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Articles: Traditionalist Controversy

Mt. St. Michael & CMRI: Brief Overview
Rev. Anthony Cekada

From time to time, I am asked about the background of the Mount St. Michael group (or CMRI), a traditional Catholic organization headquartered in Spokane, Washington. The following is a brief summary of what I have already written on the issue.

Origins of the Group

      The St. Michael group was founded by Francis Schuckardt, a layman who gained considerable prominence in the 1960’s for his eloquence in promoting the Fatima Message. In 1967 Schuckardt and about a half-dozen young supporters of the Fatima Message banded together as the Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen (CMRI) with the idea of living the religious life as traditional Catholic nuns and brothers. Schuckardt’s magnetic personality and reputation in the Fatima movement made him a natural leader for this group. The project at first enjoyed the approval of the Most Rev. Sylvester Treinen, the Catholic Bishop of Boise, Idaho.

      Schuckardt, however, was among the first in this country to reject as non-Catholic all the changes in faith and worship introduced in the Church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). Naturally this led to problems with Bp. Treinen. The priest who had been advising CMRI was replaced with a modernist, and the group began looking elsewhere for clergy to serve them.

      A few sympathetic priests were persuaded to help out, among them the Rev. Burton Fraser, a Jesuit from Colorado who refused to say the New Mass. He became the CMRI’s spiritual advisor.


CMRI & “Sedevacantism”

      In about 1970, Schuckardt and his followers came to the conclusion that Paul VI, by his own acts and words, had forfeited his authority and office and that the Holy See was therefore juridically vacant — they became “sedevacantists,” in other words, years before the term was invented.

      In 1971, of course, no Catholic bishop would ordain priests for a religious order which rejected Vatican II, the New Mass and Paul VI.


Schuckardt’s Consecration

      At this point in the story we encounter one Daniel Q. Brown. Brown, a Catholic layman who had rejected the Vatican II changes nearly from the start, had gotten himself ordained a priest and consecrated a bishop by an “Old Catholic” prelate.[1] Brown’s conclusions on the post-Vatican II Church turned out to be identical to Schuckardt’s. He, too, believed the Holy See was vacant.

      Fr. Fraser believed that the situation in the Church was extreme and that there were no Catholic bishops to whom one could go for the traditional sacraments.[2] Fr. Fraser concluded that the moral principle of epikeia — in the face of unforeseen circumstances, favorably interpreting the mind of the Church as law-giver in such a way as to permit an action which the law would forbid under normal circumstances — could be invoked to allow one to receive Holy Orders from Brown. His conclusions were deemed sufficient by members of the group to warrant the actions which would follow.

      Brown repented of his schismatic acts, renounced his ties with the Old Catholics, made a public abjuration, went to confession, and received absolution from a traditional priest. In October and November 1971, Francis Schuckardt was ordained a priest and consecrated a bishop by Brown. CMRI would later move its center of operations from Idaho to a former Jesuit seminary, Mount St. Michael, in Spokane, Washington.


Preserving the Faith

      Schuckardt’s emphasis on Marian piety and the traditional Latin Mass drew to the movement over the years thousands of laymen dissatisfied with the modernism of the Conciliar Church. Many young people, as well, joined the two religious orders Schuckardt had established. Schuckardt organized dozens of Fatima groups throughout the country for traditional Catholics who supported his cause.

      Here we must give credit where credit is due. On the central issues — the New Mass, for instance, and the defection en masse of the hierarchy from Catholic teaching — the members of the St. Michael’s group were right. They also preserved intact all those traditions and practices which are now a part of the religious and devotional life of every traditional Catholic chapel in the world. This they did, please note, at a time when most of us — even the group’s most vocal opponents — were still going to the Novus Ordo, defending Paul VI, and urging “conservative” interpretations of the disastrous Vatican II changes.


Detour into Isolation

      At the same time, however, Catholics who turned to Schuckardt in their quest to preserve their faith also unwittingly became entangled in something which started to show all the signs of a classic personality cult. Schuckardt’s word was law, and he introduced many devotional and penitential practices which were bizarre and extreme. To isolate followers, the reading of literature produced by other traditional Catholic groups was forbidden, even to priests. Many were left completely in the dark about the actual source of Schuckardt’s episcopal consecration.[3] All traditional clergy outside Schuckardt’s orbit were depicted as having compromised with the Conciliar Church; the laity, naturally, were forbidden to approach outside priests for the sacraments. Followers were also sometimes subjected to disorienting techniques associated with cults and mind-control.

      Most people, of course, have no idea of how a Catholic bishop of the old school would really conduct himself. Since Schuckardt’s followers had no standard for comparison, it is manifestly unjust to reproach them for mistaking his methods for the spirit of the Church.

      Not surprisingly, Schuckardt ordained only six priests — a large body of clergy could have constituted a threat to his position. Nevertheless, some of them eventually began to have second thoughts. Schuckardt sent two clerics to a nearby college to take a course on cults — he hoped they would gather enough information to refute the press’s charge that the St. Michael’s group was a cult. The opposite occurred. Both came away convinced that Schuckardt was in the process of turning the operation into a full-fledged cult.

      Soon after his consecration by Brown, Schuckardt turned himself into a remote and mysterious figure, isolated from the day-to-day life of the religious communities he founded. He generally issued his orders and directions in writing or by phone, rather than in person. Other than giving an annual retreat, Schuckardt left the spiritual formation of the nuns and brothers to others. While he kept quarters at Mount St. Michael, he would normally visit there only on major feast days. From the beginning, he lived in houses apart from the religious community itself.


