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Cherishing an older Catholicism

Controversy highlights belief of traditionalists like those in Richmond, N.H.

RICHMOND, N.H. -- The worshipers at the St. Benedict Center are not big consumers of popular culture. Many don't own televisions. The nearest multiplex is miles away. And R-rated movies are frowned upon.

But Mel Gibson has done what MTV could not. By producing a graphic motion picture depicting the last 12 hours of Jesus's life, Gibson has punctured the cultural isolation of this small community of believers, who worship in Latin, eschew birth control, cling to the rituals and beliefs of the Catholic Church before the Second Vatican Council, and claim Gibson and his father as theological allies.

"He's one of us," said James G. Gajewski, 17, of West Chesterfield, N.H., sitting at brunch in the compound's fellowship hall one recent Sunday. Gajewski's family moved from the Berkshires to southern New Hampshire in search of people with shared values.

"We don't have a computer or a TV at home, but we've all seen the trailer 20 or 30 times, and we're all very much looking forward to it," he said of advance publicity for the movie. "Let the truth be known."

Gibson's new film, "The Passion of the Christ," has triggered a debate among Christians and Jews over who killed Jesus and how to portray the death of Jesus in a way that is faithful to the Gospels, but does not incite anti-Semitism.

But the film, which opens Wednesday, has also opened a window into the world of traditionalist Catholics, an array of conservative communities that, to varying degrees, reject the teachings and, in some cases, the popes of the last half century of Roman Catholicism. Gibson is a traditionalist and built such a church, Holy Family, in the hills above Malibu, Calif.

"I'm just Roman Catholic, the way they were up until the mid-'60s," before the Second Vatican Council, Gibson told Diane Sawyer in an interview broadcast last week on ABC-TV's "Primetime."

"That's the Latin Mass with a properly ordained priest," he said.

In Richmond, a small town south of Keene, those traditions are immediately on display, ideas and rituals so powerful that people are willing to live at odds with their own church hierarchy to preserve them.

On Sunday mornings, 200 to 300 people gather in a hilltop chapel, a low-ceilinged basement with wooden pews. The families are huge, some with as many as 11 children, displaying, a community leader says, "their noncontraceptive glory."

Before the Mass, they recite the rosary aloud, in unison, a chorus of Our Fathers and Hail Marys, as one man walks, praying, along the Stations of the Cross. Women wear black veils. A group of celibate women in black habits with white wimples sing Gregorian chant.

The priest faces a high altar, not the assembly, as he celebrates the pre-Vatican II Tridentine Rite Mass. He distributes Communion over a rail to communicants kneeling as they receive the Eucharist in their mouths.

"We're Catholic, and to be Catholic means to be traditional," said Sister Marie Therese, 35, the prioress and the principal of the community's school, which has 37 students. "It can't be something new."

The St. Benedict Center, a 200-acre complex featuring a few church buildings and land that is being sold to sympathetic families, is headed by a Catholic priest and is home to five celibate brothers and six celibate sisters, who are part of a religious order called the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Worship services attract between 200 and 300 each Sunday. Since 1989, about 20 to 30 families have moved to the area to be near the church.

This community, like others around the country, is out of step with the official Catholic Church. The residents are so-called Feeneyites, followers of the Rev. Leonard J. Feeney, a Boston priest who was silenced by Cardinal Richard J. Cushing in 1949 and dismissed from the Jesuit order because of his insistence that there is no salvation outside the church, a doctrine that runs contrary to current church teaching that anyone, even non-Christians, can get to heaven. Feeney died in 1978.

Feeney was excommunicated in 1953 for disobedience, but the excommunication was lifted by Pope Paul VI in 1972. The St. Benedict Center is now headed by 90-year-old Brother Francis Maluf, who was fired by Boston College in 1949 for his role in what became known as the Boston Heresy Case, in which he and another priest accused the president of Boston College of heresy.

"The St. Benedict Center has no relationship with the Diocese of Manchester, and Bishop [John B.] McCormack has not given them permission to do ministry in New Hampshire," said Diane Murphy Quinlan, the diocese's vice chancellor. "They are not in union with the church."

Gibson is not affiliated with the St. Benedict Center, but his church in California is viewed with similar skepticism by the hierarchy. Tod M. Tamberg, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said the Malibu church Gibson built "is not a Catholic church or chapel and has no affiliation with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles."

Gibson has suggested he holds to the teaching central to the life of the Saint Benedict Center. "There is no salvation for those outside the church," Gibson said last year in an interview published in the New Yorker. Asked what that meant for his wife, who is an Episcopalian, he said: "She prays, she believes in God, she knows Jesus, she believes in that stuff. And it's just not fair if she doesn't make it; she's better than I am. But that is a pronouncement from the chair. I go with it."

To varying degrees, members of the St. Benedict Center blame Jews for the death of Jesus, a belief that Gibson has said he does not share.

But such a view was widely shared by Christians until the mid-20th century, and it is now at the heart of the debate over Gibson's new movie, which depicts Jews as pushing for the crucifixion of Jesus.

The 33-year-old prior of the St. Benedict Center, Brother Andre Marie, said that "no thinking Catholic believes modern-day Jews share the same culpability of Caiaphas," the high priest of Jesus's day, but that today's Jews "belong to a religion which is, by its nature, deicidal," meaning God-killing.

But Jews do appear to be a significant preoccupation here.

Each Sunday, Mass at the Saint Benedict Center is followed by brunch and then a lecture. On a recent Sunday, Brother Andre Marie stood in front of a microphone and delivered a lengthy, rambling talk attempting to refute a claim by a Catholic apologist, Karl Keating, that Feeney was an anti-Semite. Feeney's denunciations of Jews during his mid-20th-century preaching on Boston Common are indisputable, but Brother Andre argued that Feeney was baited into using "sharp language" by Jewish hecklers.

As Brother Andre spoke, a stack of newspapers lay on a nearby folding table: the Jewish Chronicle, the Forward (a Jewish weekly), and The New York Times. And in the worship space, a calendar of upcoming events mentions a day of prayer for the conversion of Jews.

One longtime member of the Saint Benedict Center, Russell LaPlume said in an interview: "It's a well known fact that Jews are clever in matters of money and own many papers and the media. . . . If there was anti-Semitism in this movie, it would not show in the cinemas."

LaPlume also volunteered that "it is terrible what happened to the Jews in World War II, but just as many Protestants and Catholics died."

The center's founder, Douglas Bersaw, said: "Were the Jews at that time responsible for our Lord's death? Of course." Asked whether Jews are cursed, Bersaw said, "It's a curse not to have the faith.

"There's a lot of controversy among people who study the so-called Holocaust," he said. "There's a misperception that Hitler had a position to kill all the Jews. It's all a fraud. Six million people -- it didn't occur."

Bersaw also describes Pope John Paul II as "the worst pope we ever had," because he has prayed with non-Christians at Assisi. If he were present at the prayer session, Bersaw said, "I would have done what Mel Gibson did in `Braveheart.' "

But Bersaw, who said he became a traditionalist Catholic in the 1960s, in protest of "the collapse of everything that was known," sees hope in the young families who are scattered around the room, born after the Second Vatican Council, but seeking the church that existed before it.

"The kids growing up with the new Mass realize how banal and insipid it is," he said. "We don't want to go along with that, and we are not going to be quiet about the teaching of the faith."

Michael Paulson can be reached at

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