Jonathan B. Coe writes from the Pacific Northwest. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Bad bishops are hardly a novelty in the history of the Church. Historians estimate that, when the Arian heresy rocked Christendom in the fourth century, four out of five bishoprics succumbed to apostasy. When Henry VIII ordered England’s bishops to swear the oath of succession, all of them complied—all, save one. For his refusal to abandon his allegiance to the Pope, Bishop John Fisher of Rochester was martyred by Henry in 1535 and canonized by Pius XI four centuries later, almost to the day.
No doubt the majority of bishops in our own age retain the orthodox Faith in their hearts. But would even 20 percent of them speak out in its defense? Orthodox prelates aren’t rare but orthodox prelates with courage are. At least we know of one: Athanasius Schneider, O.R.C., auxiliary bishop of Astana, Kazakhstan. His recent interview proves him worthy of his namesake, the sainted Bishop of Alexandria who defended the doctrine of the Trinity against defeated the Arian heresy 1,000 years before St. John Fisher’s birth.
Schneider’s words are a pleasure to read because he’s so clear and free of the “weaponized ambiguity” of the modern, professionalized prelates who twist and turn with the winds.
For instance, you don’t need the wisdom of Solomon to recognize that the February 2019 sexual abuse summit in Rome was a dog and pony show designed to avert our eyes from the root problems causing our crisis. With a clarity rooted in moral and theological depth, he identified at least four elephants in the room: homosexuality among the clergy, relativism on moral teaching, poor formation of seminarians, and lack of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. His elucidation of these four causes exposed Team Francis’s fixation on “clericalism” for the diversionary tactic it is.
In commenting on the Vatican’s support for a document declaring that “diversity of religions” is “willed by God,” Schneider said that this was “promoting the neglect of the First Commandment” and a “betrayal of the Gospel.” He went on to express concern that the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and his Church had been relativized, and if the document is uncorrected, the mission of the Church—to evangelize all men in all nations—will remain paralyzed.
On Bishop Erwin Kräutler, one of the main organizers of the upcoming Amazon Synod and a primary author of its working document, Schneider opined that he “and many of his clerical fellow-travelers” are “caricature-priests in the form of aid workers, NGO employees, socialist syndicalists, and eco-specialists.” He’s not one to beat around the bush, Bishop Schneider.
“The truth of the matter,” he sums up, “is that those who defend a married Amazonian clergy with the help of the ruse of the elegantly formulated motto ‘proven men’ (viri probati) consider the Amazonian peoples to be inferior, because they assume from the onset that they do not have the capacity to give to the Church, from out of their own midst, celibate priests.”
Bishop Schneider’s courage and clarity is no doubt rooted in his family. His traditional Catholic youth was forged in the furnace of communist persecution: Schneider’s parents were Black Sea Germans from the Ukraine whom Stalin sent to the gulag in Krasnokamsk in the Ural Mountains after the Second World War.
The Schneiders were active in the underground church. Athanasius’s mother, Maria, was one of many brave souls who helped shelter Blessed Oleska Zarycki, a Ukrainian priest who was ultimately martyred. This family had supernatural faith, and it was reflected in their holy reverence and adoration in the celebration of the Eucharist. The Sacrament was forbidden by the Soviets and rarely available to the Schneiders in their clandestine meetings.
In one such meeting, when a Fr. Alexij Saritski was beginning to celebrate Holy Mass, a voice was suddenly heard: “The police are coming!” Later that evening, Maria Schneider left her two small children with her mother and, with the help of her husband’s aunt, took Father Saritski to safety, trekking 12 kilometers through the forest with temperatures reaching 22 degrees below zero. This family exemplified a spirit of martyrdom: they were willing to risk imprisonment or even death for the Faith.
Schneider has the same spirit of selfless service to Holy Mother Church. Because of his public statements, he will never wear the red hat under this pontificate, or perhaps any pontificate that follows. He has his eyes fixed on a greater reward: the imperishable crown given to all prelates who devote their earthly lives to shepherding the Pilgrim Church to heaven.
One of the hallmarks of all saints is that they live their lives in the light of eternity. They’re willing to act with courage now and be persona non grata with all worldly powers because they know they will have to give an account to the Chief Shepherd at the Final Judgment. There, they will face a priest’s and prelate’s judgment as described by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:1-15, when their work will be revealed and tested by fire—whether it be gold, silver, and precious stones or wood, hay, and stubble—to see what survives.
Such vessels of sanctity are also emboldened by the theological virtues. They hope to be presented before the Chief Shepherd as faultless and blameless and with great joy. They truly believe that they will have to give an account to Christ for their works, and their obedience is rooted in love: “If you love me, keep my commandments.”
All that has been written here applies, in principle, to the laity as well. May we run our race with patience so that we, too, will receive an imperishable crown.