Collaboration of Stephen Heiner and Fr. Anthony Cekada
By Stephen Heiner
When I first called St. Gertrude the Great Catholic Church in 2006, I could not possibly have imagined the beginning of a relationship that would not only deeply impact my life, but the lives of many others. I had just interviewed Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, an SSPX bishop; in this interview the bishop had referred to Benedict XVI as a heretic multiple times and in fact had taken control of the interview even as I had tried to end it by giving numerous references to the “heresies” of Benedict XVI. I called a close friend that same day, expressing my shock, and went on to call Fr. Anthony Cekada. While I had been attending the Masses of the Society of St Pius X for nearly a decade at that point, everyone knew Fr. Cekada to be an authority on sedevacantism. I wanted to hear how sedevacantists would treat the question of papal heresy, as no one in the SSPX in the modern era had ever publicly referred to the man they call the Pope as a heretic. Fr. Cekada was friendly from our very first conversation. I told him that I wasn’t a sedevacantist, but in the interests of understanding the Bishop’s comments, I wanted his take and was willing to publish it on what at that point was simply the fairly new True Restoration blog. Father obliged by producing a short piece calling attention to some problems in Bp. Tissier’s position. That would be the first of many times that Father would say “yes” when I asked for his help.
Interviewing Bishop Tissier intellectually opened the door to sedevacantism for me. If an SSPX bishop told me to my face over and over that Benedict XVI was a heretic, what did that mean? Fr. Cekada was there for me by email and telephone for about a year and a half as I puzzled through it. I perhaps knew the truth of things instinctively when I first heard Bp. Tissier’s accusations, but sedevacantism in the SSPX is painted as “extreme” and when you’re in that environment you’re often less interested in understanding an extreme position than in keeping the status quo. But Fr. Cekada wasn’t extreme. That summer I made sure to visit him in person and see St. Gertrude’s. I met Bishop Dolan. I met parishioners. They were regular Catholics, but far more up to speed on the matters of Vatican II and the question of the pope than I was. A group of us who had recently started Catholic blogs were in contact and we started taking a look at the Vatican II documents, trying to reconcile them with Catholicism. None of them were particularly enthusiastic about my new interest in the articles at TraditionalMass.org. But I didn’t care. I was “catching up” on years of information, as quickly as I could get through the articles. Some key milestones included:
- The Letter of the Nine (to this day I consider this the document that exposes the inherent flaws in the SSPX position: it has never been answered). I was four years old when this document was authored by the then-Fr. Clarence Kelly.
- Father’s “Frankenchurch” articles. Part of why the anything-but-sedevacantism folks at the Remnant were willing to work with Fr. Cekada were the same reasons I felt comfortable with him the very first time I spoke with him: he was genial and funny and genuinely interested in intellectual debate.
- The Letter of Fr. Robert Neville to Bishop Fellay. This letter, mostly authored by Bishop Donald Sanborn, was an updated take on the Letter of the Nine, after almost 15 years had passed.
Father also mailed me free copies of Traditionalists, Infallibility, and the Pope, as well as Welcome to the Traditional Latin Mass, informative little pamphlets that were perfect for those who, like me, didn’t really have a clue about the sedevacantist position (You can still request these by writing to St. Gertrude’s).
By early 2008, if not sooner, I was morally certain that sedevacantism was the only coherent way a Catholic could understand the catastrophe that was Vatican II and all the disasters that followed: the New Mass, the New Code, and the New Sacraments.
But there was still more to learn. I continued to attend SSPX Masses and started to become “disruptive” at coffee and donuts with my questions about Vatican II. I didn’t want to blow a trumpet that I was a sedevacantist, in part because that would make me persona non grata with the Recognize-and-Resist crowd and I still very much believed in trying to take them on this journey with me. I then started to look at the Una Cum question.
Father’s article, Grain of Incense, laid out a convincing case. But my emotions stayed my hand. Surely, I wasn’t going to go without Mass every Sunday? The closest regular sedevacantist Mass was a three-hour one-way drive away. I told Father Cekada I was struggling with this issue. He told me to keep researching and praying about it, and that he would keep me in his prayers. I remember telling him years later that I marveled at his patience with what must have seemed like great obtuseness on my part. He would respond at that time, “These things take time.”
