The Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, a society of apostolic life that celebrates the traditional Latin Mass, has seen significant growth in parishes over the past decade, fueled in large measure by Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 edict that expanded access to the old rite.
Between 2007 and 2017, the fraternity, also known as the FSSP, went from 68 to 104 priests and from 48 to 58 parishes or other locations in North America, according to data provided by the provincial office. Worldwide, the total number of FSSP priests now stands at 304, of whom 149 were ordained since the start of 2007.
It’s not just the number of priests and parishes that are growing either. “Within our parishes, we see the numbers in the pews growing,” said Father Michael Stinson, the new superior for the North American District.
Father Stinson points to the society’s experience in Seattle, where it opened a parish in 2008.
Seven years later, the local demand for the Latin Mass was so great that the FSSP opened a second parish in Tacoma, about 40 minutes away from Seattle. Over the last three years, the number of parishioners there more than doubled, according to Father Stinson, who served as the pastor.
FSSP leaders attribute much of that growth to Pope Benedict XVI’s motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum, a papal edict that granted priests greater latitude in celebrating Mass in the extraordinary form. “That got a lot of larger dioceses to say, ‘Okay, we need to step up. This is part of what the Holy Father wants. Let’s invite the fraternity in,’” said Father John Berg, the former superior general who is now pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Providence, Rhode Island.
“It certainly has freed up the ability for the bishops to be more generous,” added Father Stinson.
Often, bishops invite the fraternity to assume leadership of parishes that are struggling, especially in the Northeast, according to Father Berg. The parish he now pastors was at risk of closing before the fraternity assumed leadership at the end of this August, Father Berg said. At the time, St. Mary’s was drawing an attendance of about 50 people to its Sunday Masses. Now, those numbers are up to 200 for both Latin Masses on Sundays.
Likewise, in Minneapolis, the FSSP helped transform the Church of All Saints from a parish that had 50 registered families and 100 people at Sunday Mass to a registration of 200 and a weekly Mass attendance of 600 over the last seven years, according to Father Gerard Saguto, the current pastor and the former North American superior.
It’s not just sheer numbers. The demographic makeup of an FSSP parish breaks from what might be the norm at other places. At All Saints the congregation stands out for how many parishioners are in their 40s, are married and have lots of children. The difference can be measured in sacramental terms: At All Saints, there are more baptisms than funerals.
“It’s pretty opposite the demographic you might see elsewhere,” Father Saguto said. “It’s just obviously characteristic of this resurgence in the Church among the youth, young people and fortysomethings, who were born after the Vatican Council, who have an attraction to the older liturgy.”
Much of the appeal of FSSP parishes is that they offer the Latin Mass exclusively. This sets them apart even from those diocesan parishes that have it in addition to the ordinary form of the Mass.
In terms of parishes, the FSSP appears to be a key factor in the increasing availability of the Latin Mass. As of 2014, there were 75 parishes in the United States where the Latin Mass was typically available every day. Of that total, 38 were FSSP-run. That leaves 24 that were diocesan and 13 affiliated with the Institute of Christ the King, another society of apostolic life, according to a report in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review.
Overall, a total of 335 parishes held the Latin Mass on a weekly basis, according to the report.
But the FSSP’s influence extends beyond its parishes. After the motu proprio, the society partnered with Una Voce to launch a program that trains diocesan priests in how to say the Latin Mass. Over the last decade, approximately 200 priests have been to the program, according to Father Berg. The society also made videos with EWTN, the owner of the Register, that explain how to say the Latin Mass. That video series was distributed to candidates for the priesthood at the North American College in Rome, Father Berg said.
Father Saguto said that there’s a certain constancy that comes with the Latin Mass that the Novus Ordo does not have: Priests celebrating the older form of the rite do not have the same broad choices in what prayers to say during Mass. Those attending also are less likely to encounter a broad diversity of music that they might see in other parishes. And the use of Latin further contributes to the standardization of the traditional Mass. That constancy, Father Saguto said, is important in a world where constant change is the norm.
The standardization of the Latin Mass, he noted, also diminishes the role of the priest, turning the focus to worshipping God.
“To me, Mass is about Mass,” said Barry Wolf, a parishioner at St. Joseph Church, the FSSP parish in Tacoma. “It’s about the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Ascension. That’s what Mass is about. It’s not about how I feel.”
The Latin also helps in encountering God, according to Father Stinson. He said the language represents the way in which the bread and wine at Mass veil the miracle of the Eucharist.
“You’re definitely walking into something that’s otherworldly, even if you don’t understand a word of it,” added Father Saguto.
Beyond the Latin Mass itself, FSSP parish life is also different from many typical parishes. Confessions are available before every Mass, and the Rosary is said before or after Mass at many fraternity parishes. They also tend to have smaller congregations, meaning priests are more accessible to those they serve, according to Father Saguto.
FSSP parishes have also worked to bring back much of the older devotional life that existed in the Catholic Church before the Second Vatican Council. For example, from May to October, some parishes hold Marian processions, characterized by praying the Rosary and singing hymns. One parish near the FSSP headquarters in South Abington Township in Pennsylvania marked the recent Feast of Christ the King, celebrated there on Oct. 28, with a Eucharistic procession around the neighborhood.
“I think today a lot of those devotions are missed,” Father Stinson said.
FSSP pastors are also known for their robust sermons that explain Catholic teaching in-depth and don’t shy away from hot topics like homosexuality and birth control, according to Wolf.
He added, “Our priests aren’t afraid to say what the Catholic teaching is.”
Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.