From theSmall logoarchives - Published from 1982-96, Fidelity magazine was the predecessor of  Culture Wars.

Fidelity logosIn The Line of Fire: Fr. John Rizzo, Ex-SSPX

By Michael J. Mazza

From the May 1995 issue of Fidelity magazine

Every Kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste, and no town or house divided against itself will stand. (Matthew 12:25)

I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in Me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without Me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)

Fr. John Rizzo woke up early the morning of Monday, February 8, 1993. It was 40 degrees below zero in Crookston, Minnesota, and he could hear the howling winds outside as he vested for the 5:30 a.m. Mass at Our Lady of Sorrows chapel. He had spent the previous night in the basement of the church, but really hadn't slept all that much. The moment of his carefully-planned escape from the Society of St. Pius X was almost upon him; yet his excitement was tempered by an overwhelming anxiety over his immediate future. He had in his pocket exactly $37 and a borrowed credit card, and a long drive ahead of him.

He knew Fr. Harber would be expecting him back at the Society's rectory in Browerville, Minnesota no later than noon, a good three hour drive away. He only hoped Harber wouldn't discover he had emptied his room of all his belongings two nights before, packing them into his Subaru at 2 a.m. so as not to alert anyone of his plans. After Mass, he hopped into his frozen car, thanked God as it turned over on the first try, and sped out of town and south onto interstate 29. Twelve hours and only a couple of rest stops later, he arrived at his brother's house in Bellvue, Kansas. Though exhausted mentally and physically, he was glad to be free and at last out from under the sway of the Society. Or so he thought.

Some days later, he found himself at a Colorado retreat house run by another former priest of the Society. On the night of February 13, he remembers, a phone call came for him. A little surprised, he took the receiver from the seminarian who had answered the phone. The voice at the other end of the line belonged to a man, who said in a deep voice: "If you come anywhere near us, you're one dead priest," and hung up.


John and his twin brother Joseph Rizzo were born on December 7, 1960 in Weymouth, Massachusetts, the fourth and fifth children (respectively) of Tony and Millie Rizzo. Both attended the parish grade school, St Francis Xavier, until the sixth grade. They were in the same classroom until the second grade, when at last the "nuns in the long habits," the Sisters of Divine Providence, separated them so they could tell them apart. When the Junior high closed due to lack of enrollment in the late 1960s, their parents sent them to the local public school. John and Joe were confirmed in the 9th grade, and voluntarily continued their religious education by attending CCD classes for the next three years until they graduated from Weymouth South High School in 1979.

John had been disturbed by some of the transformations in parish life during his high school years, particularly, he says, "Communion in the hand." So much so, in fact, that when serving as an altar boy he would hold the paten under the chin of all communicants regardless of how they were in fact, receiving.

This practice drew the ire of his pastor, who publicly reprimanded John for his stubbornness. Rizzo's growing alienation with the form of Catholicism he experienced in his parish was to put him in touch with the faction most disaffected by the changes that occurred within the Church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.

In search of a traditional seminary, John first turned to a family friend, a Boston area priest who had been suspended by the archdiocese for refusing to take an assignment in which he would be expected to offer the Mass in the vernacular. The priest urged the young Rizzo, now 18, to write to Fr. Frederic Nelson in Powers Lake, North Dakota, who in turn recommended he contact a man by the name of Fr. Dan Dolan in Oyster Bay Cove on Long Island, NY. Dolan was a priest of the Society of St. Pius X, an organization begun by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in France in 1970 to "preserve tradition" in the Church in the years following Vatican II.

Shortly before Christmas in 1978, John and his brother Joseph boarded the Amtrak and visited Dolan in Oyster Bay. John remembers feeling uncomfortable with the impromptu atmosphere surrounding the superficial interview process and the aloof attitude of Dolan himself. The two brothers were promptly put to work after they arrived, and remember spending the rest of their four or five days there stuffing envelopes for the Christmas Appeal and moving furniture. Nevertheless, both were happy to be welcomed into the Society's six-year seminary program, which was at that time moving from Armada, Michigan to Ridgefield, Connecticut.

Though his brother Joe left after a year ("I was there for the wrong reasons"), John Rizzo stayed and enjoyed his first three years in Connecticut. He was receiving sound formation in Catholic spirituality, philosophy, and theology: training which he now credits with helping him discern years later the reasons for leaving the Society. Though John remembers the camaraderie and morale as "good," there were enough bizarre and unsettling influences at the seminary that a group of about ten of the forty students formed a fellowship of sorts. It is probably not coincidental that none of the ten are with the Society today.

One of the influences at the seminary that Rizzo found "unsettling" was Fr. Dan Dolan, the man who had been his first official contact with the Society back in Oyster Bay. Rizzo remembers Dolan being openly sede vacantist in his classes at the seminary and that he even used to omit the oration for the pope in the litany of saints. A picture of Pope John Paul II John had affixed to the door of his own dormitory room became the subject of a "spiritual conference" given by Dolan, who chastised Rizzo in front of the entire seminary for his display of fealty. Rizzo remembers being ordered to remove the picture, which he did, albeit reluctantly and resentfully.


