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Father Nicholas Gruner may be the most controversial priest in the Roman Catholic Church today. He is certainly one of the most talked about. His life and career have long been the focus of great interest and attention from both friends and foes alike.
Since his ordination in 1976, Father Gruner has spent his time tirelessly promoting devotion to and interest in the Message that the Blessed Virgin Mary delivered at Fatima in 1917. In the pages of his magazine The Fatima Crusader, on weekly radio and television and in public appearances around the world, he has consistently maintained the paramount importance of heeding the solemn requests that Our Lady made at Fatima.
As most serious Catholics know, it has long been considered "politically incorrect" in high Church circles to take the Message of Fatima literally. Yet that is precisely what Father Gruner has, from the start, insisted upon doing in his life and work as a Catholic priest.
Given the controversy that has swirled around his public persona for so many years, it is interesting to note that, in 1978, when he published his first issue of The Fatima Crusader, Father Gruner was the same cassock-wearing priest he is today. Just as he does today, he said his Masses in Latin and he refused to permit Communion in the hand. He was, at that time, drawing large crowds on his tours across Canada with the Pilgrim Statue of Our Lady of Fatima where, just as he does today, he preached the urgent necessity of avoiding the "errors of Russia" and consecrating "that poor nation" to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in the exact manner that the Virgin requested at Fatima.
Despite these activities for which he would later be bitterly criticized, in 1978 Father Gruner was nevertheless granted partial faculties in the Archdiocese of Ottawa and was also welcomed in cathedrals all across Canada where he was routinely granted temporary faculties to preach and hear confessions.
By April of 1981, he had full faculties for preaching and hearing confession in Ottawa, granted to him by Archbishop Joseph Plourde, one of the most liberal churchmen in Canada. One priest actually told him at that time that he had "more faculties than I have ever had and I've been a priest for forty years."
What Father Gruner did not have however was political correctness. The Vatican's Secretary of State, Cardinal Casaroli, had dedicated his long career to the promotion and defense of the Vatican's 1962 agreement with the Soviet Union to cease all its anti-Communist activities in return for a promised end to the persecution of Christians behind the Iron Curtain. So too, the recently elected Pope, John Paul II had come to the Throne of Peter with his own program for the East.
In the heady, breathtaking days of the Pope's early political moves, the pro-Fatima anti-Communist rhetoric of the type Father Gruner was becoming famous for was anathema to the politicians of the Vatican. In retrospect, it does not seem merely coincidental that Gruner's first run-in with Church authorities should take place at a time when his preaching about "the errors of Russia" was beginning to develop a large and responsive audience in both Canada and the United States.
There were ten thousand priests in Canada in 1981 when the Pro Nuncio to Ottawa, Archbishop Palmas made time to see Cardinal Oddi, the head of the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy. However, the purpose of his visit was to talk about one priest only: Father Nicholas Gruner.
On behalf of his boss, the Secretary of State, the Nuncio angrily complained of the young priest's activities and claimed (falsely, as it would later be proven) that no Canadian bishop would incardinate him. Palmas insisted that Father Gruner be forced to return to the diocese in Italy where he had been incardinated and from which he had been formally authorized by his bishop to work outside. Father Gruner's problems with the Church hierarchy date from this visit and have persisted to this very day.
For nine years, while Rome's strategy with Russia was played out, Father Gruner was subject to an increasing harassment, bordering on persecution, from various officials within the Vatican and in local dioceses. Many of his priestly rights, guaranteed by Canon Law, were systematically denied him.
Despite what would become almost constant unlawful harassment from Church bureaucrats and the liberal Catholic press, Father Gruner continued to build his Fatima Apostolate, speaking on, publishing about and finally televising the Fatima Message wherever and whenever he could. Not surprisingly, as more and more clergy and lay people responded to his words, providing growing volunteer and financial support, the pressures from the Church bureaucracy intensified.
