Tradition and Vocations: An Interview with Fr. Robert Pasley of Mater Ecclesiae
Located in southern New Jersey, and within the Diocese of Camden, is Mater Ecclesiae, the first canonically established and diocesan operated Tridentine mission in the United States, celebrating the Traditional Rites of the Church according to the 1962 liturgical books.
Father Robert C. Pasley, KCHS has been Mater Ecclesiae’s only Rector since his appointment by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio on October 13, 2000. He is also the Chaplain of the Church Music Association of America (CMAA) and attends the Sacred Music Colloquium that has been offered by the Association since 1990.
Fr. Pasley celebrated 35 years as a priest earlier this year. He recently granted me an interview to share his unique perspective as rector of a thriving Latin Mass parish.
Liturgy Guy: Mater Ecclesiae is the first diocesan run Tridentine parish in the United States. Over the last 17 years, are there any specific blessings, or challenges, that you would associate with this distinction?
Fr. Pasley: There are so many blessings that I cannot name them all. I have had the privilege to fulfill my dream of being immersed in the sacred traditions of our faith. My priesthood, my whole life has been enriched.
Being a Diocesan parish really meant that we were fully integrated into the life of the local Church. We knew we were different, yes, but now were a legitimate equal part of the larger church. There was a little resistance from some of the priests at the beginning, but that soon faded away. We are very accepted by the priests and people of the Diocese.
Of course there are responsibilities. We have a goal for the annual Bishop’s appeal. We have consistently been in the top ten parishes for attaining and superseding our goal. We have diocesan assessments like any other parish. 13% of our yearly income must go to the Catholic School fund. The people here are some of the most generous of all the parishes in the Diocese.
We have flourished even with so many more places now offering the Extraordinary Form Mass. Simultaneously, we have gained a good reputation by our consistent and constant work.
Of course, there are challenges as well. Trying to change the culture from a negative mistrust to a positive practice of the Traditional faith. Along those lines, being accepted by some in the Diocese only as a necessary exception with the thought that this will eventually go away has been a challenge. Not being able to live a full liturgical life of Solemn Masses because we do not have a deacon or a priest that can preform the role of deacon on a regular basis. Finally, I wonder how this parish will succeed in the future. It should not depend on one priest.
Liturgy Guy: In recent decades much has been made of the vocations crisis in the Church. As I have written about before, traditional parishes and orthodox dioceses have largely avoided this problem. Why do you think that is?
Fr. Pasley: Young people who are pious and religious, in this secular, liberal, amoral, Godless world, don’t want cheap imitations and compromise. Why bother giving your life to God and make all the sacrifices necessary when the modern world and liberal Catholics try to water everything down. Those who have a vocation want to be challenged by truth, they want to imitate Christ as a sign of contradiction, they want to live lives that believe in and point to the transcendent majesty of God. They want to dress and act like priests and nuns. Yes they want to help people, but in the context of serving Christ not as social workers who have a job.
It is so obvious to see why orthodox communities attract vocations but many in the contemporary church refuse to see it because it calls into question their ideology and their agenda. This post Vatican II sickness affects every level of the Church. We are in a vocational malaise that can be easily corrected, the problem is that many don’t want it corrected. Even in our own Diocese, as good as it is, there is an unspoken caution and unease with anyone who is too attracted to the Extraordinary Form. In so many words the seminarians are told that this is not where the Church is or where it is going. These attitudes are strong not only with liberals, but very strong and cautiously expressed by Vatican II Neocons. There is a great fear of upsetting the apple cart.
Liturgy Guy: I have heard that Mater Ecclesiae is a vocations success story. How many priestly vocations, seminarians and/or religious vocations have come out of ME?
Fr. Pasley: We have been very blessed. We have two priests in the Fraternity of Saint Peter. We have two Carmelite monks in Wyoming. We have a young lady who entered Carmel in Elysburg, PA and is now living at Carmel in Philadelphia. We have one diocesan seminarian and we have three young men who are at present discerning a vocation.
Liturgy Guy: Are most of the men entering the diocesan priesthood or orders dedicated to the traditional rites?
Fr. Pasley: Traditional groups. As I said earlier, there is an implied resistance from our Diocesan Vocations office, plus these vocations want to anchor their faith into the time tested Treasury of Catholicism. Not to mention, that for the great majority of our Children, this is their Ordinary Form. This is what they know and expect. This is what they love. We have many young people who are 17 and have worshipped here all their life. They are aware of the issues and have chosen to exercise their right to worship in the Extraordinary Form and pursue vocations in that Form.
Liturgy Guy: For those parishes and dioceses who continue to struggle with vocations, do you have a “blueprint ” for fostering vocations that you can share?
Fr. Pasley: I would imagine that prayer, the sacraments, and family are the foundation. Yes, absolutely, but I would add find a parish with an orthodox and reverent Liturgy. Live the Liturgical year, everyday, even if at home. Live the saints and seasons of our Faith. Love the Blessed Mother and make her an important part of your life. Go to her everyday. Pray the Rosary. Adore the Lord in the Most Blessed Sacrament – Holy hours, visits, reverence, genuflections etc. Find good families who love the Catholic Faith and want to live it. Good families should come together, especially on great feast days and have fun and enjoy the life that God has given. Orthodox faith, beautiful and reverent Liturgy, Our Lady, the Blessed Sacrament, and joyful Catholic social life with good friends, food, and fun. Also, if you don’t go to the Extraordinary Form Mass, make it a point to start going on as often as possible. It is very important and transformative.