Schism being what it is, and most schismatic sects being what they are, it is quite evident that only the first act of schism is difficult. The rest come relatively easy: the SSPX has about as many breakaway republics as the former Soviet Union, and they get along about as amicably. In 1983, a group of roughly a dozen renegade priests broke away from the Society (actually, 9 priests were expelled from the Society by Lefebvre, for a variety of reasons - Ed. Note), led by one Fr. Clarence Kelly. They formed their own splinter group called the Society of St. Pius V, their affection for anachronism being so strong it was evidently necessary to reach all the way back to the 16th century for a namesake. Among this group of breakaway priests was the rector of Rizzo's seminary, Fr. Donald Sanborn, and Rizzo's seminary teacher, Fr. Dan Dolan.

Fr. Clarence Kelly, living in New York, now refers to himself as Bishop Kelly, and claims to have a video proving that he was consecrated a year and a half ago (mid '93) by Alfred Mendez, the retired bishop of Arecibo, Puerto Rico, who died last fall (1994). Fr. Dan Dolan, currently pastor of St. Gertrude the Great in Cincinnati, Ohio, also claims to be a bishop, and for $24.95 (plus $3.50 shipping and handling) interested readers may order a video of his consecration ceremony which took place on November 30, 1993. Dolan no longer works with fellow Cincinnati resident Fr. William Jenkins, yet another former member of the SSPX and the SSPV, who now runs the St. Gertrude the Great Academy. Fr. Donald Sanborn, meanwhile, from his base in Warren, Michigan. now publishes Sacerdotium in which he busies himself writing about the distinction between "formal" and "material" sede vacantism, having broken away from Kelly and Co. some years ago.

But these eventualities of schismatic behavior were not immediately evident to the young seminarian John Rizzo. All he knew was that his experience of seminary life became increasingly more oppressive after 1983, the year when the SSPV split from the SSPX. When Sanborn left (was kicked out - Ed. Note) the Ridgefield seminary as rector, he was replaced by a Fr. Richard (N.) Williamson, the English-born prodigy of Archbishop Lefebvre. Rizzo remembers Williamson as having capitalized on Lefebvre's fears about the potential for rebellion among the American clergy, and that he positively reveled in his role as the Archbishop's watchdog in the States. John Rizzo found himself almost longing for the simple, if outrageous, quirkiness of the sede vacantists when faced with what he saw as the sour and spiteful tendencies in Fr. Williamson. Rizzo recalls on several occasions Williamson's denials of the Holocaust, his antipathy towards women (particularly those who wore slacks), his contempt for the American political system, and the Jansenistic sense of morality he espoused.


Rizzo was not alone in his observations. A fellow seminarian, Dan Oppenheimer, remembers quite vividly an encounter he had with Fr. Williamson in the spring of 1984. Oppenheimer, the son of a Jewish father and Anglican mother, converted to Catholicism in his youth. While on a break from the SSPX seminary in Econe, Switzerland, Oppenheimer paid a visit of inquiry to Williamson's seminary in Ridgefield. Oppenheimer remembers that during his stay, on May 25, 1984, Williamson told Oppenheimer: "If you come to this seminary, keep in mind there's always the potential of an oven waiting for you by the lake."

Oppenheimer was, quite obviously, not amused. He went so far as to tell the Superior General of the Society, Fr. Franz Schmidberger, and related to him the whole event. Oppenheimer remembers that Schmidberger simply smiled and said nothing. Fr. Daniel Oppenheimer, needless to say, is no longer with the Society of St. Pius X, but is now in union with Rome as a member of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter.

In any case, Fr. Rizzo silently endured the remaining three years of his seminary training under Williamson and was ordained a priest on May 19, 1985 in Ridgefield. He spent the first two years of his priesthood in England, teaching catechism classes and offering the Tridentine Mass across the country. In 1987 he was made pastor of a Society parish in Post Falls, Idaho. When Archbishop Lefebvre ordained four bishops on June 30, 1988, thus incurring automatic excommunication for himself, the four bishops, and all those who formally adhered to the now officially schismatic Society of St. Pius X, Rizzo swallowed hard and went about his work in Idaho.

A short time after this, Fr. Rizzo made a visit to his brother's house in Kansas. While he was there, he met Fr. Ramon Angles, the new rector of the parish and school at St. Mary's. In August of 1989, Rizzo met with Angles in his private apartment on campus. After settling down in their chairs with their drinks, they began a rather ordinary conversation. John describes:

"All of a sudden, without any provocation whatsoever, he got up and went over to his bookshelf. He pulled out this huge book with the title The Life of Adolf Hitler and a big picture of Hitler on the cover giving his salute. He put it on the bridge of his nose, the same way the sub-deacon holds up the Book of the Gospels at a solemn High Mass. He walked around the coffee table in his apartment, making the noise of a thurible (ching, ching, ching, ching). After he sat down, he says: 'Well, Rizzo, what do you think of that? Isn't this great?' He was laughing quite devilishly. He then asked, 'What else do you want to talk about?'"

Rizzo, who was more than a little alarmed by the proceedings, concluded that the opportunity for meaningful discussion was just about over and politely excused himself. But the occasion for another stimulating conversation with Fr. Angles would soon present itself. In January of 1990, Fr. Rizzo received a disturbing phone call from an extremely distraught mother in his parish. She said one of her sons had just received what he perceived to be a love letter from one of his teachers at St. Mary's, where he was enrolled as a student. As she related the story over the phone to Rizzo, the priest grew more furious, especially since the teacher and author of the letter was a man. Rizzo promptly called Fr. Angles at St. Mary's and demanded action. Rizzo recalls Angles' promising that the teacher would be removed at the end of the school year.