In 1989, matters reached a fever pitch. Letters purporting to come from the last remaining seer of Fatima, Sister Lucia, had been published, claiming that the Blessed Virgin's request for the collegial consecration of Russia to Her Immaculate Heart had been made. This issue had long been central to Father Gruner's crusade. His unrelenting insistence that the Consecration had not been done according to the specific requests of Our Lady of Fatima had for many years been the dominating theme of his Apostolate.
Relying on his encyclopedic knowledge of Sister Lucia's writings and on the expertise of Fatima authorities from around the world, Gruner was able to demonstrate conclusively that the letters were forgeries, part and parcel of a deeper conspiracy to silence the last remaining witness to the Virgin's appearances at Fatima.
In November 1989, shortly after he had published his exposé on the forged letters, Father Gruner received a strongly-worded communication from Gerardo Pierro, the bishop of Avellino, the diocese to which he was still officially attached. In this letter, Bishop Pierro admitted he had been writing under pressure from the Secretary of State's office, Father Gruner was told that incardination in a local Canadian diocese would be arranged for him, but only if he pledged to close down his Apostolate and cease his work on behalf of the Fatima Message. If he refused, Pierro noted sadly, he would be forced to immediately return to Avellino.
Early in the New Year, Father Gruner travelled to Italy with his friend, Father Paul Kramer, whose knowledge of Canon Law and Church tradition is legendary. There, they proceeded to Avellino and met with Bishop Pierro on January 25, 1990. Face-to-face, the bishop admitted to Father Gruner that "if I were to suspend you, it would be a mortal sin, but if the Vatican tells me to do it, I will have to do it." Following a dinner which he cooked with his own hands, the Bishop formally -- before two witnesses -- reconfirmed his permission for Father Gruner to work outside of the diocese of Avellino while he sought a new bishop. Four months later, he restated this permission in a letter to Gruner and again encouraged him to find a bishop to incardinate him outside of Avellino.
Despite having achieved this important reconfirmation of his good standing as a priest, it was not long before Father Gruner was once again the target of attacks. In June 1990, Monsignor McCormack, chancellor of the archdiocese of Toronto sent an "advisory" memorandum to every parish in the archdiocese, attempting to turn priests and lay people alike against Father Gruner and his Fatima Apostolate.
According to McCormack, Father Gruner's status was "irregular," in other words, he was not a priest in good standing and implied his Apostolic work was not worthy of support. The local Catholic press immediately picked up on McCormack's memo and several articles went so far as to suggest that Gruner was a vagus, a polite term for a renegade priest without a bishop.
After repeated attempts to discuss the matter with the chancellery office were rebuffed, Father Gruner strongly felt there was no other way to clear his name but to file a libel action in the Canadian courts. That case is still pending at this time.
Interestingly, only a month following these events, Bishop Pierro of Avellino agan wrote to Father Gruner, confirming his will that Gruner find a new bishop and another diocese in which to be incardinated. With his permission once more renewed, Father Gruner continued on with his work and his efforts to find a new bishop.
In the autumn of 1992, Father Gruner organized one of the largest private conferences of Catholic bishops ever held. The event, which took place in Fatima, soon became noteworthy for more than just bringing together nearly one-hundred bishops from around the world to discuss the Message of Fatima. From the day Father Gruner arrived in Fatima, Church bureaucrats, both locally and in Rome, made their violent opposition to the gathering clear. A misleading announcement was published in the Vatican's own paper declaring that the Conference was not "authorized" (despite the fact that Canon law requires no such authorization). Both the local bishop and the director of the Fatima Shrine publicly deplored the event and criticized Father Gruner by name.
In an effort to clear up the objections of the local authorities, Father Gruner arranged for four of his guests (all archbishops) to meet with the Bishop of Fatima. Their meeting did result in a lessening of the immediate friction, including an agreement to conjoin the Bishop's Conference to a smaller official event taking place at that same time. The "peace" however was destined to be short-lived.
