Bishop Williamson Redux
I've had some close calls in my life. Like most young men, I have done some REALLY stupid things that I thankfully survived without a scratch. This is neither the place nor the manner to reveal them to you; none of you are my father-confessors, and I am not proud of them. Some of them are not that shameful, and some of them... well...
One close call that I really am thankful for is one of timing. I entered the Society of St. Pius X seminary in La Reja, Argentina, at the beginning of 2001, and left at the very end of 2002. During that time, our rector was still a stiff if eccentric Frenchman by the name of M. l'abbe Dominique Langeau. Like all religious orders, the SSPX liked to shake things up from time to time, and the good Padre Langeau had been at his post for more than ten years down in the Southern Cone. Last I heard, he is somewhere in his native France being shot-caller at an important priory. His successor, who was milling about the seminary at the time that I left, was the pugnacious and even more eccentric Englishman, Bishop Richard Williamson.
Even though we seminarians did not know at that point that Monsieur l'abbe was on the way out, I think most had a hunch. One such hunch was the last series of spiritual conferences given by the British prelate himself. Characteristic of all of his discourses, written or otherwise, is his knack for exponding conspiracy theories and other rather pessimistic visions of the Church and society. His heavily accented Castillian rang out with the words "Anti-Christ", "modernism", "Freemasonry" and the like. Maybe the real Pope is being kept in a broom-closet in the Vatican. Maybe a super-computer in Brussels is sending out invisible waves making our minds susceptible to the Judeo-Masonic plot to topple Western civilization. True, he never says or writes this publicly, but I wouldn't put it past him.
Anyway, as in the movies where one escapes in a helicopter from a bunch of bad guys shooting at you, I was whisked away from South America on Christmas Day, 2002, and I have not returned since. Eight months later, the good bishop was officially installed as rector of the rat-infested, mildew-wracked edifice in the Argentine countryside. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had stayed. The only other person who spoke English in the whole seminary was a Filipino seminarian who is now a priest, and he didn't even speak Spanish when he came. (He probably still has my rather spiffy grammar book.) So would he have made me, the perfectly bilingual and somewhat cultured American, his personal secretary? Would I have often had tea with the only other native English speaker in the place, reminiscing about the joys of Anglo-Saxon culture and the First World? (Although friends have told me that he has adjusted well, he can't possibly be all that comfortable being that the Argentines are still rather attached to the whole idea that a few islands of disputed name off their coast are theirs.)
Some things I am glad I missed. One was the whole idea of a humanities year that tacked on one more year of formation to the six year seminary process. In principle, I think that this is a good idea. But the idea of me, a cultural snob, having to look at Western culture through the lens of a bunch of traditionalist dilettantes... the idea is just too much to bear! I am glad that I at least escaped that.
But most of all, I am glad I escaped the integrist reign of terror that must have ensued after my departure. Not that we weren't paranoid before, but the idea of some eccentric Brit running around and not being able to vent his controversial ideas in his monthly newsletters or to his cabal of followers here in the U.S. is quite a frightening prospect under which to live day in and day out. Part of me feels sorry for him because it must be really lonely down there. Part of me thinks that the SSPX exiled him to that place, though his sphere of influence still continues to be a force within the Lefebvrist movement. Then again, maybe that is just because I feel that they exiled me down there.
I should have said at the beginning that the catalyst of this post was finally stumbling across his blog that someone else probably maintains for him. Vox clamantis in deserto... I am pretty sure at this point that all of his eccentric positions, from feeling that women should not wear pants, go to college, or have shoes (okay, I made that last one up), to thinking that watching the Sound of Music is the equivalent to listening to a Black Sabbath album or smoking crack, are just the flip side of postmodernity. In order to get his message across, he feels that he has to shock. His letters from Winona were often graphic and disturbing and caused much controversy in traditionalist circles when they were still monthly occurrences. (Since Father Peter Scott and the good bishop have left the States, SSPX publications just haven't been as much fun to read.) The Roman Catholicism of this British convert is the ultimate expression of who he is; he is just like the gutter-punks on Telegraph Avenue here in Berkeley with pins in their noses. Back in the 1960's, he decided to find something that expressed his personality, and not even the Vatican itself can change his mind about the Judeo-Masonic plot to destroy everything that's good.
It is hard sometimes to believe that he actually believes in all of that crap. He looks intelligent enough to actually have some form of dialogue with reality instead of just sticking to his conspiracy theories. Part of me hopes that at the end of the day, he is just joking. If not, he has reduced Roman Catholicism to a freak show. And anyone who has read Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, or any other chique theorist, knows that this is exactly what postmodernism does.
(Incidentally, this is partially what I think Fr. Seraphim Rose has done to Orthodoxy in this country, but that is another post entirely...)
Still, I can't help but fantasize that his presence down there must be like something out of a Borges short story. I can see him drinking his four o'clock tea, watching a storm coming in over the pampa, with cows passing by in the lazy afternoon. It would have been nice to accompany him at least once during such a surreal moment.
But then again, I am glad I can spend time with my significant other, who has a doctorate, wears pants, and even some very nice pairs of shoes. (She can also sing all the songs from the Sound of Music.)