Rizzo objected, saying he felt the man should be removed immediately. Rizzo claims Angles responded by telling him, in effect, to mind his own business. When it became clear to Rizzo that Angles was more interested in guarding his turf than the moral lives of his students, he telephoned Fr. Peter Scott, the District Superior for the Society in Kansas City, Missouri. Scott reportedly responded: "What can I do? I'm afraid of Fr. Angles."


When word got back to Fr. Angles that Rizzo had gone over his head and spoken with Fr. Scott about the problem, he was livid, and, according to Rizzo, composed an angry letter in ecclesiastical Latin and faxed it to the lumber company across the street from Fr. Rizzo's rectory in Idaho. Rizzo remembers the lumber company secretary knocking on his door, bearing what he thought was a top secret document in light of the fact that its contents were in Latin. When he began reading it, he recalls, he broke out laughing. "See how those Christians love one another," he joked later.

Fr. John Rizzo soon became the lightning rod for disaffected parents all over the country. He had become a rather well-known figure in his years with the Society, having traveled widely on Mass circuits and in the summers by offering youth camps in New Hampshire and Kansas. After the love letter incident, when parents would ask him about sending their young people to St. Mary's, he would ask: "Is your child a boy or a girl?" If they chose the first response, Rizzo said that he could not in conscience recommend they send him to St. Mary's. Confused parents would also call him, saying their children were wanting to leave and were complaining that the school wasn't all that it was cracked up to be. Fr. Rizzo claims even students began to contact him and ask him for help. He says boarders at St. Mary's began to sneak out in the middle of the night and place collect calls from pay phones off campus to the rectory up in Idaho pleading, "Father, can you do something?"

News of all this discontent, of course, eventually found its way to others within the Society, who did not look kindly on Rizzo's actions. In August of 1992, he found himself "re-assigned" and on a one-way flight to England.


That the Church rather frowns on schism should come as no surprise. After all, this particular violation of the moral law represents an assault on her very integrity as the Mystical Body of Christ. From St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians (cf. 1 Cor. 1:10-14) to the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church (#817), the Church has always recognized that sins of schism are egregious violations of Our Lord's commandment to love one another (John 13:34).

One of the earliest extant Patristic writings, St. Clement's Letter to the Corinthians, cautions the residents of that cantankerous city to be obedient to their bishops and presbyters:

"Why must there be all this quarreling and bad blood, these feuds and dissensions among you? Have we not all the same God, and the same Christ? Is not the same Spirit of grace shed upon us all? Have we not all the same calling in Christ? Then why are we rending and tearing asunder the limbs of Christ, and fomenting discord against our own body? Why are we so lost to all sense and reason that we have forgotten our membership of one another?" (The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, c. A.D. 96, #46, as quoted in Early Christian Writings, Maxwell Staniforth, trans., New York: Dorset Press, 1986)

St. Ignatius of Antioch, on his way to Rome to have his own body be torn apart by lions, reminded the hearers of his letter to the Philadelphians to protect the body of the Church:

"Every man who belongs to God and Jesus Christ stands by his bishop.... But make no mistake, my brothers; the adherents of a schismatic can never inherit the kingdom of God (The Epistle of Ignatius to the Philadelphians, (3,2,3), as quoted in Early Christian Writings).

In his classic work Against Heresies, St. Irenaeus of Lyons lived up to his name of peacemaker in teaching that "those who leave the successors of the Apostles and assemble in any separated place must be regarded with suspicion or as heretics, as men of evil doctrines, or as schismatics. Those who rend the unity of the Church receive the Divine chastisement awarded to Jeroboam; they must all be avoided" (Against Heresies. iv, 26, as quoted in the 1912 edition of The Catholic Encyclopedia vol. XIII, p. 531).

The above passages, it is clear, do not admit of exception. No escape clause is given; no extenuating circumstances which would permit schism are allowed. Nowhere in the Ignatian epistles do we find the martyr permitting Catholics to break away from the Church if an "emergency situation" presents itself. St. Irenaeus does not allow for fracturing the Body of Christ if a bad" pope gets elected, nor does St. Clement permit schism to occur in the event of heinous liturgical abuses.

As a matter of fact, the great Church Father St. Cyprian went so far as to ask:

"What rascal, what traitor, what madman would be so misled by the spirit of discord as to believe that it is permitted to rend, or who would dare rend the Divine unity, the garment of the Lord, the Church of Jesus Christ?. . . He that abandons the Church of Christ will not receive the rewards of Christ. He becomes a stranger, an ungodly man, an enemy. God cannot be a Father to him to whom the Church is not a mother (St. Clement, De eccl. unit., viii, as quoted in the 1912 edition of The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. XIII, p. 531).

If those in schism do not have God as their Father, as St. Cyprian says, one wonders who is filling that role? One shudders to contemplate the frightening answer to that question.

Anyone with even a basic familiarity with Church history knows that the Church has been afflicted with a variety of schisms throughout Her two thousand year history. Our Lord even promised that scandals would inevitably arise (cf. Luke 17:1), but also promised that with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, the Church would remain indefectible.

The fact that a number of historical examples of schism (e.g., the Donatists and the Montanists) bear an uncanny resemblance to the ongoing crises within and surrounding the Society of St. Pius X is due either to wild coincidence or to the fact that similar types of consequences have followed inexorably from similar types of sins throughout the centuries, after the design of an all merciful and all-just God.


