force Reserves and Air National Guard, and was twice deployed to desert locations in connection with the War in Iraq. Five years ago I began assisting at the local Indult Parish, and a bit over two years ago I was assigned as pastor of two parishes, one of which is that same Indult Parish at which I had assisted.
MJM: So, how is life these days for a tradition-minded priest serving in the military chaplaincy?
Fr. Echert: I have been connected with the military since 1975, at which time I enlisted in the Air Force right out of high school. Years later I received a commission as a Catholic Chaplain. With regard to the issue of serving as a priest in the military, it is not without its complexities. When we are serving our own religious communities we have full freedom to operate as we would with any civilian congregation or individual. But when we function within the context of the broader military community, there are limitations.
Recently, as a response to a Protestant Chaplain who was too evangelical with troops, the military curtailed many aspects of our public function as chaplains. This actually seems preferable to having the troops exposed to evangelization by non-Catholic chaplains and to requiring Catholic chaplains to dumb-down their invocations to the lowest common religious denominator—which is now quite low, given the plurality of religions and chaplains in the military.
The military follows the principle of “religious liberty”: one has the right to any religion, but no religion is favored or excluded—unfortunately! Once in Kuwait I had a Satanist request to use the chapel altar, and in Qatar I had Wickens request religious support. In both cases I did not accommodate them but these are examples of “religious liberty” at its worst. Still, at least one fourth of our military troops identify themselves as Roman Catholics on their dog tags (whether or not they attend Mass), and we represent the largest single religious group. Let me add that with regard to the present situation in Iraq, over time I have reconsidered my position on the war and its aftermath; still, my months of priestly ministry to the troops there were rewarding. As they say, “there are no atheists in foxholes”—or behind sand dunes.
MJM: So, some years ago you began offering the Traditional Mass. Why?
Fr. Echert: I began offering the traditional form of the Mass about five years ago, at a time when there was a need for a priest to assume primary responsibility for the weekly Indult Mass. I had the advantage of college Latin studies and so my language skills were functional. I was encouraged by close traditional friends to learn the Mass and request permission from the local bishop to say the Mass at the Indult parish.
I learned the Mass through videos, attending the Tridentine Mass itself, and with the assistance of a priest friend who was steeped in tradition. For weeks I offered the Mass in private and, once comfortable and after approval, I began offering the weekly Indult Mass. Beyond my love for the traditional language and form of the Mass, I was also becoming more familiar with aspects of traditional thinking, through books and publications (to include The Remnant) and conversations with tradition-minded Catholics.
MJM: In the first sermon you preached after July 7, 2007, you said something that hadn’t, to my knowledge, been considered before: You said it is well within the spirit of Pope Benedict’s motu proprio for a priest to actually initiate with his parishioners the discussion of the benefits of restoring the old Mass. Can you explain?
Fr. Echert: The Holy Spirit works in many ways and through the instrumentality of human beings. If we are called to evangelize the nations with regard to Christ and the Church, it is also legitimate—and imperative, may we say—to evangelize with regard to tradition, including the traditional form of the Mass. In other words, instead of waiting for the Holy Spirit to whisper to the souls of the faithful or for someone to stumble into the world of tradition, should not traditional parish priests be inclined to introduce the souls entrusted to them to the traditional form of the Mass? It seems to me that the allowance of the Holy Father that any priest can privately offer the traditional Mass without restriction, at which the faithful may be present, suggests this as support for this view and even a means to accomplish this end of the evangelization of tradition.
MJM: You recently restored weekday Masses according to the Traditional Rite both in your Indult parish as well as in the other parish (non-traditionalist!) you serve as pastor (thus providing Catholics with daily access to the Traditional Mass). Can you tell me why you took this dramatic step in accord with the MP?
Fr. Echert: The past model for the now defunct Indult system often became the means to contain, control and restrict the traditional Mass and Sacraments—the “leper colony” approach. The new model allows for an expansion of the traditional Mass and Sacraments to any parish or community which desires it, with minimal restrictions (faithful who request it and a priest capable of offering it). While I could have continued with the old model and scheduled all additional traditional Masses at the former Indult parish, I didn’t do that because I see a positive value in introducing this venerable form of the Mass into my other parish as well, with the consequence that more Catholics will have contact with and access to the Tridentine Mass. Again, it is a method of the evangelization of tradition.
