Religious differences: Calgary bishop warns congregation that the city’s newest Catholic church isn’t really Catholic

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary is warning its congregants away from a new church it believes is wrongly identifying itself as Catholic.

The St. Pius X Society — Catholic traditionalists who broke from the mainstream during the church reforms of the late ’60s — has purchased a Catholic church in the city’s Southwest.

The group, which believes in holding Latin Mass according to older liturgical rites, is renovating the building and plans to open it after a blessing ceremony to be held on Dec. 27.

This seems to have raised the ire of Calgary’s conservative bishop, Fred Henry. In September, he distributed a newsletter warning parishioners away from the city’s newest place of worship, which has been renamed St. Dennis Church.

“St. Dennis is not a Catholic church and the fact that they are identifying themselves as a Catholic church is problematic and confusing for many people,” he wrote.

The letter went on to explain the history of the St. Pius X Society, which has included several excommunications, or expulsions from the mother church.

“The [society] has gotten more strident over time, harboring sedevacantists [a sect that denies the authority of recent Popes] and others with positions more extreme than [the society’s founder] would have tolerated,” Bishop Henry wrote.

Father Jurgen Wegner, the district superior of the St. Pius X Society in Canada, said he was surprised to see the letter, but hopes to build bridges with the bishop.

“I was a little bit surprised to see this clarification without having been contacted before by the bishop. It’s a fact that St. Pius X is a congregation with 40 years of existence.”

During the ’60s, the church held the Second Vatican Council, which attempted to create ecclesiastical and liturgical reforms more in line with the modern era. Changes were made to certain rituals and, most notably, Mass was permitted to be held in the vernacular, rather than in Latin. These alterations proved to be controversial in some corners, giving rise to a Catholic traditionalist movement, including the St. Pius X Society.

Fr. Wegner said the modern approach to Mass is far too liberal and places too much emphasis on the individual, rather than on the importance of man serving God.

One of the changes, for example, is that the priest now faces his congregants. According to older rites, the priest should be facing the altar, his focus on worship.

“In the liturgy, if you put man in the centre, the most important thing is man. If you put God aside, that makes a big difference,” he said.

Attendance in Catholic masses has steadily declined since the ’60s, a fact Fr. Wegner attributes to the church wavering on dogma in the face of a modern onslaught. By comparison, the St. Pius X congregation is growing, he said.

‘St. Dennis is not a Catholic church and the fact that they are identifying themselves as a Catholic church is problematic’

Fr. Wegner said he doesn’t dispute any of Bishop Henry’s stances on social issues, of course.

“We’re happy he takes traditional Catholic stances, but he’s not the only bishop in the world and we can see everywhere those who would not take the same stands as the Bishop of Calgary,” he said.

“Ask, for example, for people the right of contraception, the right of abortion. That’s not the official Catholic doctrine and stand. But there are members of the Catholic church, and even in the hierarchy, who would claim these rates based on the Second Vatican Council.”

Fr. Wegner said the St. Pius X Society has about 600 adherents in Calgary; it purchased the other church because their congregation is growing and required more space. St. Dennis should be able to seat 700 people when it opens after Christmas. The church also runs a private school with 91 pupils. The growth of the church, he said, proves that some Catholics long for a more traditional approach to spirituality.

Nonetheless, Fr. Wegner said he met with Bishop Henry on a recent trip to Calgary. The meeting was amiable. The priest even invited the bishop to attend St. Dennis’ blessing ceremony.

There has been no word as to whether he will attend, but his letter appeared adamant: “Roman Catholics of the Diocese of Calgary should not attend St. Dennis Church, nor receive sacraments from any priest who is a member of the Society of Saint Pius X unless in dire emergency or danger of death,” the bishop wrote.

A traditional Catholic Mass, approved by the Diocese, is available at St. Anthony’s Parish.

Bishop Henry declined to comment on the matter.