Take, for example, the case of Hippolytus and his anti-Modalist schism in the third century. The Modalist heretics held that the Father and the Son were merely different manifestations (mode of the same Divine Nature. That this interpretation of divine revelation was a dangerous deviation from Sacred Tradition was not immediately clear to Pope Zephyrinus. When he failed to condemn the Modalists in terms satisfactory to the priest Hippolytus, the latter rebelled, claimed Zephyrinus had been manipulated by a clever deacon named Callistus, and that he was unfit to be pope. When Callistus was elected pope after the death of Zephyrinus in c. 217, Hippolytus had himself elected anti-pope by a small group of followers. Over the next decade and a half, Hippolytus stubbornly stuck to his schism, claiming Callistus to be a heretic and that only his own followers were entitled to bear the title "Catholic." Everyone else was considered to be merely the adherents of the "School of Callistus." ("Novus Ordo Catholics," take heart!)

Along with leveling charges of heterodoxy (contrary to or different from some acknowledged standard; holding unorthodox opinions or doctrines) against Pope Callistus, Hippolytus charged that the pope was scandalously lenient towards sinners. This excessive rigorism was also characteristic of another schismatic, the once great Church Father Tertullian who had left Catholicism to become a member of the Montanists. In response to Callistus' teaching that even mortal sins of the flesh could be forgiven if sincerely confessed, Tertullian scornfully remarked that the decree should be posted on the doors of brothels.

Fortunately for Hippolytus, the Church was parent enough to not only allow him back in the fold after he had repented for his schism, but to bestow upon him the crown of a canonized saint. While banished on the island of Sardinia with the real pope, Pontian, somewhere between the years of A.D. 230-235, he was reconciled to the true Church and admonished his followers to end the schism. After he and Pontian died in exile, their bodies were brought to Rome by Pope St. Fabian, and the two were eventually recognized as martyrs. Hippolytus shares his feast day with the agent of his reconciliation, St. Pontian, on August 13.


During Fr. John Rizzo's period of exile in England in August of 1992 following his conflict with St. Mary's rector Fr. Angles, his seminary training began to come back to him. He started to reflect on the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas he had received there and to re-read papal documents. Pope Pius XII's 1943 encyclical, on the Church, Mystici Corporis, for example, strongly defended the doctrine of the indefectibility of the Church, a notion which certainly did not get much air time on SSPX channels. He began to wonder if being in schism was really such a good idea after all.

Six weeks into his stay in England, he telephoned both Fr. Peter Scott, District Superior for the United States, and Fr. Franz Schmidberger, the Superior General for the Society all over the world, saying that he was having problems in conscience remaining in the Society. Rizzo said both Scott and Schmidberger denied his request for a leave of absence and refused to allow him to return to the States. He persisted, however, and when he discovered the Society had canceled his credit card, making him a virtual economic hostage in a foreign country, he borrowed his brother's card number and bought his own ticket home.

His journey out of the Society not yet complete, either in his own mind or in actuality, he went to Kansas City to live with Fr. Peter Scott for two months of, as he would later describe, "hell on earth." He saw all that was wrong with the SSPX in a new way. The manipulative, deceitful, and arrogant tendencies he felt he saw within the sect became increasingly more repulsive to him. He kept asking the leadership of the Society why they weren't negotiating more with Rome and even making it more difficult for reunion to occur by consecrating yet another bishop, a priest by the name of Fr. Licinio Rangel, in Campos, Brazil, during the summer of 1991.

Rangel had been consecrated to "succeed" (pro) SSPX bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer, who had been excommunicated shortly after the 1988 consecrations. The Society's argument that the SSPX was not in schism because their bishops had no diocesan jurisdiction was stretched to its breaking point with the consecration in Campos, but if someone within the Society had the temerity to question such a move, he was ostracized. Meanwhile, Fr. Scott was telling the SSPX faithful in the pews that Rizzo had a rare kidney disease and was slowly dying.

Rizzo asserts that he was forbidden to see his twin brother, who lived a mere 90 minutes away from where he was staying in Kansas City, but one time while on the route of a Mass circuit went to see him anyway. A complete report of this visit was made to Fr. Scott by some SSPX informants in St. Mary's, including the evidently crucial information that Rizzo had purchased grapes and apple juice while at a grocery store before heading out of town. Scott was waiting with his indignant reprimand of Rizzo when the priest returned from his circuit, along with the information concerning the subversive sundries. Fortunately for Rizzo however, he had consumed the evidence of his crime before arriving home.

The Society's obsession with Rizzo's "treason" evidently drove them into even stranger types of conduct. One afternoon Joe Rizzo went over to St. Mary's for confession. As he knelt behind the screen and intoned the words "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned," Fr. Angles' voice came from the other side: "Are you here for your sins, or the sins of your brother?" On several occasions, Joe Rizzo remembers Fr. Peter Scott, the former medical student turned SSPX priest, telling him he was concerned about John, and that he felt his twin brother was "mentally incapacitated," "unstable," and was going to see to it that the Society's physician put John on Prozac, an anti-depressant drug. John was eventually given samples of Prozac and was ordered to take them, but had instead hidden them in the glove compartment of his brother's truck. When Fr. Scott discovered the pills there one day, John began flushing them down the toilet.


