On June 30, 1988, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the leader of the Society of St. Pius X, and his associate, Bishop Antonio de Castro Meyer, consecrated four bishops in defiance of the wishes of Pope John Paul II.
While Archbishop Lefebvre’s desire to preserve the traditional Latin Mass amidst the onslaught of liturgical abuses was shared by Father Josef Bisig, an SSPX priest at the time, there was sharp disagreement on the method of preservation. Father Bisig did not think acting against a papal command was the right way to bring this about.
Two days after the illicit consecrations, Father Bisig, a native of Switzerland, along with 11 other priests and about 20 seminarians, announced their departure from the SSPX. They wanted to continue their adherence to celebrating the Mass in Latin, but not outside the realm of obedience to the Holy Father.
In their "Declaration of Intention by the Founders," dated July 2, 1988, the former members of the SSPX stated their "profound regret over the illicit consecration of bishops" and also made clear their goal: to live as a religious society in the Catholic Church and to place themselves at its service, under the authority of the Pope.
This goal was made possible on July 18, 1988, when the former SSPX members founded the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP), with the strong support of the then-president of the pontifical commission Ecclesia Dei, Cardinal Paul Mayer.
Exactly three months later, on Oct. 18, 1988, the same commission, with the explicit approval of Blessed Pope John Paul II, established the FSSP as a society of apostolic life. The group’s name was chosen to express filial devotion to the successor of Peter, the rock on whom the Church is built.
Father Bisig was the FSSP’s first superior general, a position he held until 2000. During his tenure, he continually made clear the importance of remaining true to liturgical traditions, while at the same time being obedient to ecclesiastical authority.
"The Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter serves the faithful by retaining Latin liturgical traditions, the Church’s source of continuity. This is done, not out of nostalgia or a reactionary disposition, but out of humility," Father Bisig told the Register. "At the same time, we are called to live joyfully under the paternal authority of the successor of St. Peter. This is done out of humility as well."
The FSSP’s current superior general, Father John Berg, a Minnesota native, is thankful to God for how the fraternity has developed over the past quarter century. Despite some growing pains, Father Berg believes the fraternity has remained faithful to its founding principles while finding the best concrete ways to serve the Church.
"We’ve gone from a handful of priests and seminarians to 240 priests and 140 seminarians worldwide," Father Berg noted. "The numbers are good, so you have to be thankful for them. More important than numbers, though, is the retention of our original identity while serving the lay faithful on a day-to-day basis."
The chief pastoral work of the FSSP is offering the sacraments in the traditional form in parishes across Europe and North America. From Vancouver, B.C., to Sarasota, Fla., the fraternity has more than 50 locations where Masses are offered. In order to do this, priests are trained at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, Neb., the heart of FSSP’s North American territory.
In addition to offering the traditional Latin Mass themselves, FSSP priests also train their diocesan counterparts to do the same. While the celebration of the Mass in Latin is the hallmark of the fraternity, its priests also conduct retreats, lead pilgrimages and travel on mission trips to Asia, Africa and South America.
Father Berg believes the biggest challenge facing the FSSP today is the formation of excellent priests. "I suppose each generation thinks that this is an even greater challenge than it was for the one before it, but we need to form men who want to live a life of self-sacrifice," he said. "This is done in imitation of Christ, in whose priesthood they share."
The FSSP founders set out to form priests who would hold the sacrifice of the Mass at the center of their lives, which would make each priest’s life an extension of the life of Christ.
It could be said, then, that Arizona native Sean Gordon has a very "extended family." He enjoys the unique perspective that comes from having three brothers who are FSSP priests. Father James Gordon and Father Terrence Gordon are older than Sean, 40, while Father Dennis Gordon is younger.
"Having three brothers in the priesthood can be attributed mainly to the influence of our father," Sean Gordon said. "After attending Mass every Sunday, he would teach us a lesson from the Baltimore Catechism. Then he would quiz us to make sure we were retaining the lessons. The simplicity of the lessons was very helpful for us. There was no room for confusion about what the Church taught."
The Gordon children also benefited from their father’s prayer life. They saw him kneeling down to pray, not only at night, but at different times throughout the day. That sent a very clear message about the importance of prayer: It’s not something to reserve for special occasions, but a lifeline that enables us to receive God’s grace and do his will.
Sound doctrine and a strong prayer life were accompanied by praise for the traditional Latin liturgy in the Gordon home. Sean Gordon explained, "Even though we didn’t have access to the traditional Latin Mass growing up, our father would always speak highly of it. He thought its beauty and sacredness were very appealing and salutary, and we were eventually able to witness what he was talking about firsthand."
All three of Gordon’s brothers became FSSP priests after serving in the military, and he considered a priestly or religious vocation too. Although a call to married life instead became apparent, he would encourage any Catholic young man discerning a possible priestly vocation to do so with the FSSP.
"I found the fraternity to have the most straightforward program for priestly formation of any of the groups I considered. Their goals were very clear and thoroughly Catholic, reminding me of the Catholic principles taught to me in my own upbringing. I would absolutely recommend that any young man discerning a possible call to priesthood look into the FSSP."
‘Act of Hope’
Father Bisig says the FSSP will remain on the same path of fidelity and unity to Rome that its members chose to follow a quarter century ago.
"The fraternity was founded on an act of hope in a time of confusion and disunity," he said. "Now, 25 years later, with continued confidence, we place our needs in the hands of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who, with St. Peter, has guided and protected us this far."
Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.