Schuckardt’s Departure

      Despite this, in the early 1980s some of the priests, brothers and nuns in the community began to conclude that his behavior was becoming increasingly strange and erratic.

      In 1984 a series of stories in the secular press accused Schuckardt of drug abuse and gross personal immorality,[4] charges which shocked the Mount St. Michael community. In June 1984 three priests confronted him with the accusations. After delays in addressing the issue, Schuckardt fled with a small number of religious and lay people.


Recovery & Reorganization

      In autumn of 1984 the priests sought out a bishop to ordain for the CMRI. Archbishop Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X were out of the question, particularly since the Archbishop at that time was seeking to work out a compromise with the Conciliar Church. They settled on Bishop George J. Musey, one of the line of traditional Catholic bishops who trace their consecrations back to Archbishop Peter Martin Ng-dinh-Thuc, former Archbishop of Hu, Vietnam.[5]

      On 23 April 1985 before Bp. Musey, the remaining three priests formally and publicly took the Abjuration of Error and Profession of Faith ad cautelam — in case through their previous actions they had incurred any ecclesiastical censures. Bp. Musey then re-ordained them conditionally. (This was a prudent step. While the Church before Vatican II usually regarded ordinations stemming from Old Catholic bodies as valid, she also looked at each particular case.)

      The priests announced their intention to turn the group into a normal traditional Catholic organization. They adopted a standard set of rules and constitutions for a religious order — Schuckardt had run the organization by personal fiat — and instituted checks and balances to avoid a rerun of past abuses. Fr. Denis Chicoine was elected Superior General, and was succeeded in August 1989 by Fr. Tarciscius Pivarunas. Across the board, the Fathers systematically uprooted the cult-like practices Schuckardt introduced.


Some Objections

      Despite the normalization program the CMRI leadership put into effect, a handful of traditional Catholics in the U.S. have continued to denounce it as non-Catholic or “schismatic.” The following should be noted:

      First, it is unjust to continue to condemn CMRI for past deviations which have been acknowledged, rectified and atoned for. Schuckardt departed more than a decade ago, the group’s leaders took an abjuration, and much additional information has come to light. One should have the good grace to acknowledge these facts and their consequences. To do otherwise is both intellectually dishonest and morally wrong.

      Second (and more to the point), the law of the Catholic Church simply does not support the accusation that CMRI is (or was) “schismatic.” Despite repeated challenges to do so, CMRI’s critics have been utterly unable to demonstrate that either the group or its individual members come, or indeed ever came, under the Code of Canon Law’s definition of schismatic.[6] In the final analysis, the accusation is nothing more than an epithet hurled by those who are either ignorant of the law, or choose to be so.


Recent Developments

      In February 1991, Bishop Moises Carmona, a traditional bishop from Acapulco who had been consecrated by Abp. Thuc ten years earlier, asked the CMRI Fathers to choose one of their number for episcopal consecration. Bp. Carmona, then in his eighties, wanted a younger successor to care for the numerous traditional clergy and Mass centers he was serving in Mexico.

      On 3 April 1991, the Fathers elected Fr. Pivarunas as their candidate. Following standard Church practice, he reassumed his baptismal name, Mark Anthony, and in accordance with the CMRI Constitutions, resigned his post as Superior General.

      Bp. Pivarunas was consecrated by Bp. Carmona during a public ceremony held at Mount St. Michael in September 1991. He resides in Omaha, Nebraska, where he serves as Pastor of Mary Immaculate Church, and Rector of Mater Dei Seminary. In his capacity as a bishop, he also travels extensively in the U.S. and Mexico in order to confirm and ordain for various sedevacantist groups.

      As of this writing, the CMRI has 12 priests, a number of brothers and seminarians, and about 50 sisters. They operate traditional chapels throughout the United States, and in Mexico, Canada and New Zealand. Several thousand lay people assist at the traditional Mass at these chapels.


      Traditional Catholics inclined to condemn CMRI for its past ought to remember that no traditional Catholic organization — indeed, no human organization — is impeccable, unsullied by misdeeds or immune to occasional scandals. The histories of SSPX, SSPV, ORCM, TCA, TCM or any organization in the traditionalist alphabet soup would turn soap opera writers into millionaires.

      Let us keep this in mind as we seek to preserve the truth of the faith — which will profit us nothing without charity.

(Pamphlet, October 1993).

[1] “Old Catholic” is a generic term for a number of schismatic sects originating in the 17th and 19th centuries. The Catholic Church regarded ordinations conferred in European Old Catholic groups as valid; the issue of the validity of ordinations by American Old Catholics, however, is not nearly so clear.

[2] This transpired in 1970, when Archbishop Lefebvre was a virtual unknown attempting to secure Paul VI’s blessing for his newly-founded Society of St. Pius X.

[3] Lay people involved for many years with St. Michael’s have told me that the first time they heard of “Old Catholics” was when they read my 1990 pamphlet, “A Question of Authority.”

[4] The case was highly publicized at the time. There is no point in repeating all the details.

[5] For information on Abp. Thuc, see my study “The Validity of the Thuc Consecrations.”

[6] I have written several articles on the canonical issue.

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