Wednesday 17 April 2024

Swiss bishop defends attending predecessor’s SSPX funeral

A Swiss bishop defended his decision Tuesday to attend his predecessor’s funeral at the seminary church of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) in Écône.

Bishop Joseph Bonnemain said in an April 16 statement that he had received “recommendations, warnings, and comments” about his participation in the April 17 funeral Mass of Bishop Vitus Huonder, after other Swiss bishops indicated that they would not be attending.

Huonder, who joined the SSPX after his retirement as Bishop of Chur in 2019, died April 3, at the age of 81.

Bonnemain, who succeeded Huonder as Bishop of Chur in 2021, said that after considering “all the arguments,” he had resolved to attend the funeral at the church of the International Seminary of St. Pius X, “with a very clear stance.”

He said he regretted Huonder’s decision to spend the final years of his life at the SSPX’s Sancta Maria Institute in Wangs and be buried at the seminary church in Écône, alongside the organization’s founder Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

“The Society of St. Pius X has an irregular status in the Catholic Church,” Bonnemain said. “For this reason, I will not actively participate in the liturgical celebration.” 

The live stream of the funeral Mass showed the bishop sitting at the front of the congregation, near Huonder’s coffin. Bishop Marian Eleganti, a Chur auxiliary bishop from 2009 to 2021, sat beside him.

“When I, as Bishop of Chur, attend the funeral of a former bishop of the diocese, I do so in the attitude in which I stand at the grave of every human being. It is not for me to judge the life and work of a person. Only God knows our motives and intentions,” Bonnemain said.

“The canonical status of the community is not directly related to the old wounds and tensions in the Diocese of Chur. It is high time that we put them behind us and take a step towards each other. If we in the Catholic Church are not prepared to act in this way, we can no longer speak credibly about reconciliation, peace, and fraternity.” 

“With this attitude and this hope, we will also celebrate the Requiem in the cathedral in Chur on April 19, 2024, to which I cordially invite everyone once again.”

Vitus Huonder was born in 1942 in Trun, in the eastern canton of Graubünden. He was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Chur in 1971. He was named a canon of Chur Cathedral in 1990 and vicar general in 1998. When Pope Benedict XVI appointed him bishop of the diocese in 2007, he took the motto “Instaurare Omnia in Christo” (“Restore all things in Christ”).

The Diocese of Chur, which covers seven of Switzerland’s 26 cantons and serves around 650,000 Catholics, is considered to be deeply polarized, with complex geographical, political, cultural, and linguistic divisions. 

Huonder was seen as a forceful advocate of the diocese’s conservative wing. During his 12 years in charge of the diocese, he was frequently embroiled in controversies, including over comments on homosexuality, women priests, and sex education in schools

In 2015, the then Vatican doctrine chief Cardinal Gerhard Müller asked Huonder to establish contacts with SSPX representatives.

“The idea was to create a friendly interpersonal relationship with the community,” Huonder explained in a 2023 video. “At the same time, the doctrinal questions of the Church were to be addressed.” 

He added: “As these contacts progressed, I delved into the biography and the writings of the founder of the SSPX, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. I thus became more and more familiar with the theological arguments, the concerns, and the objectives of the SSPX.”

Lefebvre, a French member of the Holy Ghost Fathers alarmed by the Church’s direction after the Vatican Council II, established the SSPX in Écône in 1970 to form seminarians along traditional lines. He was excommunicated in 1988 after consecrating four bishops despite a papal prohibition and died in 1991.

Pope Benedict XVI lifted the four bishops’ excommunications in 2009. In a letter to the world’s bishops explaining the decision, he wrote: “Until the doctrinal questions are clarified, the Society has no canonical status in the Church, and its ministers — even though they have been freed of the ecclesiastical penalty — do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church.”

Talks between Rome and the SSPX failed to resolve the impasse, meaning that the group continues to have a canonically irregular status.

Pope Francis accepted Huonder’s resignation in 2019, at the age of 77. 

In a joint statement with SSPX superior general Fr. Davide Pagliarani, the bishop said that he was retiring to an SSPX house.

“The one sole purpose of this step is to dedicate himself to prayer and silence, to celebrate the traditional Mass exclusively, and to work for Tradition, the only way of renewing the Church,” the statement said.

In April 2023, Huonder appeared in a three-part video series called “The Great Wound,” produced by the German Catholic YouTube channel Certamen, in which he discussed his journey to the SSPX.

He argued that the Church was in “one of the greatest crises in its history.”

“It covers all areas of the life of the Church: proclamation, liturgy, pastoral care, and government. It is a deep crisis of faith,” he said.

He added that “there is only one way out of the crisis: a return to those values and beliefs that one has abandoned or neglected or unlawfully discarded.”

He also criticized Pope Francis’ 2021 motu proprio Traditionis custodes, which restricted celebrations of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, also known as the “Traditional Latin Mass” or the “usus antiquior,” and 2022 apostolic letter on liturgical formation Desiderio desideravi.

“The measures taken against the traditional liturgy, which have recently begun with Traditionis custodes, Desiderio desideravi, and the accompanying documents, are nothing other than a hunt against those faithful who have reason to recognize in this liturgy the true and original worship of the Roman Church,” he said.

Years before his death, Huonder expressed the wish to be buried in the crypt of the SSPX seminary church at Écône, rather than at Chur Cathedral, as is customary for bishops of Chur. The request was reportedly repeated to Fr. Pagliarani and Bishop Bonnemain a few days before Huonder died.

“He wanted to be buried alongside Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who suffered so much for the Church,” FSSPX News said.

Priests in the Diocese of Chur expressed mixed feelings about Huonder’s last wishes.

Pastor Fr. Stephan Kristan told that he felt the bishop had missed an opportunity to challenge divisions within the diocese.

“If he had reconsidered his wish to be buried at Écône, during Bishop Joseph [Bonnemain]’s last visit, it would have been a wonderful sign to everyone in the diocese that it is wise to look ahead and act as one Catholic Church,” he said.

Another priest, Fr. Andreas Egli, said that Huonder’s burial place “should not be seen as a provocation or rejection, but as an expression of his long-standing desire to overcome division and contribute to reconciliation within the Church.”