Thus, I used the following strategy: in the former Indult parish, I changed some weekday Masses to Tridentine; but in the other parish, I also added some Tridentine Masses to the existing schedule. In both cases, I have heard very few complaints from those accustomed to English Masses only—many of whom are now attending both forms of the Mass and learning more about tradition every day. I suspect that Pope Benedict XVI sees value in having the Novus Ordo and the Tridentine forms of the Mass side-by-side in parishes in order that contact with the traditional Mass by the faithful will eventually lead to a reform of the Mass of Paul VI or a complete return to the traditional form.
MJM: Communion rails are reportedly being reinstalled and table altars permanently removed from some churches that now offer the old Mass around the world (most recently, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin designated St. Kevin's church in Dublin as a chaplaincy where Mass will be celebrated regularly using the 1962 Missal, and the priest in Dublin is now permanently restoring the interior of the church building to accommodate the Traditional Mass.) What are your thoughts on this development and how do you account for such a strong desire among priests to implement Benedict’s MP that they’d voluntarily renovate their sanctuaries to facilitate this initiative?
Fr. Echert: In my own parishes, this is being accomplished even now. In the former Indult parish we have eliminated the free-standing altar completely, even for the Novus Ordo Masses. By the grace of God and with many words, my Parish Council (with only one traditionalist among the dozen members) was recently persuaded of the value of this change. Many parishioners who attend only English Masses urged me to eliminate the free-standing altar, and several guest priests who have assisted us at the English Masses later told me that saying the Mass ad orientem was a most reverent experience for them. In my other parish, which has only now been introduced to the Tridentine Mass, we are presently soliciting funds to restore the Communion Rail that was discarded decades ago. Again, even from among those who are only familiar with English Masses, there are many who support this restoration plan.
Two months ago, I had our parish carpenters rebuild the front steps to the High Altar, which, ironically enough, they were quite happy to do since a previous pastor had long ago directed these same men to remove them.
MJM: On the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, you compared the Church’s rediscovery of the traditional Mass to the rediscovery of the true Cross in AD 312. This is a fascinating analogy and I wonder if you would be good enough explain what you mean by it.
Fr. Echert: It is the comparison of something which is most sacred and precious that had been lost—or taken—that has now been restored to its rightful place. In one case it was the most sacred relic of the Church: the True Cross of Christ; in the other case it is the most sacred worship of the Church: the Traditional Mass. Just as our Lord taught in the parables recorded by Saint Luke (chapter fifteen): there should be great cause for rejoicing when that which is lost has been found! In many ways, having been nearly without the traditional form of the Mass for forty years (practically speaking), I anticipate that as this Mass is more widely restored to its rightful place, the faithful will appreciate it all the more—that is the experience of many already.
MJM: Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis was, I believe, the first bishop to introduce daily Masses according to the old Rite after the MP (I’m told he’s now set up a program to teach Latin and the old Rite to the many young priests requesting instruction, as well). Bishop Finn, who himself recently offered the Old Mass in Kansas, also seems to be looking in that direction, as does, obviously, the Archbishop of Dublin, Ireland. Is such a thing possible here in St. Paul, and is there any move to establish traditional personal parishes here?
Fr. Echert: Thus far there has been no official communication to priests in this diocese with regard to the implementation of the motu proprio. I am not complaining about that silence, as it is preferable to other dioceses in which there have been directives which may thwart its implementation. I know of several priests—mostly young—who are interested in learning the Tridentine Mass and hope for opportunities to say it publicly. I have an open invitation to them to offer Mass in my two parishes.
For the short term, then, it appears that in this diocese my parishes will remain the primary parishes to serve traditional faithful, though I know of Catholics in many other parts of the diocese who are requesting the traditional Mass of their pastors. This is the beauty of the motu proprio: it falls to the faithful and pastors (the grass roots) to bring about the resurgence of this Mass, rather than from the top down—which did not work well or at all, in countless dioceses.
As to personal parishes (those which are strictly and fully traditional), I pray that such parishes will be allowed in every diocese and region worldwide. It is a very complicated matter to have a fully functioning mixture of Novus Ordo and Tridentine faithful and Sacraments in the same parish and it would be preferable for both pastor and congregation that there would be exclusively traditional parishes. My hope is that one day I will serve as pastor of such a parish. Locally we have had the support of the Ordinary for a limited use of the Tridentine Mass since the Indult was first granted; pray for a generous response to the allowance of the Holy Father for bishops to establish personal parishes in their dioceses.
MJM: In an interview with Vatican Radio on September 13, Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos explained that Pope Benedict's MP affirms the right of any priest to use the "extraordinary form" of the Latin liturgy even without his bishop’s permission. The Cardinal seems intent to prevent certain liberal bishops from frustrating the Pope’s plan to restore the old Mass as they did with John Paul’s 1988 MP Ecclesia Dei. Why do you suppose the Pope is so determined to establish wider use of this Mass that he would even encourage his priests to offer it without their bishops’ permission if it comes to that?