Part of me was saying, “Well, Father can’t be right, because that means I can’t go to Mass conveniently anymore.” Father framed this as “geography determining theology.” He was right. As I called sedevacantist laymen around the world to get their takes, they could only offer me a rather relaxed view on attending una cum Masses; none could offer backing for their positions from Church teaching and precedent. Even a sedevacantist bishop told me it was “understandable” that I was attending an SSPX Mass. In the end, after a year of wrestling with the topic, I stopped attending SSPX Masses, much to the chagrin and disgust of my family, who I had led to the SSPX when I was 17.
While I was coming to the sedevacantist position and the non-una cum position, I had also been publishing the books of Bishop Richard Williamson, who had been a great influence on me because of his takes on cultural issues. He attacked the money men, modern clothing, and the modern way of life. At the time I really had no idea about all the ways that he and Fr. Cekada had interacted over the years, and Fr. Cekada would clue me in on some of those interactions when I called to let him know about some of the things that the Bishop had shared on a recent interview that surprised me.
Bishop Williamson knew that I was a sedevacantist almost as soon as I did, but he didn’t see that as an obstacle to working together. But I was puzzled by his “Ratzinger doesn’t know what he’s doing” defense which he tried to use on me whenever we would (rarely) discuss the Pope issue. I relayed his objections to Fr. Cekada who told me that this was not a new position of the Bishop and that Fr. Cekada had coined it “mentevacantism” years ago. I asked Father if he might not write a piece refuting the Bishop’s position to help other young men like myself who admired Bishop Williamson and were wondering about these ideas.
A few weeks later, Father obliged by producing Bishop Williamson’s Mentevacantist Error. I remember explicitly telling the Bishop that if he could refute Father’s piece, I’d give it a fair read. Some months later, Bishop Williamson told me, “I’ve tried several times to answer it, but I’ve simply given up.” When I shared this with Fr. Cekada he didn’t use this as an opportunity to tell me to stop working with Bishop Williamson (I later would, for other reasons), but only to draw the line that on these theological issues, he wasn’t just a little wrong, but grossly off the mark.
I also asked Father to address the “theft” question that was constantly circulated in SSPX circles. It started to be repeated to me constantly once it was clear that True Restoration had “gone sedevacantist” that I was working with priests who had “stolen” chapels. I asked Father about it and he told me this was an old accusation and that he had all the legal paperwork in a box somewhere and he meant to do a write-up about it sometime in the future. “Could you do one now?” I gently asked. In what had already started to become routine in our working relationship, within weeks Father produced the goods. This time it was We Resist You to Your Face, which was an answer to the spurious allegations of “theft” leveled by the SSPX for years. Once again Father produced a piece that was never answered, and one more brick in our coherent intellectual superstructure was added.
I didn’t fully realize it in those early days as I understand now what great working partners Father and I were. We shared a choleric temperament and were good at setting deadlines and accomplishing tasks together. He found in me a willing promoter of his positions (because I found them convincing) and I found in him someone who constantly taught me to “look it up” instead of just taking his word for it.
But after I had come to a correct understanding regarding the una cum question, and I had started to document my curiosity by articles and interviews with clergy, Fr. Cekada suggested that I meet Bishop Donald Sanborn in Florida. Fr. Cekada would go once a month to teach classes and I arranged to be at the seminary during a week he was there as well. I met Bishop Sanborn and did my first interview with him. As with Fr. Cekada, I had no idea of the collaborations that lay ahead. I had come to know Bishop Sanborn through some of his articles from years ago. Key reads included:
- Resistance and Indefectibility. This 1991 article addressed something the SSPX simply refused to: explain how a Catholic should address the problems presented by the Vatican II religion. The ideas in this article would be recapitulated years later in video form at Bishop Sanborn’s first London conference.
- The New Ecclesiology: An Overview. More than one former SSPX priest has said that ecclesiology was simply not taught in the seminary, so small wonder that this article has never been answered.
