For a Catholic priest in a small Texas town, it has been a particularly eventful week.
Over the course of three days, Fr. Stephen Zigrang JCL, pastor of St. Andrew's Church in Channelview, has been called into his bishop's office, threatened with suspension, removed from his parish and even forced to defend his mental health to his own father. These unfortunate events have taken place because Fr. Zigrang did something new during last Sunday's Masses — or, more accurately, did something very, very old.
Before each Mass on the morning of June 29th, Fr. Zigrang announced that he would no longer be offering Mass according to the revised missal of Pope Paul VI, instituted in 1969. He proceeded to offer the Mass according to the Roman Missal of 1962 (also called the "Latin", "Traditional" or "Tridentine" Mass). Parishioners who were used to attending a Mass in English, with the priest facing the congregation, witnessed a priest offer a Mass almost entirely in Latin, while facing the altar. Guitar bands and sing-along hymns were replaced by chants and reverential silence. Rather then standing up to receive Holy Communion in their hands, congregants were instructed to kneel and receive the Blessed Sacrament on their tongues. One of the three masses was a sung mass, also called a Missa Contata.
Fr. Zigrang is a priest of the Diocese of Galveston-Houston, under Bishop Joseph Fiorenza. Upon hearing of the weekend's events, the diocese reacted immediately. Unable to reach him for most of the day Monday, the chancery sent word to Fr. Zigrang that the bishop would like to meet with him the following morning, July 1st.
Despite advice from others suggesting he be accompanied by a lawyer, Fr. Zigrang went to see the bishop on his own. He was told that he would be suspended and had until the next day to vacate the St. Andrew's rectory. He was provided a letter signed by Bishop Fiorenza and the diocesan Chancellor, Monsignor Frank Rossi, admonishing him for his actions and informing him that failure to "follow the liturgical directives of the Holy See in the celebration of the Eucharist and the other sacraments … is a grave disobedience and threatens the unity of the Church within the parish committed to your pastoral care."
First thing the following morning, the Director of Communications for the diocese, Mrs. Annette Gonzales Taylor, responded to an inquiry from the night before with an email claiming that, "…your inquiry is a bit premature in that Fr. Zigrang has not been suspended. At this time, Bishop Fiorenza and Fr. Zigrang continue to be in conversation."
When reached by phone to clarify the matter, Mrs. Taylor reiterated that Fr. Zigrang was not suspended, is still the pastor of St. Andrew's and no action has been taken against him. She said that she did not know whether he was at the parish today as priests take some days off. When asked why Fr. Zigrang would be (as witnesses claimed) in the process of moving out of the rectory if no action had been taken against him, she did not know.
At some point that same morning, as he was moving out of the parish rectory, Fr. Zigrang was called by Bishop Fiorenza, who recommended that he take a two month leave of duty. It was further suggested that Fr. Zigrang may want to seek psychiatric counseling during this time.
The following day, June 3rd, parishioners found a note on the St. Andrew's church door explaining that there would be no daily Mass or Eucharistic adoration. The note also referenced the name and number of another priest to contact.
Finally, Fr. Zigrang's elderly father was contacted this week by Chancellor Monsignor Frank Rossi, who expressed to him concerns about Fr. Zigrang's psychological well-being.
Fr. Stephen Zigrang has been a priest in the Diocese of Galveston-Houston for over 25 years and pastor at St. Andrew's for the past six. He is a former seminary instructor and has a licentiate in canon law. He was previously a member of the diocesan marriage tribunal where his lack of lenience toward annulment applications brought him into conflict with his peers.
Prompted by years of liturgical research and studies which drew him toward the Traditional Latin Mass, Fr. Zigrang had requested on multiple occasions for the opportunity to offer a public Tridentine Mass in a parish. His most recent request came in January of this year when he sent a letter to Bishop Fiorenza requesting permission to convert St. Andrew's parish in to a traditional parish (dedicated to the practice of the Tridentine Mass and other sacraments) or start such a parish in another location. Six months later, he had still not received a reply.
For the past couple years, Fr. Zigrang has been offering the Latin Mass privately in the rectory at 6:30 each morning. When he attempted to offer a single Latin Mass for his congregation on Sunday mornings, he was ordered by Bishop Fiorenza to stop.
In 1988, responding to Catholics attached to the Traditional Mass and sacraments, Pope John Paul II called for the "wide and generous application" of Latin Masses throughout the Church, but the decision was left up to each bishop on whether or how to implement those directives. Many bishops have refused to allow any such Masses, while some have allowed only limited access.
In the Diocese of Galveston-Houston, home to 1.5 million Catholics and the largest diocese in Texas (eleventh largest in the United States), there is a single Latin Mass offered on Sundays in downtown Houston. Not all believe that these accommodations are adequate to meet their spiritual needs, or in the "wide and generous" spirit alluded to by the Holy Father. Catholics who need to travel great distances with families have requested that the early Mass time be moved or another Mass be added for more reasonable access. Some have requested daily Masses; others Masses on Holy Days of Obligation; and still others a traditional parish, going so far as to locate property and priests available for such an arrangement. These requests to Bishop Fiorenza have reportedly been ignored or denied. The attendants of the Mass also are under certain restrictions, including a prohibition from promoting or advertising the Mass.
Critics point out that this diocese, which prides itself on promoting and celebrating diversity, particularly in liturgical matters, has demonstrated a clear and disturbing exception when it comes to the Tridentine Mass. Although hundreds of Masses are said throughout the diocese in a multitude of languages from Spanish to Chinese, and in a multitude of styles from "Country Music" to "Gospel Spiritual" with little to no concern from the bishop, requests for Traditional Masses are ignored and attempts to offer Masses in Latin quickly and definitively put to a stop.
The parishioners' responses to Fr. Zigrang's Latin Masses have been varied. Many were surprised but respectful of their pastor's decision, but there were also some notable negative and positive reactions. Some were openly hostile toward the move, storming out of the church at the beginning of Mass. Members of the musical band which performs at the 10:30 Mass were particularly dismayed (having no role during a Latin Mass), as were lectors and extraordinary ministers. After one of the Masses, a regular guitar player was particularly vocal about the complaint that would be forthcoming to the bishop.
On the other end of the spectrum, other parishioners were greatly appreciative of the opportunity afforded to them. Some old enough to remember when the Mass was in Latin were given a reminder of how much had changed and some of what was lost. Others who had never experienced such a Mass were struck by its simplicity and beauty. At least once attendant commented on the contemplative rather than "entertainment" focus, and another described it as "absolutely beautiful".
Several congregants came up to Fr. Stephen Zigrang after Mass to personally thank him. In what now appears to be his last Sunday at the parish, he gave them the rare opportunity to experience a Latin Mass in their parish, and allowed them to witness firsthand the reason for which their pastor was willing to risk the consequences which would soon follow.