Fr. Echert: The Pope is affirming a universal right which belongs to all clergy in good standing with the Church, as is fitting for his supreme office and the matter at hand. One thing I learned in the military: a subordinate authority does not have the right to countermand the law of a higher authority. In spite of the fact that Pope John Paul II asked for generosity on the part of bishops in establishing Indult parishes in their dioceses, this approach did not work. In my own state, there were only two Indult parishes with weekly Sunday Masses, which meant that many Catholics had to drive incredible distances to attend a Tridentine Mass (one man drove 500 miles round trip to my parish). Had this motu proprio entrusted primary responsibility to the bishops to establish the traditional Mass, there is no reason to believe the outcome would have measurably exceeded that of the Indult in the past.
In spite of incredible pressure to the contrary—as was widely reported—the Holy Father entrusted responsibility for responding to the needs of the faithful into the hands of pastors. And while there will be many pastors who will not comply, there are many more parishes than dioceses, and traditional Masses will soon be found scattered everywhere.
MJM: There are a few traditionalists who still argue that so-called “approved” traditional priests are more or less in business only to undermine “unapproved” traditionalist priests. Judging from your sermons, however, undermining anyone except modernists and liberals doesn’t seem to enter your mind. You seem to have a good relationship with the priests in the SSPX, for example, and I’ve heard you recommend The Remnant from the pulpit. Is it fair to say, then, that you offer the old Mass because you regard its restoration as vital for the life of the whole Church and that you are not attempting to undermine anyone?
Fr. Echert: I offer the traditional Mass for its own value and for what it has to offer to the faithful and the future of the Church. I have never offered the traditional Mass with any ulterior motive of undermining other expressions of tradition. I am on good terms with priests who belong to the SSPX and have worked with the local Society pastor on some pastoral issues of mutual concern. I am an avid reader of The Remnant and many other traditional publications and books. These are difficult times and sadly there is much discord among traditionalists. Even at my Indult parish there is not universal agreement on many of the fine points of liturgy, theology and strategy, and so the issues get battled out in the parking lot or at coffee and donuts in the church hall. I know that there are many Catholics and clergy in particular who view the Indult as a means to keep Catholics from SSPX and other expressions of tradition but this has never been a motive or goal for me. I believe that the multiplicity of adherents to tradition has collectively helped to bring about this important step of Pope Benedict. As you note, I principally go after the modernists, who should be the common enemy of all traditionalists—and all Catholics!
MJM: Father, put your prophet’s hat for a moment. How’s all this going to end? If the Mass is restored widely and throughout the whole world, would that change everything, or is it too late?
Fr. Echert: It is never too late, unless we are living in the end times, of which I am not yet convinced. It will be like seed which is widely scattered but in a variety of difficult and sometimes extreme conditions. Here and there a seed will take root but it will be some time before the field is clothed in the mantel of tradition. There will be many clergy who will resolutely oppose it and refuse it to the faithful, but there will be others who will enable it.
There are certainly some initial hurdles, but, over the course of years—less than a blink of the divine eye—this Mass will be widely found throughout the Church. One of the looming questions is what impact it will have upon the Novus Ordo Mass. Will there be a “reform of the reform,” as some suggest, or a replacement of the reform with the traditional form? One concern I have is that some priests—including some good-willed priests who are misguided—will offer Tridentine Masses in their parishes, but may allow some modern practices to infiltrate the traditional Mass: altar girls, the new lectionary, Communion in the hand. Hopefully, clarifications from Rome will prohibit such aberrations.
Let me sum up my hope with this biblical lesson: forty is often a number of testing (Israel in the Old Testament, our Lord in the New Testament). We have wandered through a veritable desert for forty years but now have a glimpse of the Promised Land (forgotten land). We have not yet arrived, by any means, but we have taken a giant step in the right direction. May the Lord now speed us on our pilgrimage back to tradition!
MJM: If you had to choose one rite of Mass to offer exclusively every day for the rest of your life which would it be, New or Old? Why?
Fr. Echert: The traditional Mass, hands down! It was the Mass which first inspired in me a vocation to the priesthood and it is the Mass which I intend to offer until my last breath on earth.
Editor's Note: Please forward this interview to as many priests as you possibly can. Also, The Remnant is giving out free physical reprints of the interview upon request. Those requests can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org, requested by telephone at 651-204-0145, or sent via snail mail to:
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