Lefebvre priests’ push spreads Malaysian Church confusion

The legal status of the SSPX ministry is confusing as the catechism teaches that a Catholic has to accept the pope’s leadership

Vanitha Nadaraj

Updated: July 07, 2023 12:33 PM GMT

Many young Catholics in Malaysia are gathering regularly for Sunday Masses at chapels managed by a priest of the traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX). (Photo:

In a busy commercial hub outside Kuala Lumpur, above a row of shops, sits the chapel where Elizabeth attends Sunday Mass. But the 27-year-old Catholic, who would identify only as Elizabeth, is discreet about her newfound love for the traditional Latin language Mass.

She is not alone. Some 120 Catholics gather regularly for Sunday Mass in the Chapel of the Sacred Heart of Jesus celebrated by a priest of the traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX).

They follow the 1962 edition of the Tridentine Mass and liturgical forms used prior to the Second Vatican Council, spreading confusion among the laity about the validity of the SSPX's ministry.

We are attracted to it because it nourishes our faith. Many young Catholics struggle with the watering down of the faith in many parishes, Elizabeth said.

The Mass she attends is in Latin, which probably not many in her congregation understand. But they follow a book where the English translation is given to help them understand.

Elizabeth and others who prefer to attend the Tridentine Mass, which was abrogated in 2021, know that they are part of a schism started by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

The French archbishop, founder and superior general of the SSPX, on June 30, 1988, ordained four society priests as bishops without Vatican approval. For that act, the Vatican excommunicated them.

The society now has three bishops, — one died of old age — and about 700 priests worldwide, who continue attempts to spread traditionalist ideas that reject Vatican II and all the popes elected since then. They exist parallel to the local Catholic hierarchy, without having any official link with it.

But Elizabeth has her own reasons to reject her parish under Kuala Lumpur archdiocese.

Every Mass there's a wild card — you don't know what's going to happen in the sermon — good or bad. The Mass here doesn't water anything down, instead, it fills us up and is consistently beautiful and reverent, Elizabeth told UCA News.

The SSPX chapel she attends began in the 1990s and slowly attracted followers. Of those who attend Sunday Mass, At least 60 percent are young and families below the age of 40, Elizabeth said.

The SSPX has two other chapels in Malaysia — one in Kuching, Sarawak that started in 2018 and another in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, established in 2004 — according to the SSPX website. Together, they have about 130 people attending Sunday Mass.

Growing influence

The SSPX influence is growing in Malaysia, according to Sherman Kuek, a Franciscan, who serves Melaka Johor diocese as a permanent deacon.

It is particularly true among the younger generation, who are dissatisfied with the way the liturgy of Vatican II is being celebrated in their parishes. Many Catholics retreat into SSPX communities, which celebrate the Tridentine Mass. Their influence is limited, but not weak, the deacon said.

Young people are looking for priests and peers who can provide them with a clear sense of leadership and direction, they find their place in such communities, Kuek said.

Besides, SSPX communities are small, therefore catechesis tends to be stronger, so they learn the faith from the SSPX point of view and take as the gospel truth, he said.

If that is the pull factor, Kuek said the push factor is utterly weak catechism in the mainstream Catholic Church.

We are seeing the results. It's the elephant in the room that few want to talk about because it requires honesty about our failure to guide our next generation, he said.

Then, there is an ill-conceived idea that young Catholics look for a more fashionable faith. At the parish level, attempts are often made to reinvent Catholic life, burying old traditions. But young people become rooted when they learn the traditions.

French Father Jean-Michel Gomis, 43, who runs the SSPX chapel near Kuala Lumpur, also claimed communities are growing around the world.

We've had a few priestly ordinations across the world this last week, he told UCA News.

However, critics dismissed the growth claim.

A schematic sect having a few hundred followers in Malaysia, which has 1.1 million Catholics, does not show significant growth, they said.

Archdiocesan officials, whom UCA News contacted, refused to comment on SSPX and its activities.

The world knows about SSPX. We don't have to comment on them, one said.

Information on SSPX is available online. People can search to find out more, he said.

Catholics without a pope?

The SSPX claims to be valid because the excommunication of Lefebvre and the surviving three bishops was lifted in 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI, 18 years after Lefebvre's death.

Pope Francis in 2017 declared the confession and marriage sacraments officiated by SSPX priests valid and licit.

However, SSPX remains cut off from the Vatican and rejects the teachings of Vatican II, including the new order of the Mass in local languages.

We are not part of the Vatican. But that's secondary. The main thing is the doctrine, Gomis said adding that doctrine was their primary reason to reject Vatican II and the popes since then.

The SSPX clergy and religious are accountable to the Switzerland-based superior general. They also have local superiors overseeing districts, instead of bishops and dioceses, Gomis said.

The SSPX now has communities in 10 Asian countries including the United Arab Emirates (Dubai) and China (Hong Kong). While it has only one community in most countries, in India, it has 13 communities, 10 are in southern Tamil Nadu state.

Gomis said SSPX is better than the mainstream Church in terms of vocations.

Their vocations are going down, congregations are going down,   while SSPX vocations are growing, he said.

When young people discover the tradition, which is the doctrine and Magisterium, they discover its richness and fall in love. Let's not make the message less deep to please people, he said.

We are doing exactly what we have been doing for the last 2,000 years.  

Valid or invalid? Confusions galore

In May, Kuala Lumpur archdiocese's chancery office issued a notice saying that the two chapels in its territory were not part of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur.

The two chapels it named were — the Sacred Heart of Jesus SSPX and another with the same name, which is said to be a splinter SSPX group, which calls itself the Society of St Pius X–Marian Corps (SSPX–MC).

The chancery office said it issued the notice after receiving several inquiries about the SSPX chapel.

The confusion among the laity is exacerbated as the SSPX uses the same terminology as the Catholic Church. It is hard to think that with a name like the Chapel of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, it could be anything but Catholic.

A Catholic who attends SSPX Masses said the only reason she opted for it was because it is close to my home.

The SSPX ministry's legal status is confusing as the catechism teaches that a Catholic has to accept the leadership of the pope and the hierarchy led by him. However, even though the SSPX refuses to accept the pope, the Vatican allows them to hear confessions and solemnize marriages.

If they have valid and legal faculties to administer certain sacraments, some SSPX followers wonder how these priests can be outside the Church.

The SSPX was formed in 1970 with permission from the Bishop of Fribourg in Switzerland and only their superior, Lefebvre, and four others were excommunicated. Their excommunication was later revoked, but Catholic officials still do not accept them as part of the Church.

In the eyes of the Catholic Church, the SSPX does not officially exist, Kuek said. The society does not have a canonical standing in the Church and this means they have no recognition, and therefore, no rights or responsibilities, he said.

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