Liturgy Guy: How has learning and now (exclusively) offering the Traditional Latin Mass over the years influenced and formed your priesthood?
Fr. Pasley: It has been the most magnificent blessing. I was ordained in 1982. There was no Extraordinary Form allowed. I had the books that I carried with me for years. I would look at them often, and wonder what it must have been like: A missal, a Liber Usualis, a Breviary, my Latin grammar books, and Fortescue. I also became a member of the Church Music Association of America (CMAA) to learn about chant and to learn to sing chant and sacred Polyphony.
I used to get close to despair thinking that I would never be able to use any of this stuff. I was even tempted to get rid of all the books. But thanks be to God and the intercession of Our Lady things changed in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye. I was appointed Rector of a Latin Mass community in the throws of change, confusion, and fear. We had no money in the bank and the buildings were a real mess.
Slowly and sometimes quickly we progressed from one thing to the next and now I am here 17 years. I was in the Ordinary Form world for 18 years when I came to Mater Ecclesiae. In January, I will have been here 18 years in the Extraordinary Form world. I spent half my priesthood in two different scenarios.
Now, how has it influenced my priesthood?
I was told so many times through the seminary that the old Mass was bad, that no one understood, that no one participated, that the priest was above the people and turned his back on them. My priesthood was deeply enriched because I experienced the fact that these were vicious lies. The truth set me free. Lies come from Satan.
I realized more and more that the priest is not the center of attention. Christ is. The priest is a humble servant of the rites of the Mass, he sits off to the side. Every movement is prescribed. He is the instrument of Christ. He prays to God, leading the people, not looking down on them, with a barrier between them, and facing the same direction that they do – toward God.
The awareness that the Mass is a Sacrifice offered by the priest, with the people joining through him, has been heightened more and more every day. The Mass is not about us. It is not there for us to receive Holy Communion. The Mass is the perfect Sacrifice offered to God. It is what we owe him. Even if we were to get absolutely nothing out of it (which is impossible), we still offer it because it is what God wants. Holy Communion is a great gift and if we are worthy to receive it, it is the great highlight of our spiritual lives. If, God forbid, we were not able to receive because of sin or a sinful situation, we would still go to Mass because it is what God wants. It is what we owe him. And it is not about us.
I have gown more aware of the need for penance and fasting. The Old Rite is full of the necessity for these. Almost all of it has been removed from the Ordinary Form.
Funerals are a spiritual joy because they rivet ones attention on praying that the sins of the deceased may be erased by our prayers and sacrifices, especially the Sacrifice of the Mass.
The Liturgical year has come alive in a way it never did. – The octaves, the Ember Days, The Rogation Days, the Septuagesima season, all the ancient Saints and Martyrs.
As I have gained a greater appreciation of silence and meditation because of the silence built into the Mass.
I have had the deep joy to learn and use the most important music ever written for the sacred Liturgy: Gregorian Chant.
It is awesome and inspiring to have parishioners who are on fire for the Catholic Faith and don’t want dumbed down. They want to hear the Truth. They still believe there is such a thing as truth.
I am constantly edified to see large families and many children of all ages at Mass every week. They help me in my struggle to stay faithful.
It is humbling and helps me to confess my sins better because I hear constant confessions of people who sincerely believe and struggle to live good, Christ-like lives when it seems that all the cards are stacked against them.
I’ve learned to have more joy in the midst of troubles – I will go up to the altar of God, the God who gives joy to my youth.
I have leaned to persevere more steadfastly by meeting like minded Catholics throughout the country and the World.
It is heartwarming to see people have such a wonderful respect and love for priests.
Finally, you get to see the fruits of your work as young people respond to priestly and religious vocations.
Liturgy Guy: How does Mater Ecclesiae “fit in” to the Diocese of Camden? Do you see an ever increasing need for more Traditional only parishes in the coming years?
Fr. Pasley: We are a mission of the Diocese of Camden. That is why I am called a Rector, not a pastor. Even though we are not canonically a parish, we function in every way like a parish would. It is was set up this way in the beginning because no one knew if it would work. It sure has. We do everything a parish does and have the same rights. There are no limitations
I think exclusive Extraordinary Form parishes are the ideal because the parish can be immersed in the whole EF life. I think the number of parishes depends on need and they would have to take care of themselves financially. The priest shortage doesn’t help either. We are in the most populated part of the Diocese and near Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware. We draw from a large area and so our population is strong and stable. Once you leave this area, I think it might be more difficult. We probably could use a satellite parish down at the Jersey shore, especially during the summer, but I don’t foresee it.
Liturgy Guy: Lastly, as the chaplain for CMAA, what role do you see sacred music playing in evangelization, formation, and even discernment?
Fr. Pasley: A very important role in all three. Sacred music must be true art, it must have beauty of form and it must be holy. When all three are present, they evangelize, they form us out of worldliness into the sacred and they confront us with the truth both intellectually and in our hearts. Such a confrontation leads to discernment which leads to God.
Gregorian Chant, Sacred Polyphony, sacred concerted music are extremely important tools and we have given them the greatest importance at Mater Ecclesiae. Our yearly Assumption Mass is a prime example. This year we used Schubert’s Mass in B flat Major with full orchestra. We sang Gregorian chant, Mozart, Palestrina, McDonnell. It was an ethereal evening and 1300 people were deeply moved. It was also live streamed on the internet and another 30,00 people were able to take part in it. What a privilege it is for me to be part of this.
Photo credit: New Liturgical Movement