A Tale of Reconciliation

Alabama's Christ the King Monastery unites with the Church.

CULLMAN, Ala. — There was an added joy in the Diocese of Birmingham, Ala., during Lent and the Easter Octave as the members of the formerly schismatic Christ the King Monastery in Cullman were reconciled with the Catholic Church.

After years of discussion between Birmingham’s bishops and the monastery, on May 1 Bishop Robert Baker received the two remaining monks’ vows as Benedictine hermits.

The road hasn’t been without its difficulties.

Christ the King Abbey was founded around 1984 by Benedictine Father Leonard Giardina, formerly a member of the St. Bernard Monastery in Cullman. In the 1980s he had contact with the Society of St. Pius X but ended the association in late 1989, then explored other avenues, but was never formally linked with the St. Pius X Society.

Bishop Baker describes the schismatic abbey as being sui generis (a community of their own kind).

Now because of the community’s reunion with the Church after fulfilling all the requirements expressed by Bishop Baker in consultation with the Vatican, the faithful may have access to worship at the monastery. This community will continue celebrating Mass in the Latin Tridentine form, known since Pope Benedict’s 2007 motu propio letter Summorum Pontificum as the extraordinary form of the Roman rite.

To Bishop Baker’s knowledge, this is one of the first such schismatic groups in the United States to be formally reunited.

“It is somewhat unique as an effort at reconciliation,” he explained. “The discussions leading to this reconciliation were very delicate and complex and took place over a number of years with both Bishop (emeritus) David Foley, my predecessor, and myself, aided by a canon lawyer who had worked for the Vatican, Msgr. Anthony La Femina.”

“We had much prayer and good will on both sides going into this effort,” Bishop Baker reflected. “We all listened to the Holy Spirit, and now we are seeing the fruits of our efforts.”

For one, attendance at the traditional Latin Mass celebrated daily at the monastery has nearly tripled, according to one of the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius who were invited by Bishop Baker to help with the transition. The Cullman church is in the country, yet now 20 or more faithful attend the daily 7am Mass.

“In the short time we’ve been there, as word of mouth spreads, we’re getting more and more,” finds Father James Isaacson of the Canons Regular, who celebrates the Masses for the monks and the people coming to the monastery chapel.

Along with two Canons Regular brothers, he was sent by Father C. Frank Phillips, pastor of St. John Cantius in Chicago, at the request of Bishop Baker, to help the monastery seeking readmission to the Church until something permanent could be established.

“You see how the Holy Spirit works in the life of the Church,” Father Phillips said. “Ten or 20 years ago we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Thanks to the generosity of the Holy Father and of the bishops in obedience to the Holy Father, many people are reconciled in the faith.”

Brother Sebastian Glentz and Brother Michael Sauntner are the two monks who reconciled with the Church. Both have been at Christ the King over 20 years and for a period of time were functioning as priests. However, since there is a question about the validity of their ordination, they do not presently function as priests and have taken the title of “Brother” as canonical hermits of the diocese.

Ongoing visits to the abbey began with Bishop Foley and then continued with Bishop Baker. In December 2010, seeing the divisions within the community, Abbot Leonard gave Brother Sebastian permission to contact Msgr. La Femina about reconciling with the authority of the Church.

Over the years the abbey grew to a maximum of 11 monks and five sisters. Both sedevacantists and those who believe in valid papal succession were part of the community or among those attending services at the monastery. Sedevacantists believe papal succession stopped after Pius XII’s 1958 death or after John XXIII’s 1963 death.

“Abbot Leonard was never a sedevacantist,” Brother Sebastian Glentz explained. “We did not discuss the issue; we prayed about it. Behind the scenes, our community was divided.”

By December 2010 three of six monks had left: two unreconciled sedevacantists and one who chose to reconcile with the Church on his own. There also were three sisters. All three left, one to reconcile with Rome.

Although the monastery is in the Bible Belt and not a hub of sedevacantist activity, most of the 60 to 100-plus people attending the later of the two Sunday Masses were of sedevacantist mindset. 