Using the excuse that he wanted to get out of the city, Fr. Rizzo asked to be given an assignment in a small town in order to get out of the Kansas City headquarters. He arrived at the Society's northern Minnesota outpost, a rectory in a rural area just outside of Browerville, Minnesota (population 693) on December 15, 1992. There he was placed under the supervision of a young priest by the name of Fr. Michael Harber, who had been ordained just seven months previous. Rizzo claims he was allowed no private phone calls whatsoever; all incoming calls had to be screened. When going out for errands or to offer Mass, he says he was instructed to make no unauthorized stops or phone calls and to return home by a specific time. During the week, he remembers being expected to be a second shadow for Fr. Harber, riding with him in the car twice daily as Harber drove to the neighboring convent just a few miles away in downtown Browerville.

Finally deciding that enough was enough, Fr. Rizzo packed his belongings into his car late at night on Saturday, February 6, 1993. He got to bed at 2 a.m. and woke up three hours later in order to drive to St. Cloud and offer two Sunday morning Masses there. Before he left the rectory, he positioned a table behind his bedroom door in order to deter Fr. Harber from opening it up and seeing his room empty before he had a chance to make his getaway. After the Masses in St. Cloud had been concluded, he drove three and a half hours north to Crookston for a Sunday evening Mass.

The privilege of spending the night in the basement of the Crookston chapel had only recently been granted him. Fr. Harber had previously insisted that Rizzo return to Browerville from Crookston that same night, but the thought of having one man drive over eight hours by himself in one day on the lonely country roads of northern Minnesota after saying three Masses was too much for even the Society to allow. Fr. Scott gave in, and that gave Fr. Rizzo the break for which he had been looking.

He woke up early Monday morning, still nervous about how he was going to survive outside the Society and wondering if he were doing the right thing. He asked God for some kind of sign. After the 5:30 a.m. Mass, an elderly woman approached him, pressed $230 in small bills into his hand, and asked him to offer Masses for her deceased husband. She was the last person with whom he spoke as a priest of the Society of St. Pius X.

John arrived at the house of his twin brother late Monday night. The very next day he telephoned Fr. Scott to inform him he had formally left the Society. In saying good-bye, Rizzo said: "God bless you, Father." Scott's reply is burned into the memory of Fr. Rizzo: "I will not bless you, because I know God will not bless your work." After a few more days with his brother and his family, he went to spend some time at a retreat center in Colorado.

It was while he was on retreat that he says he received his first death threat. In a March 1993 interview with reporter Joe Taschler of the Topeka Capital-Journal, Rizzo claimed that a phone call came for him the night of February 13, and that the caller warned: "If you come anywhere near us, you're one dead priest," and hung up. Feeling a mixture of fear, pity, and frustration that the caller wasn't a bit more specific (just where is "near us?" he wondered), Rizzo continued his journey up north to Montana, where he had hoped to join the Helena diocese. Because the diocese was waiting for a new bishop to be appointed there, and because his own situation was becoming increasingly urgent, and because a groundswell of people back in Kansas were pleading for him to come back and offer them an alternative to the SSPX, he returned to Kansas in March of 1993.


The last Saturday of that month, March 27, 1993, found Fr. Rizzo hearing confessions in the community room of a local bank in St. Marys, which some of the faithful had rented in order to provide a place for Fr. Rizzo to celebrate the sacraments. A little after 7 p.m., two law enforcement agents entered the room and asked those assembled the whereabouts of Fr. Rizzo. The priest had heard the commotion, so after his penitent had left, he emerged from the makeshift confessional. John remembers that the sheriff did not waste any time in issuing his warning: "I highly recommend that you leave town immediately. There's a posse of men coming from over there (he motioned to the St. Mary's campus) and I believe they have more fire power than we do."

Needless to say, the penitents made a collective act of perfect contrition as they sprinted out the exits of the bank, as did Fr. Rizzo himself. Believing tempers had cooled by the next morning, though, Fr. Rizzo came back into town and proceeded to go over to the bank's community room to offer Mass. Someone had squirted Super glue into the locks, however, making it impossible to enter the building, according to police at the scene. One of the associate priests from St. Mary's was observed in a van parked across the street with some other SSPX loyalists, laughing and pointing. According to the local sheriff, two members of St. Mary's initially confessed to the crime, but recanted when they found out how serious the penalty was for vandalizing the doors of a bank. The "real" perpetrators have not yet been found.

Fr. Rizzo says he began to wear, on the advice of the legal authorizes, a bullet-proof vest. Throughout the summer of 1993, Rizzo and his neighbors would be regularly awakened by the sound of exploding firecrackers in the driveway of the house he was renting. He says he received dozens of obscene phone calls, and one night even caught two men in the act of what the phone company later wagered was an attempt to place a tap on his phone. On the evening of October 24, 1993, his house was peppered with bullets from a 22 caliber gun, at least two of which entered the bedroom area and one of which pierced a pillow on one of the beds. Fortunately for him, he was out of town celebrating Mass the night of the incident. Authorizes later came to the judgment that the violence was gang related and only coincidentally related to the dispute between Rizzo and the SSPX. The local sheriff, however, says he continued to patrol the facility in which Rizzo was saying Mass for some time after these incidents.