Msgr. Guerra, then Rector of the Fatima Shrine, had made no secret of his intense loathing for Father Gruner and his rigorous opposition to the Conference he had organized. On the evening of October 10, 1992, while accompanying an aged Indian cardinal returning from Mass, Father Gruner was violently assaulted by two young men in the sacristy of the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima. The attack took place in full view of several people, including a bishop. Father Gruner was "roughed up" to the extent that he required medical attention for the numerous bruises and contusions sustained in the assault. The two men quickly disappeared in the confusion, but were later conclusively identified as lay employees of the Shrine. One of the men actually admitted that he had attacked Father Gruner under instructions from Msgr. Guerra!
The physical attack on a Roman Catholic priest in the Shrine dedicated to the Queen of Peace received considerable attention in the Portuguese press. Notwithstanding Father Gruner's documented injuries, Msgr. Guerra confined his comments to a speculation that the assault had been staged in an effort to "gain publicity."
A few days later, Cardinal Padiyara, the Indian prelate whom Father Gruner had been assisting at the time of the attack, drew Gruner aside to warn him "take care," because his life was in danger as long as he was in Fatima. As a result of this warning, Father Gruner has not returned to Fatima since 1992.
1993 began with the installation of Antonio Forte as the new bishop of Avellino, the third since Father Gruner's ordination in 1976. In July 1993, Father Gruner received word from a friendly bishop that he would be glad to incardinate him if he could obtain the necessary decree of excardination from the new bishop of Avellino. This new offer to incardinate came as a direct result of Father Gruner's meeting this bishop at the Fatima Bishops' Conference. Father Gruner promptly wrote to Bishop Forte asking to be excardinated. Although he had been pressured for more than 17 years to find himself a new bishop outside of Avellino, Father Gruner waited for more than three months in vain for a reply.
Throughout the autumn of 1993, Father Gruner attempted to communicate with Bishop Forte. In October, he finally tracked him down to a Bishops' Conference taking place in Colavalenza, Italy. He quickly dispatched a colleague, Father Paul Trinchard who was on pilgrimage in the country, to see him accompanied by an Italian translator. The result of their meeting in early November was a letter from Bishop Forte excusing himself from giving a decision. In the letter, he indicated that he had nothing personal against Father Gruner, but said that his delay was entirely due to a direct order from Archbishop Sepe in the Vatican.
Sepe had worked for many years near Cardinal Casaroli in the Secretariat of State and, in 1992, was now put in de facto charge of the Congregation of the Clergy. Such intervention by Sepe was clearly ultra vires -- outside his jurisdiction. Apparently, Bishop Forte did not dare stand up to him.
Father Gruner himself finally met with Bishop Forte face-to- face on January 13, 1994 in Avellino. Once again, he was accompanied by Father Paul Kramer whom he had asked to serve as his witness. On that occasion, the bishop told them pointblank that he had nothing against Father Gruner, but that his hands were tied by orders from higher-ups in the Congregation for the Clergy.
Father Kramer notes that Bishop Forte willingly acknowledged that Father Gruner was a priest in good standing. At the conclusion of their meeting, Bishop Forte told Father Gruner to return to Canada and promised to write to him there.
When Father Gruner got back to Canada, he was surprised, shocked and, in his own words, "scandalized" when a letter from Bishop Forte arrived two weeks later telling him to give up his Apostolate and return to Avellino or face suspension as a priest.
He wrote to a friend privately: "According to Canon law, you don't have a suspension without a court case; you don't have a suspension without a hearing; you don't have a suspension without a crime being committed; you don't have a suspension without all these things happening and yet that is exactly what they are trying to do to me! Not a single one of these things has happened..."
Upon receipt of this letter, Father Gruner showed it to Father Kramer. It appeared obvious the letter from the new bishop contained many gross errors of law and fact, demanding a response within just a few days. In order not to err in such an important reply, they both studied the matter in depth. Father Kramer in particular studied the pertinent portions of Canon law and took counsel with several world-class canonists.
