FATHER Armand de Malleray is the superior of the English apostolate of the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter (FSSP). Born in France, he has spent much of his priesthood in England and is currently serving as Rector of St Mary’s Shrine in Warrington, from which mass is live-streamed every Sunday at 11.00 on LiveMass.net. He is a direct and uncompromising preacher, whose sermons are strong indictments of the world delivered with a calm and clarifying wisdom. Depending on your ideological vantage point, his words will either wake you up to reality, by contextualising contemporary issues alongside dogmatic theology, or they will infuriate you. That is what a sermon should be.
Modern Christianity has become so wet and sentimental – American evangelicals have a lot to answer for – and the Catholic Church is usually no exception. The emphasis on feel-good music, comforting rhetoric and wishful thinking is boring, naive and more than a bit cringe-making. Father de Malleray, on the other hand, offers something concrete and penetrating, an offensive, scandalous alternative to modernity that is both refreshing and sobering. He has a way of forcing his listeners into a stark choice between taking Catholic orthodoxy seriously or cursing and spitting at him (or at the computer screen). This is what a priest should be.
The Catholic Church hierarchy appears straightforward enough on the surface: the Pope at the top, then the Cardinals, down through diocesan Bishops and parish priests. But there are other sects and orders, such as de Malleray’s FSSP, which are outside that hierarchical structure. One will notice that the initials don’t match the name. The Fraternitas Sacerdotalis Sancti Petri is a traditionalist society of priests, founded in 1988, which uses the Extraordinary form of the mass, the Latin Tridentine liturgy that was commonly in use before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The FSSP answers directly to the Pope, via the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and therefore de Malleray owes a more limited obedience to a local bishop.
This rather more untethered position gives him the freedom to say things the rest of the Church shies away from. The Church has proved no less susceptible than anyone else to ‘we’re all in this together’ groupthink, never more on display than right now in this coronavirus epidemic. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales is even conforming to the pattern dictated by the new national worship of the NHS, live-streaming a weekly ‘mass for carers’ every Thursday at 7pm in preparation for the public adoration of the NHS at 8pm. De Malleray is harshly critical of this, among much else.
He may not have to follow the bishops’ diktats, but he does obey the law. And so his church, like all churches, is currently closed to the public. In his sermon on April 26 – Good Shepherd Sunday, according to the Tridentine calendar – he said: ‘Our unprecedented times of universal church closures deprive most Catholic souls of the sacraments. This is extremely grave. This is the worst calamity in the history of the world.’ He offered some perspective on coronavirus: ‘In the UK there are at most 20,000 deaths attributed to coronavirus. This is just slightly more than ordinary seasonal flu. That is today’s figures. Of those deaths, in truth, most were caused by underlying conditions, not by coronavirus, as many experts admit. However, even if this high estimate were proven it would still be ten times less than the number of deaths by abortion in the UK each year: 209,000.’ He echoed Boris Johnson’s praise of doctors and nurses, but took issue with the Prime Minister’s Easter Sunday description of the NHS as ‘the beating heart of this country’. ‘With due respect to the Prime Minister,’ de Malleray objected, ‘I must state that the beating heart of this country . . . is called Jesus Saviour of Man, Iesus Hominum Salvator, or by his initials, IHS.’
De Malleray reserved his strongest criticism for those priests – those shepherds – who ‘gradually surrender to the world while remaining in full communion and active ministry within the Church’, exhorting priests instead to follow the example of the Good Shepherd: ‘To pray, sacrifice, write and speak in every way in their power to secure for our churches at least the same level of access as is granted to supermarkets and abortuaries. We, your shepherds, will answer before God and before your souls for what we will have done or failed to do to remedy this state of unprecedented sacramental emergency.’
The Catholic Church does not regard itself as but one of a selection of equal spiritual practices to be chosen depending on personal preference for comfort and community. It claims rather boldly to be the one visible institution established by the one true incarnate God, universally to provide the one means of salvation for all mankind via the sacraments. If this is true, the sacraments are the most essential of all services. If it’s false, then the sacraments don’t matter. But certainly the Church ought to take itself seriously.
Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols had this to say: ‘Yes, deprivations are placed on us, including not being able, as yet, to return to our churches and sacraments, a deprivation we feel very deeply indeed. Yet we should be wary of any sense of self-pity as we play our part in these life-saving disciplines.’ This statement appears fundamentally at odds with de Malleray’s position. Either the deprivation of sacraments is in fact the worst calamity in the history of the world or it’s self-pitying to think so because protecting the NHS and saving lives is more important.
Which is it?