- Critical Analysis of the Joint Statement on Justification. Long before Bergoglio was making Luther trendy, Ratzinger was singing (and signing) his praises.
During this same period, Fr. Cekada penned the Motu Mass Trap. Father was always on the cutting edge of developments from the Vatican II sect and this time was no different. As an interesting aside, one takes for granted all the terms that Fr. Cekada invented. Apart from coining the “Motu Mass” he also gave a name to the strange pharisees known as “Home Aloners” and stuck “Recognize and Resist” so firmly as a label to its adherents that they wear it as a badge of honor, not realizing what an ecclesiological contradiction such a position is.
Father also laid out the reasons why many sedevacantists do not observe the Pius XII liturgical changes. Father’s case, as always, was a coherent part of a larger understanding of what had been happening to the liturgy even before Vatican II, something that was collecting as material for his biggest project yet. Key reads include:
- The Pius X and John XXIII Missals Combined. Bishop Dolan’s devastating side-by-side critique will shock those who think that the 1962 Missal is some sign of liturgical rectitude. Indeed, it is a wounded and battered remnant of our beautiful liturgy.
- Pre-Vatican II Liturgical Changes: Road to the New Mass. Another “golden oldie” from Bishop Dolan which gave more backstory that made it clear that accepting the Pius XII Holy Week was problematic.
I’m reminded of a comment Bishop Sanborn once made when I was asking about who would work on different projects with me and he said, “Think of us like a department store. Father Cekada is in the canon law and liturgy department, Bishop Dolan handles pastoral issues, devotions, and saints, and I’m in charge of condemnations.” A secret weapon of Father’s was his jovial nature. That made him easy to work with and was why he collaborated so long and so fruitfully with these clergy. Those clerical relationships are the main reason that we have a healthy and functioning seminary at Most Holy Trinity (a seminary which Fr. Cekada encouraged Bp. Sanborn to found).
You might laugh to hear me say yet again, “while this was going on,” but it was true. While these articles were being published Father continued to work on a project I and a few others were privy to: a book on the New Mass. He called it “Work of Human Hands” but told me to keep the title under wraps for the moment. Father had been gathering information about the changes in the liturgy since the 1970s, and some of that had been compiled into a jewel of a booklet, Problems With the Prayers of the Modern Mass. Our small team edited and proofread the manuscript over and over and over. True Restoration bought the (surprisingly expensive given how ugly the vestments are) stock photo that adorns the cover of the book as a contribution to Father’s efforts. When the book was finally published the four dozen autographed copies we bought for the TR bookstore sold out thirty minutes after they were put on sale!
In Bishop Dolan’s moving eulogy of Fr. Cekada, he referred to Work of Human Hands as Father’s greatest legacy, and I agree (for more context, read just a few of the reviews of the book on Amazon). Yet, knowing how much work it had taken Father to put together that book, within months of its publication I asked him to consider a four-volume work I was proposing, which was the compiling of all the articles on TraditionalMass.org into a topically arranged series of books. He agreed and we spent some time together dividing the texts and before too long we shot a video to promote the book via crowdfunding. This was something else that I really appreciated about Father. He was always willing to try new technology and this paid off handsomely, as the Anti-Modernist Reader Volume I appeared in 2014. When I visited Father in Summer 2019 we made some final additions to what will be the forthcoming Volume II.
Yet, Father still continued to work. For those unfamiliar with St. Gertrude’s, it has so many moving parts. I’ve spent more than two months there in all the years I’ve worked with Father and Bishop Dolan and Father continued to play the organ (you can watch him observing/assisting one of his young charges with a fugue after Mass), compose music, keep the accounting, handle maintenance issues, encourage and foster the YAG, create TradCircle, and oh, yes, still attend to all the duties of priesthood: saying Mass, hearing confessions, and making sick calls. While other clergy occasionally turned me down when I asked for help with a project, Fr. Cekada never said no to me. We just kept working on project after project together.