The Society's fixation with Rizzo apparently also pushed them into the arena of ecclesial espionage. A couple of Society priests in Kansas City had secured the services of a Missouri woman named Vicky Story, whose first contact with the Society had come over the television two years earlier. "Channel surfing" early one Saturday morning, she came across Fr. Clarence Kelly's show "What Catholics Believe" on BET (Black Entertainment Television). One wonders what was more incongruous - a show on Our Lady of Loreto sandwiched between Soul Train and hair transplant infomercials or the sight of a schismatic priest explaining the teaching of a Church from which he had separated himself.

In any case, Vicky kept watching. Kelly, for all his faults and quirks, seemed to have presented Catholic doctrine in a way that made a deeper impression on Vicky than the "hug a tree, kiss a whale" theology she says she had received in the Catholic parishes she had drifted in and out of since converting to Catholicism from Protestantism at the age of 18. Through the toll free number on the show, Vicky got in touch with the local SSPX chapel in Kansas City, oblivious to the fact that the Society was in schism. Early in the summer of 1992, she and her husband went to visit Fr. James Doran at St. Vincent's, who assured them that the SSPX was indeed part of the Church, though he admitted "Rome's a little miffed with us over the consecrations" - which is certainly one way to describe formal excommunication, though perhaps not the most accurate. Two years later, in the summer of 1994, Vicky found herself attending Fr. Rizzo's Masses at the behest of some Society priests to see how correctly Rizzo was following the rubrics of the Mass. Fr. Scott wanted to know where he stood when reading the Gospel, whether or not he performed the correct number of bows, what kind of vestments and shoes he wore, etc. "You know," Vicky quipped later, "the real important stuff."


Rizzo claims he is still periodically receiving abusive phone calls, as well as others in the middle of the night from young men who claim to be "struggling with the virtue of purity" and who want to come over and "visit." Rizzo is concerned he is being set up for a pedophilia charge. Furthermore one of the associate priests at St. Mary's, Fr. Edward MacDonald, has written to Rizzo and demanded the return of $2,400 in donations MacDonald had made to Rizzo for help with his college expenses. Fr. Peter Scott has also written a letter which was made public by the Society stating that Fr. Rizzo is a vagus (meaning wandering, unsettled) priest, having broken "his vow of obedience," and is violating canon law. Scott's charges are interesting in the light of his own situation as a priest in a schismatic sect, but he is evidently unfamiliar with the old adage about residents of glass domiciles and the propulsion of certain kinds of mineral deposits.

Scott's letter is particularly difficult for Rizzo to swallow. "They use terminology to deceive the faithful," he complains. "They said I broke vows. The Society of St. Pius X doesn't have vows. There is what is called an 'engagement' ceremony that is taken every December 8 to renew one's engagement in the Society, but even Archbishop Lefebvre once said the engagement promises did not bind under pain of sin." Furthermore, he adds, two weeks before he left the Society he drove the four hours to Winona from Browerville to meet with Fr. Schmidberger, who was visiting the SSPX seminary there, and asked him permission to take a temporary leave of absence, which Schmidberger denied. Rizzo then told him that in conscience he could no longer work for the Society. "You're a damn liar," Fr. Schmidberger reportedly concluded. "You're a no good priest and a damn liar."

This view of Fr. Rizzo's priestly character is evidently not shared by Archbishop Kelleher of the archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas. Kelleher gave permission to Fr. Rizzo to work in the archdiocese in the fall of 1993. Months later, in February of 1994, Rizzo became a member of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, and on Easter Sunday that April, Archbishop Kelleher granted him full faculties to minister in his archdiocese. Fr. Rizzo now travels across Kansas, offering the Indult Mass hearing confessions, and teaching catechism, and is acting as a conduit of reconciliation for those who want to return to the Church. Over 200 people have followed him back into the Church so far. He also runs a K-12 school in Maple Hill, Kansas. One of his students at Our Lady of Compassion school recently told him: "I like the way you talk about the Church rather than the way they do at the Academy (at St. Mary's). I can tell you love the Church and they don't. Father, they hate the Church."


Since schism is, among other things, a mortal sin against the virtue of charity, one would expect that a schismatic group would be torn apart by a profound lack of this particular charism. The lack of a central authority deprives a body of its living source of unity; the absence of concern for objective truth in such a situation breeds totalitarianism. In such an atmosphere, more schisms are bound to occur, as the continual fragmenting of the Society clearly shows. Beyond this, however, the state of being extra ecclesiam through schism also means a loss of grace, which eventuates in more and more disturbing violations of the virtue of charity.

The list of people claiming to have been harassed after they have left the SSPX has been growing longer in recent months. One has to conclude that either the above analysis is playing itself out or that the supposed victims are either imagining things or misrepresenting themselves. Regardless, it is beyond dispute that many people who have left the Society (e.g., Rizzo and his supporters) have often been condemned by name from SSPX pulpits. In addition, Vicky Story says she received dozens of crank phone calls after she stopped spying on Fr. Rizzo, including one that she understood to be a thinly veiled threat on her life. Susan Convery, another former Society member and now a vocal critic of St Mary's, might very well have been killed in December of 1992 had she not been slowing down for a stop sign in downtown St. Mary's when one of her front wheel tires began to fall off. Mechanics at the scene informed her they thought the lug nuts had been intentionally loosened.

Susan's daughter also became the object of abuse. On the evening of July 5, 1993, at the Whistlestop convenience store in St Mary's, a teacher at St Mary's Academy grabbed the buttocks of the 17-year old Convery girl in front of her 13-year old companion and the cashier of the store.

