Note: In 2006 the Very Rev. John M. Berg, F.S.S.P. (’93) , was elected Superior General of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, a society of apostolic life. Established by Pope St. John Paul II in 1988, the Fraternity is dedicated to offering the Mass and the sacraments in the extraordinary form.
Q: Please tell us about the founding and the history of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter.
Fr. Berg: We had 12 original founders who were devoted to the traditional Mass and Thomistic theology, and who had served under Archbishop Lefebvre. But in 1988, when Archbishop Lefebvre decided to consecrate bishops against the will of the Holy Father, our founders refused to follow. So they sought out then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to intercede on their behalf with then- Pope John Paul II. They did not know what was going to happen. They just knew that they wanted to continue to offer what we now call the extraordinary form of the Mass, but it had to be under the hierarchy of the Church.
In an incredibly generous gesture, the Holy See quickly erected the Fraternity as a society of apostolic life of pontifical right, which means we fall directly under the authority of the Holy Father. (Normally when a congregation begins, it starts in a diocese under a bishop, and that bishop is the superior of that order.) Today we have parishes in Canada, the United States, Mexico, Australia, Colombia, Nigeria, France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, England, and Poland.
Q: What attracts the faithful who come to your parishes?
Fr. Berg: I think it is the fundamental spirituality of our priests, that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is at the center of each priest’s life, and that the whole of his day is to conform himself to the Victim who is there upon the altar, which is Christ. If he lives that life of self-sacrifice, that is going to encourage others who are looking for the same thing. Many of our parishioners are members of large, young families, and to have a large, young family in society today requires a huge sacrifice. I always say that our faithful put us to shame. Our priests are greatly encouraged by them.
I know that is what I experienced when I was at the College. Beyond the importance of the education I got there was to see the tutors’ families; to say, here’s a man who makes not a ton of money, but who has made this sacrifice because he wants to do this; to see his wife sacrificing when, for example, her husband ends up on campus for the Lecture Series on Friday nights. I would say, especially, Dr. Kaiser, Dr. Coughlin, Dr. O’Reilly — all of whom I knew well — were huge examples to me in going toward my vocation and having a sense of sacrifice.
Q: Were you surprised by Pope Emeritus Benedict’s release of Summorum Pontificum in 2007, which classified the two forms of the Mass as a single rite, even though they are so different from each other?
Fr. Berg: I think putting it that way is necessary for now, but given the history of the liturgy and the way the liturgy binds together the people who worship in it, I do not believe that we will have two forms forever. I suspect that the Pope Emeritus saw that, and that he thinks there will eventually be a day when the Mass goes back to just one form.
It probably will not happen in my lifetime. Our mindset with regard to liturgy is too far away right now. In most parishes today, we really do not live a liturgical life. What I mean by that is that one of the fundamental principles of liturgy is that it comes from God; it is above us, and we are not in control of it. Yet a difficulty one constantly sees with the liturgy — even among the more orthodox faithful — is a constant conversation of, “Well, I wish Father did that,” or “I wish that this happened,” and that is a fundamentally bad way of looking at the liturgy.
The liturgy should be something that you look at and think, “Wow, this is a mystery, and it is untouchable.” That is one of the things about the extraordinary form: The priest has no options. He arrives in the sacristy, and everything is as it has to be. People will often say to me, “Father, that was a beautiful Mass,” and I say, “Well, they are all beautiful.” I don’t do anything. I add nothing to the equation. The best thing that I can do is become invisible. We have to get back to that mindset about the liturgy.
Q: You were just 36 years old when you were first elected Superior General. Looking back at your first eight years, do you think your youth has been an asset or a liability?
Fr. Berg: It is easy to look back and think, “Oh if I had known then what I know now, I would have done this or that differently,” but I am surrounded by two assistants who are my main counselors. They are much older than I, and they often help me. One of them is one of the founders of the Fraternity, and he has seen everything; he can help me put things into perspective. More importantly, though, I have seen again and again that God has been generous, and in many occasions, regardless of my own actions, He has taken care of matters, and everything has worked out.
Q: You were elected to another six-year term in 2012. What happens next?
Fr. Berg: I will remain Superior General until 2018, and then I term out. There are term limits, like most societies of apostolic life. It is not like it is for an abbot, who is elected for life. There is a maximum of two six-year terms, and then we encourage new blood to come into leadership.
Q: What will your brother priests look for in choosing a new a superior?
Fr. Berg: I think that the primary thing that the priests want is to choose someone who is committed to looking out for their spiritual good. It must be someone who, when making decisions, will consider whether they will be well prepared to carry out their priesthood, which will aid their sanctification.
I also think they look for a superior who is going to protect the charism of the Fraternity, for which there are three pillars: the study of St. Thomas, the traditional Mass, and fidelity to the Holy See, the Seat of Peter. I have to protect those three pillars, and if one of them is compromised for another — which can be the tendency, to wander — then the whole structure will fall.
Q: How do you avoid that tendency?
Fr. Berg: I would say that we try to avoid it in the same way that the College does. I have heard it said that in the early days of the College, Founding President Ron McArthur would get offers from people saying, “If you only did this, or if you only started doing that, then we would really get on board with this project, or it could really be a success.” That happens to a religious order, too. A bishop may say, “Oh, you could come to this diocese if you would just start doing this or that.” You have to have the courage or the foresight to say, “No, if we do that, we will lose the identity of what we really are.”
I try to model my leadership of the Fraternity after Dr. McArthur’s leadership of the College, and that means being able to say, “No, we do one thing here and we do it really, really, well. I am sure that other colleges do great things, too, and some kids should go there, but we are not meant to do that. It’s just not what we do.”
Q: What are your goals for the remainder of your tenure?
Fr. Berg: It is a huge responsibility to put men forward for the priesthood. I have the final call in those decisions, and it would be a terrible thing either to not put forward someone who had a vocation, or to put forward someone who did not. Getting priestly formation right is crucial for the Fraternity and for the faithful, which is why I intend to focus the rest of my term on our seminaries and the men who are giving formation there.
It is very hard to find a priest who is intellectually strong and, at the same time, can engage seminarians personally and be a father to them. For me to find those men — men like my fellow alumni Rev. Joseph Lee, F.S.S.P. (’00), and Rev. Rhone Lillard, F.S.S.P. (’00), who teach at our seminary now — it is important that I send them to get the right studies and that I plan ahead. I need to make sure that I have a solid team with years of experience, priests who are prudent, knowing souls. I want to make sure that I leave the Fraternity and its priests in good shape for my successor.