On May 1, 2009, the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, a fire of divine love was kindled in the hearts of a group of seminarians as they gathered in the Assumption Chapel of the North American College in Rome to attend a solemn high Mass offered for the first time in that chapel since the Second Vatican Council. By God’s grace, this ethereal and mysterious fire of love is still burning brightly, spreading its glow in little corners all around the nation, illuminating the faithful and bringing them hope.
“Throughout the remaining years of our seminary formation, as well as the early years of priestly life, a number of us stayed in contact and finally decided to form a fraternity,” explained Father Ryan Erlenbush, pastor of Corpus Christi parish in Great Falls, Montana, and praepositus (president) of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Joseph. “The beginnings of our group go back to that first solemn Mass. Because it was on the feast of St. Joseph, and because he is an example of masculine spirituality and perfect virginity, we decided to dedicate our priestly fraternity to St. Joseph.”
The Priestly Fraternity of St. Joseph was officially founded in 2016 and currently includes 13 full members and seven associate members.
“We are not an officially established association, but only united by our private commitment to the fraternity,” Father Erlenbush said. “In the coming years, we do plan to present our constitutions to the proper Church authorities for approval so that we may become a public association.”
The official statutes of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Joseph explain that the fraternity aims to foster the sanctity of priests, particularly through devotion to St. Joseph, fellowship with brother priests, and the reverent and devoted celebration of the Mass, particularly in the usus antiquior (that is, the traditional Latin Mass as it was celebrated before the Second Vatican Council).
There are two levels of membership in the fraternity: auxiliary and full. The members fast on various days and fulfill various spiritual practices according to their level of commitment. Full membership is limited to bishops and priests, but theology-level seminarians and transitional deacons can be auxiliary members. While most members are diocesan priests, the fraternity is open to members of religious orders, as well. Finally, full members are required to take part in an annual weeklong assembly that centers around the offering of traditional solemn high Masses and the traditional form of the solemn 40 Hours Eucharistic devotion, as well as conferences on various spiritual themes.
“In the Church today, especially in this time of crisis, I find that the traditional liturgy and our solid priestly fraternity give me the strength to persevere in priestly life and ministry,” Father Erlenbush said. “Also, we learn from each other and stay in contact throughout the year. I am continually inspired by my fellow priests and the good work they are doing in their parishes and dioceses.”
The support they receive from the fraternity is crucial in their work in the “traditional trenches.”
“Priests are often isolated as we carry the heavy burdens of ministry,” Father Erlenbush said. “Oftentimes we can suffer persecution or opposition. Having the support and encouragement of our fraternity helps us to stay joyful and focused on holiness and the authentic proclamation of the Gospel.”
Father Fredrick Gruber of the Diocese of Pittsburgh agrees, saying that the fraternity “provides a positive joyful experience of priestly fellowship through our annual conference. We gather for prayer, recreation and conversation. Members are refreshed with a sharing of ideas and perspectives for pastoral goals of restoring venerable traditions. Concerns, pastoral initiatives, particular scenarios and challenges are discussed. The solemn high Masses require contributions from each of the priests.”
He added, “Personally, I look forward to the annual conference for the solidarity with like-minded priests who love Our Lord and the reverent traditions of the traditional Latin Mass. The priestly fellowship ... provides the gentle assurance that a traditional-minded priest is not isolated or alone in his efforts for the salvation of souls. We learn from the brethren who are more experienced and share the insights we have gained from our own research and experience.”
Essentially, the Priestly Fraternity of St. Joseph promotes an appreciation for sacred Tradition and the Church’s liturgical and devotional traditions, inspiring Catholics on their journey toward eternal life.
“Our fraternity promotes the traditional liturgy as needed on two levels,” Father Erlenbush explained. “Firstly, we cannot understand where we are today without knowing where we have come from. Thus, in order to appreciate the Vatican II Mass and even to celebrate it properly, I believe, requires a solid foundation in the traditional liturgy. We promote the vision of renewal given most clearly by Pope Benedict XVI and continued by Cardinal [Robert] Sarah with the approval of Pope Francis.”
“Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly,” he continued, “I believe that the traditional liturgy has a place in the Church in its own right. We embrace the traditional Mass with joy in the broader context of the Church in the modern world.”
The fraternity’s fruits are clearly abundant.
“Not only are many of the faithful encouraged and edified by the solid catechesis of our conferences, but they also find the sacred traditional liturgy to be formative and enriching,” Father Erlenbush said. “As a result, I have seen people join the traditional schola at their home parish, introduce more traditional sacred music into their parish, or begin to attend daily Mass more often. Most importantly, many young men and boys who serve at our solemn high Masses have begun to consider a vocation to the priesthood.”
Families like the Enanders of Grenora, North Dakota, have found the fraternity’s conferences to be inspiring to the mind and edifying to the soul.
“The fraternity’s retreats are very enlightening,” Corrie Enander explained. “To experience the traditional Latin Mass for several days in a row is so helpful to those of us who are a bit unfamiliar with it. At times during the conference weekend, there are several holy Masses being offered simultaneously on side altars. It is such a beautiful sight to behold! It is also such a joy to visit with many priests from various dioceses and hear about how they discovered the extraordinary form and the great lengths to which they have gone to begin offering it.”
“When my son was about 12 years old, we attended our first extraordinary-form Mass. It was a high Mass with 10 well-trained servers, lots of incense and beautiful chant,” Enander continued. “Afterward, I asked my son what he thought. He paused for moment and then very thoughtfully said, ‘Mom, that’s how every Mass should be.’ I was shocked, but in all honesty, I felt exactly the same way.”
“Now he is discerning religious life with an order that offers the extraordinary form,” she said of her son. “Deo Gratias! So, yes, indeed, the traditional Mass does spark something in young men and women to seek the Lord with deep love and reverence.”
The Priestly Fraternity of St. Joseph has gained the support of Church leaders, particularly Bishop Michael Warfel of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, Montana.
“Bishop Warfel has been very supportive of our fraternity, particularly by delivering the keynote conference address at five of our annual conferences, as well as attending the solemn high Mass one of the evenings,” Father Erlenbush said. “He recognizes the value of priestly fraternity and is especially supportive of the solid catechesis we provide to the faithful who attend the conferences.”
When asked how he has seen the fraternity make a positive impact on Catholics in his diocese and beyond, Bishop Warfel responded: “The fraternity has a definite purpose. It is a group of young priests who love their priesthood and support each other. They draw upon the Summorum Pontificum that Pope Benedict XVI issued to bring back the extraordinary form. The fraternity has attracted a good number of individuals, many who were alienated on the ‘periphery’ that Pope Francis often speaks about. They were drawn back to the Catholic Church because of the extraordinary-form Masses that the fraternity offers. They have a good turnout when they celebrate these Masses, and they fill up the church! They are truly a fraternity of brothers in the Lord, and they really know one another well.”
Amanda Evinger writes from North Dakota.
Bishops, priests, transitional deacons, seminarians and anyone interested in learning more about the fraternity group or desiring to receive information about their conferences may visit http://Facebook.com/priestsofstjoseph, or contact Father Ryan Erlenbush by phone at (406) 453-6546 or by email at CorpusChristiGreatFalls@gmail.com.