As the abbot approached death, the increasing divisions motivated Brothers Sebastian and Michael to seek reconciliation. But any reconciliation was put on hold because of a sudden decline in his health and his subsequent death in January 2011.

In early March, the two remaining monks closed the church to the public, placing a statement about their intended reconciliation in their last bulletin.

Bishop Baker makes special note of “the humility and cooperation of these two men.”

Father Phillips gives both monks great credit for living out the vow of obedience and also the great humility they have displayed in submitting themselves to the local bishop.

“In an age when everyone wants to do what they want, here is an actual example of an obedient servant, of knowing and living the humility of the saints themselves in making this type of decision,” said Father Phillips, who also pointed to the gracious permission given the Canons by Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George to help in Alabama.

“That all ties to the idea you can’t do anything by yourself, but everyone is subject to higher authority. We were then able to help Bishop Baker,” he said.

“None of this is by chance. It’s by the promptings of the Holy Spirit,” he added. “You can boil it down very simply: not my will; thine.”

The Vatican requested as a condition of their reconciliation that the two monks return to the canonical status they had before receiving their ordination.

They chose to be accepted as canonical hermits under the canon governing hermits in the Code of Canon Law, while the Holy See examines the validity of their ordinations.

Msgr. La Femina, who was an official of the Roman Curia for 26 years, began visiting the abbey with Bishop Baker two years ago. He noted the big step these two men took. He added, “We are praying now that the sedevacantist congregation returns.”

The monks hope the Vatican eventually recognizes the ordinations, but they are prepared to fully accept whatever the Vatican decides.

Brother Sebastian explained that he and Brother Michael’s “whole Lenten season was a real Lent” because they had to cease functioning as priests as they came under Rome.

“But because of obedience it makes it easier,” he said, looking to the example of Padre Pio. “Not that we are any way near Padre Pio, but he was told not to say public Mass or hear confessions, and he obeyed. We look upon our obedience as the obedience he gave the Church.”

Charles Rumore, president of the chapter in the Birmingham Diocese of Una Voce, a lay association promoting the traditional Latin Mass, sees further good growing from this reconciliation. “This is a huge deal because this is tangible fruit of the tree of Summorum Pontificum,” he said, referring to Pope Benedict’s letter “On the Use of the Roman Liturgy Prior to the Reform of 1970.”

There are only two churches in the diocese that weekly celebrate the extraordinary form of the Mass, necessitating long drives for some. Now the reunited monastery church makes a third.

Rumore expressed thanks to Bishop Baker in this regard. “This humble bishop has responded in an authentic and generous way to Pope Benedict’s document to re-establish our connection to the traditional liturgy and has removed some of the obstacles.”

He also sees this reconciliation as tangible proof of the point Pope Benedict made in the May 13 instruction Universae Ecclesiae on the application of Summorum Pontificum.

“What this does is set an example for others to return, whether they be lay or religious,” Rumore said.

In fact, the Pope’s moves on the liturgy had a constructive bearing on this reconciliation.

“We could see he’s trying to put a sense of the sacred back into the faith of the people,” Brother Sebastian said. “We know that will not happen overnight. We hope our coming over will assist in that.”

In fact, Brother Sebastian said he hopes this move will inspire others to consider reconciliation. The monastery has already received some inquiries.

Bishop Baker points to the providential timing of the monks’ return: They entered the Church in the season of Lent and on Divine Mercy Sunday received their vows — “in the reconciliation pattern of Lent and Mercy Sunday.”

Brother Sebastian sees the same significance.

In fact, if Divine Mercy Sunday hadn’t fallen on May 1, the day would be the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, to whom the monks are very devoted.

He noted that that Sunday’s Gospel tells of Our Lord giving the power to forgive sins, and “it was very significant with us coming back into the Church, going to confession.”

Since it was also the first day of the month of the Blessed Mother, Brother Michael crowned the Blessed Mother statue at the end of Mass.

“All of it had to be done on that day without electricity because of the tornado,” Brother Sebastian noted. “But after the ceremony was over and Mass over, our power came back on.” 

Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.