One of those projects included HD videos of Father answering some of the classic objections to our positions. One of these first videos was inspired by an article Father wrote in the 1990s, entitled: Sedevacantism: How To Tell Aunt Helen. It’s a classic Fr. Cekada title with an intriguing introduction:
Early in 1995 I carried on a cordial correspondence over the issue of sedevacantism with a Catholic priest who operates an independent traditional chapel. In one letter he allowed that while many of the sedevacantist arguments seemed reasonable, the “pastoral” side of the issue bothered him. He worried that such a position would shock parishioners, both current and potential, and possibly drive them into the arms of compromise groups such as the Fraternity of St. Peter. How would simpler people react, he wondered. And what would my Aunt Helen think? Herewith my reply.
I couldn’t resist a video revisiting these issues, and at the time of this article, more than 44,000 people have viewed Fr. Cekada’s How to Tell Aunt Helen video on YouTube. Father and I shot a number of videos over a few days each time I visited. Many of those videos are available on YouTube, including:
- interviews as part of the launch of Work of Human Hands (part 1) (part 2) (we also managed to get these placed on Rorate Caeli, to the weeping and gnashing of teeth of their FSSP collaborators)
- an interview promoting Father’s reprint of the Ottaviani Intervention
- a discussion with Father about his vocation (Father Desposito also did a recent interview with Fr. Cekada on this same theme)
I also convinced Father that there were some who might be persuaded to read some of his more serious articles by way of a video introduction, which we did for these articles:
- Absolutely Null and Utterly Void (on the new–and invalid–rite of episcopal consecration) (video)
- Validity of the Thuc Consecrations (against those who unjustly slandered Archbishop Thuc) (video)
- Traditional Priests, Legitimate Sacraments (a discussion of jurisdiction) (video)
We also shot a video on the Legal Status of the Traditional Latin Mass (refuting the thesis that Paul VI had not promulgated the New Mass correctly so it “didn’t count”) as well as an HD video of Father celebrating Low Mass.
Father, ever the autodidact, decided to create “Cekadawood Studios” to create his own video work. He made, among other videos:
- A beautiful chapter-by-chapter overview of Work of Human Hands
- Hilarious takedowns of the incompetent True or False Pope book, by self-appointed lay theologians with zero theological training, which he recorded while undergoing chemotherapy! If you appreciate music Father has quite a few inside jokes in these videos.
As if all this wasn’t enough, Father also found time to create a website, Quidlibet, for dealing with shorter topics.
In 2012, together with a few others, I founded Restoration Radio as a complement to the work True Restoration was doing in video and publishing. Once again, Father said, “Yes” when I asked him to work with me. Some of the radio work he did included:
- A 14-episode series that went through Work of Human Hands
- A ten episode series on Trad Controversies which dealt with various issues, including the SSPV
- An episode with Bishops Dolan and Sanborn and Fr. Cekada to discuss and commemorate the 30th anniversary of the 1983 split as well as various appearances to comment on different topics.
- Over 40 appearances on Francis Watch, generously sponsored by Novus Ordo Watch
- The entire inaugural season of the crowdfunded series Behind the Headlines together with Bishop Dolan
When asked over the years why I was so keen to do all this work, I often replied that Fr. Cekada, and the other clergy who, like him, lived in a fully functional Catholic Church, were our last link to that time. One day these clergy will pass on and we will have no one who had ever lived during a “normal” period of the Church and so I said we were running a high speed “mining” operation to take out every useful and helpful bit of information to guide us when they were no longer with us.
As I look at just some of the work Father and I did over the last 14 years, I’m so grateful that Our Lord gave us this time together to collaborate. It was such a pleasure to work with Father and it’s a great blessing that what could have been simply private conversations, of which Father had dozens of every week all these years, have gone on to become publicly accessible testaments. Have a question? “Fr. C” (as he often referred to himself) has probably answered it. All you have to do is “look it up.” Each time you view any of these works, be they in print, audio, or video form, I ask you to say a prayer for the repose of his soul. He deserves nothing less from us, who are so indebted to his faithful service as a priest of Jesus Christ.
Rest In Peace, Fr. Cekada: auf Wiedersehen.