The man admitted to the contact on the stand during the course of the trial that September, though he claimed he didn't do it in a "rude" manner. The court evidently disagreed, as he was found guilty of simple battery. His conviction, however, was subsequently overturned on appeal because of a "technical defect" some months later and the State of Kansas chose not to pursue the matter any further.


Joe Rizzo, John's twin brother, has also been on the receiving end of caritas (esteem, affection, dearness), a la St. Mary's. For many years, though, Joe was a strong supporter of St Mary's, even writing author Tom Case a scathing letter after an article critical of the SSPX appeared in the October 1992 issue of Fidelity. He now regrets his comments. claiming that he had been "brainwashed" by the people at St. Mary's. Joe also says that he and his family now regularly receive the "St. Mary's wave" from Society supporters when driving through town, a curious form of greeting that employs only the tallest of the five fingers.

One particularly memorable episode in this ongoing saga of hostility occurred on Wednesday afternoon, March 31, 1993, a few days after the lock gluing incident. Joe was invited to appear before a panel consisting of Fr Angles and three other SSPX clerics in the St. Mary's cafeteria. According to Joe's account, Angles was visibly upset: "When are you going to get balls, Rizzo?" he said, pounding his walking staff on the floor. Joe said he asked: "Why don't you sit down with my brother and talk this thing out?" Angles responded: "Before I sit down and with your brother, I will swing first" (motioning with his fist). "I will swing first!" "Rizzo," he continued, "there's an old Arab saying: 'You sit by the door and the body of your enemy will be carried by.'" One of the maintenance men on campus who reportedly owns an AK-47 assault rifle, then asked: "Do you need me?" Angles responded: "Put away the gun. . . I don't need it now. I don't need it yet." Then, turning to Joe, he said "You want bloodshed, Rizzo? I'll give you bloodshed." Joe left the "interview" feeling more than a little threatened, and after contacting police, filed a complaint on the following Sunday, April 4. The local sheriff said he and a special investigator from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation questioned Angles the next day but the matter went no further. About that same time, Joe said he discovered the lugnuts on his family's car had been loosened as well.

Besides breeding more schisms and fostering various forms of violence, the lack of grace and charity resulting from schismatic behavior also demands, so it seems, a fair amount of logical gymnastics from its proponents as well. As one example, let us take the election of Bishop Bernard Fellay as the Superior General of the Society of St. Pius X in the summer of 1994. Many members of the Society were shocked at the action, since Archbishop Lefebvre had promised that such a thing would never occur. Lefebvre claimed he did not want to give the impression he was creating a parallel church by bestowing on the head of the Society powers of jurisdiction, as such a move could be construed as setting up a rival to the pope.

Our authority for this comes from no less a source than Fr. Peter Scott, District Superior of the SSPX, in his letter to the editor of Fidelity magazine in December, 1992. According to Scott, "Archbishop Lefebvre made it perfectly clear that the Superior General was not to be one of the bishops, so as not to give the impression that the bishops that he consecrated had any jurisdiction." Fr. Carl Pulvermacher, writing in the Society's own magazine, the Angelus, concurs. In the September 1988 issue, the question arises why Fr. Schmidberger, the reigning Superior General, was not made a bishop by Archbishop Lefebvre in June of 1988 along with the other four. He writes: "Because, as Superior General of the Society of St. Pius X, he has a form of jurisdiction."

Fr. Scott was to later claim to Vicky Story that Archbishop Lefebvre had changed his mind about making a bishop Superior General, and gave his permission for this action on his deathbed. Vicky noted, however, that Scott's letter to the editor in Fidelity appeared in December 1992, over a year and a half after Archbishop Lefebvre died, and made "perfectly clear" the Archbishop's intention to not have the Superior General be a bishop, an event which occurred less than two years later. Readers are left to their own devices to figure out this apparent contradiction.


Are the folks in St. Mary's, Kansas simply a pious group of faithful followers of misunderstood heroes? Is the crisis in the Church so bad that we should not deal too harshly with those who simply long for the Tridentine Rite Mass, especially since they are on "our" side when it comes to issues like abortion and reverence for the Blessed Sacrament? Such questions, though important, beg two more fundamental questions.

First, is schism all that bad? As this article has hopefully shown, the answer is a resounding yes. Schism is just as deadly a sin as sodomy or sloth. Communion in the hand is not a sufficient reason to go into schism, as Fr. John Rizzo had to learn the hard way. Besides fostering divisions within the very Body of Christ, schism leads to a damning loss of grace and charity. For this reason, St. Thomas was able to write in his Summa that since "by separating himself from communion with the members of the Church,... the fitting punishment for schismatics is that they be excommunicated." Since they also "refuse submission to the head of the Church wherefore, since they are unwilling to be controlled by the Church's spiritual power, it is just that they should be compelled by the secular power" (Summa, pt. II-II, Q. 39, Art. 4). The schismatic SSPX, in maintaining as they do a medieval view of church-state relations, find themselves in an interesting position. If their dreams were ever realized and a Catholic state would actually be created, they might find themselves among the first to be thrown into prison.


