The Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter began with 12 priests in 1988 and now numbers over 300. The group, which is commonly referred to using its Latin initials, FSSP, started in response to the illicit episcopal consecrations of June 30, 1988, by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, founder of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX).
In contrast to Archbishop Lefebvre, Fr. Josef Bisig who had been a part of the SSPX, wanted to continue adherence to the traditional sacraments, but did not agree with the means Archbishop Lefebvre used. Fr. Bisig led a small group of priests and seminarians out of the SSPX and into explicit obedience to the Holy Father. In their Declaration of Intention by the Founders from July 2, 1988, the former SSPX members stated both their deep regret over the illicit episcopal consecrations and their desire to serve the Church under papal direction.
On July 18, 1988, Fr. Bisig and the former members of the SSPX founded the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter. This was done in conjunction with Cardinal Paul Mayer, the first president of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, named after Pope John Paul II’s motu proprio responding to the schismatic situation earlier that month. On Oct. 18, 1988, the same commission, with the approval of John Paul II, officially endorsed the FSSP as a society of apostolic life.
Over the course of the last 30 years, the Latin Mass has gone from being offered at obscure locations such as mausoleums and hotel chapels to being a regular part of life in parish churches. Today, the FSSP’s presence in North America is found in 39 American dioceses and seven Canadian ones through the service of 112 priests at 54 apostolates. In cities such as Vancouver, Minneapolis, and Atlanta, the FSSP continues to grow in popularity as Catholics become more aware of their spiritual roots.
Perhaps the most prominent FSSP location is in Baltimore, at the National Shrine of Saint Alphonsus Liguori. The historic church was built in 1842 in Gothic Revival style and was pastored by St. John Neumann, the first American male to be canonized. Bl. Francis Xavier Seelos served as assistant pastor under St. John Neumann and later became pastor of the parish himself. Thanks to the FSSP, the Latin liturgy is once again firmly established in a church that had routinely witnessed it before the liturgical changes of the mid-20th century.
All booked up
Since the FSSP’s founding, traditional Catholic books have become more popular. TAN Books/St. Benedict Press added The Incredible Catholic Mass (based on the Latin liturgy) to its catalog in 1996 and it has sold over 45,000 copies since then. The Latin Mass Explained was released by TAN in 2007 and How to Serve in Simple, Solemn, and Pontifical Functions followed in 2009.
Roman Catholic Books has also seen an increase in sales of titles related to the Latin Liturgy. In 1997 they released the 1,000-plus page, five-pound Missale Romanum 1962, used by priests to offer the traditional Latin Mass. Despite costing over $300 apiece, more than 5,000 copies have been sold or donated. Roman Catholic Books’ publisher Roger McCaffrey, who helped Fr. Bisig to secure American sites for the FSSP in its early days, commented on the popularity of the 1962 missal. He said, “I am fond of saying that those Missale are not being purchased by elderly clergy or laymen. The vast majority have been sold or donated — we donated about 8 percent of the total, over the years, thanks to our generous supporters — to young and middle-aged priests.”
The much smaller Latin-English Sunday Missal (used by the laity) and The Reform of the Roman Liturgy have also been released by Roman Catholic Books, along with Papal Legislation on Sacred Music.
Readers of Papal Legislation on Sacred Music know that Gregorian chant is a staple of the traditional liturgy, while sacred polyphony, while not quite as foundational, is commonly found therein. Last year these musical forms, as they relate to the burial of the dead, were made available, not only to FSSP parishioners, but to the general public. This occurred through the release of the album Requiem, recorded at the FSSP’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, Nebraska, in conjunction with De Montfort Music. The album topped multiple classical Billboard charts throughout 2017 and reminded listeners in a most beautiful way of death, the universal entryway to the next life.
As the success of Requiem shows, the FSSP’s focus on Latin liturgy does not mean their influence ends at church exits. While books and CDs related to the Latin liturgy have become more popular, entirely new businesses have even begun. Altarworthy Handmade Vestments was started by a parishioner of the FSSP’s location in Seattle, North American Martyrs. Fr. Gerard Saguto, now the North American district superior, encouraged Emily Uhl in her endeavor when he was her pastor in Seattle.
Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum helped greatly to spur interest in the traditional sacraments. It was really an irreplaceable way to give legitimacy, in the minds of today’s general Catholic population, to the Latin rite’s centuries-old practices that had fallen into disuse over the previous four decades.
Diocesan priests have responded favorably to the papal initiative, accounting for the majority of traditional Latin Mass sites, according to Mary Kraychy, president of the Coalition in support of Ecclesia Dei. However, she explained that while diocesan priests have the most sites, the FSSP probably has more traditional Latin Masses. This is because a participating diocesan location usually has one traditional Latin Mass per week, while an FSSP location usually has several throughout the week.
The majority of Latin liturgies offered in the U.S. are probably conducted by the FSSP, although there are smaller traditional orders and groups, such as the Society of St. John Cantius in Chicago (which has also trained numerous diocesan priests in the extraordinary form), the Norbertines of St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California, and Miles Christi in San Diego and Detroit.
If current trends continue, the FSSP’s lead in number of extraordinary form Masses offered will be maintained and even increase. The fall of 2017 witnessed the FSSP’s largest entering class in the seminary (22 men) since 1994 and their largest overall student body enrollment (81 men).The seminary, designed by renowned architect Thomas Gordon Smith, former dean of the school of architecture at the University of Notre Dame, has been growing with the seminary’s population. The chapel was consecrated in 2010 and recently witnessed the addition of a pipe organ.
Fr. Karl Marsolle, FSSP, was ordained not far from the seminary at the Cathedral of the Risen Christ in Lincoln, Nebraska in 2012. He is currently stationed at Our Lady of Fatima Chapel in Pequannock Township, New Jersey, with two other FSSP priests.
After an adventurous youth and later discernment of a possible monastic vocation, Fr. Marsolle found just the right fit in the FSSP. He said, “The FSSP is the perfect balance, for me, of the worship of God and service to the laity in the modern world. It’s a beautiful thing to see the changeless Christ come back into a culture that has largely forgotten him. I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to reach souls in ways that had been used for centuries and that have started to become popular again.”
Thirty years of fidelity to Holy Father and the 1962 Roman Missal have been the hallmark of the FSSP. The group has grown by recovering and making available to a wider spectrum of the Catholic world what had been the normative means of sanctification for countless souls.
The FSSP’s mission can be summed up in these lines from Pope Benedict’s accompanying letter to Summorum Pontificum, “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.”