In this regard, it is at least interesting to take note of the recent surge of concern on the part of the federal government over the various militia groups that inhabit our nation's midsection. While law enforcement officials have played down rumors that there are any direct connections between fringe religious groups like the SSPX and the bombing, agents from the FBI and the ATF investigating the blast in Oklahoma have made several visits to the campus of St. Mary's in recent weeks. According to one official, there reportedly are elements within the SSPX community at St. Mary's that are at least sympathetic to the party line of suspicious paramilitary groups like the Michigan Militia.

To be sure, the almost unbridled rage the Clinton administration has displayed over the violence has made it seem that almost every group of straight white males to the political right of the Boy Scouts has suddenly become a target of suspicion in the case. Nevertheless, it is possible that the FBI's visits to St. Mary's might be based on a bit more than frenzied rumor. Last year, for example, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported that one former member of the SSPX was approached by a fellow member of the parish at St. Mary's who tried to get her to by an AK-47 assault rifle; the woman, Linda Nelson, claimed the man included in his offer a vague reference to the "need" for it in the "future." The same article reported that another member of the parish admitted he and some others had purchased some assault rifles for "hunting" purposes.

The animus against "big government" within the SSPX's outpost in St. Mary's is well known, as is the case of a man associated with the Society who served time for tax evasion, a cause celebre among modem day survivalists. Joe Rizzo, meanwhile, remembers that when he was a member of the SSPX, some of the members of the parish exhibited a great reluctance to have their children immunized because they were convinced the government would use the procedure as an opportunity to implant computer chips in their children's legs. Under ordinary circumstances, the above examples of bizarre and/or paranoid behavior might simply be laughed off. But as the Society is so fond of saying, these are not ordinary times.

When people who might already be in a fragile emotional state for whatever reason find themselves whipped into a righteous fury by isolationist rhetoric, it is quite possible that subsequent events will unfold which might well go beyond the power of anyone to control them, with the possible exception of government troops - hence, Aquinas' warning that if schismatics fail to allow themselves to be controlled by the Church's spiritual power, "it is just that they should be compelled by the secular power." It is fair to ask whether or not Marcel Lefebvre could have envisioned his Society as ever having to provide a counterweight to the bizarre political tendencies that have evidently exhibited themselves in at least some of the members of his movement in recent years.


The second question that needs to be addressed in relation to schismatic groups on the "right" is this: Is a return to the 1940s the best way to solve the current crises that afflict our Church and society? Is a return to the Tridentine Rite Mass the solution to all of our problems? Even some of them? After all. Cardinal Ratzinger, in his book on Vatican II (Theological Highlights of Vatican II, New York: Paulist, 1966), says that the Tridentine Rite Mass had become, by the 1960s, "embalmed in the status quo and was ultimately doomed to internal decay. The liturgy had become a rigid, fixed and firmly encrusted system; the more out of touch with genuine piety, the more attention was paid to its prescribed forms" (p. 86).

By focusing solely on the abuses (liturgical and otherwise) in the post conciliar Church, and by recommending a naive return to the "good old days", (how good were they?) those opposed in theory and practice to degeneracy in faith and morals remove themselves from the arena and find themselves increasingly unable to articulate a coherent vision of a way out of crisis. One former member of the SSPX attributes his slide into schism to his reading periodicals like The Wanderer, which he says allowed him to believe that St. Mary's, Kansas was the Catholic equivalent of Galt's Gulch in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged:

"Reading The Wanderer put me in touch with the 'abomination of desolation;' it depressed me so utterly that I wanted to be done with horror stories. I went into the wilderness, i.e., the Society of St. Pius X, and everything I had wanted to escape - hatred, despair, immorality - was there."

As it turned out, the Society offered no better plan than anyone else for authentic renewal, either in the Church or the society at large. Says Randy Brown, another former SSPX-er:

"They didn't teach the Fathers, they weren't teaching Chrysostom. . . The Society got too wrapped up with conspiracies in Rome...They got too caught up with the policies of the current crisis in the Church and they should have been talking about Augustine and Chrysostom and the basics of the Faith."

No matter how dark it appears to get in the Church, it is always much darker outside. Jumping ship is absolutely inexcusable, and one wonders what the Church would look like today if Catholics from earlier centuries, when things looked even bleaker, had formed their own little sects instead of remaining faithful to the Bride of Christ and committing themselves to the pursuit of holiness. The downward trajectory the Society of St. Pius X has followed in recent years should serve as a lesson. Schism eventuates in violence - spiritual and physical. Those within the Society who, like Fr. John Rizzo, had the courage to employ their God-given intellects and recognize this fact were silenced. Former Society member Susan Convery concludes:

"I'm just keeping my eyes on the Church.... If a priest gets up in a clown suit and he offers Mass, I'm going to kneel there. I can cry and weep, I'll do whatever I can. . . but I'll do it in the Church. But I am never walking out again. I will never be so arrogant, ever again.

Fr. Rizzo stands on the steps of St. Joseph's parish in Topeka, his rose-colored vestments flapping about him as the stiff wind rolls off the Kansas prairie. It is Laetare Sunday, and Rizzo is vigorously pumping the hands of the faithful as they slowly file out into the sunshine. "Good to see you, take care, God bless you" he sings out in his heavy Bostonian accent. The atmosphere is light, even joyous; children run up and down the steps and play tag amidst legs belonging to parents who are busy sharing the week's news and the day's weather forecast. A white statue of St. Joseph, the protector of the Church, silently watches the proceedings. Behind him, the doors of the church stand wide open. Inside, there is hope.Fidelity

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