Even while under severe time constraints with the work of his Apostolate, Father Gruner replied with a closely reasoned seventeen page letter. "It would have been impossible without the help of Father Kramer and even then we were only able to make our deadline just in the nick of time," said Father Gruner. He would wait two years and still Bishop Forte gave no response to the issues raised in this lengthy letter. When the bishop did not reply within 30 days of receipt of Father Gruner's letter, he was forced by Canon law to appeal the bishop's command in a matter of days again or lose all right of appeal. As a result of this Canonical appeal, by law, the Bishop of Avellino's order to Father Gruner became immediately null-and-void until a determination was officially received from the Vatican-based court, thus freeing him to continue his work as before.
In spite of these threats and continuing harassment from Vatican bureaucrats, Father Gruner persisted in his efforts to bring the bishops of the world together to discuss the Message of Fatima. Starting in the spring of 1994, he organized yet a second Bishops' Conference, this one to take place in Mexico City at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Six weeks before the gathering was to convene, letters were sent to bishops around the world from the papal nuncios warning them not to attend the Conference because it had not been "approved" and was merely Father Gruner's "private initiative." Once again, these letters conveniently neglected to mention that bishops neither require nor typically receive Vatican approval to attend private conferences of this kind.
It also needs to be noted that "private initiatives" of the kind made by Father Gruner are perfectly acceptable and within the law for any priest. Since his appeal against his bishop as still sub judice (pending judgement), Father Gruner was not under any restriction that prevented him from writing to and inviting the bishops to such a conference.
By the time the Conference finally convened in mid-November 1994, the number of bishops in attendance was far short of those who had originally agreed to attend prior to the nuncios' letters. In a dramatic and angry speech to the assembly, a special delegate to an important Pontifical commission in the Vatican, made it clear that the low attendance was the direct result of a slander campaign carefully orchestrated by the Secretariat of State. Brandishing a copy of the nuncios' letter, he called it "an abuse of authority, an insult and a humiliation to all the bishops who had received it."
Following the close of the Conference, Father Gruner determined to take his case directly to Pope John Paul II. From past experience, he knew that writing to the Holy Father on a personal basis could not guarantee that the Pontiff would ever actually see his letter. Over the course of six months, working with other organizers of the Conference, he raised the funds necessary to publish a public "Open Letter to the Holy Father" in Italy's largest newspaper, Il Messaggero, on July 12, 1995. The letter meticulously outlined the long history of interference and harassment surrounding the two Bishops' Conferences organized by Father Gruner's Apostolate. It also announced that a third Bishops' Conference would be held in 1996, this time in Rome! The publication of the "Open Letter" was received with great interest by the Italian news media; several newspaper articles were written about it and it was featured in at least one special program on the national television network.
Not uncharacteristically, although angered, the Vatican bureaucrats declined to make a public comment on the publication of the "Open Letter." Reliable sources inside the Vatican confirmed that the publication had created great consternation in the offices of the bureaucracy, leading one infuriated staffer to actually call Il Messaggero and demand to know how they could print such a report.
It came as no surprise to Gruner or anyone else that the response from the Church's bureaucracy was firm and double- barreled. Early in 1996, as the world watched the resurgence of Communism in Russia, a new letter was issued from the Congregation that, once again, urged bishops to reject Father Gruner's invitation to attend his conference in Rome because it was "not authorized." The letter also repeated the old, repeately disproven accusation that Father Gruner's standing as a priest was suspect.
In the words of one longtime Vatican watcher, this new letter was part of "the same old broken record routine, repeat something often enough and people will believe it whether it's true or not."
Almost simultaneous with the mailing of this new letter from the Congregation of the Clergy came the news that yet another bishop had offered to incardinate Father Gruner and thus put to rest nearly two decades of controversy regarding his priestly status.
With Communism on the rise again in Russia, the possibility of Zyuganov being elected president next June and the threat of nuclear annihilation explicitly made in November 1995 against the United States in an official Russian government publication, is it any wonder that today many people are beginning to agree on the importance of Father Gruner's continued work?
While it is unknown at this time how this new incardination will be handled by the bureaucrats in Rome, the evidence clearly shows that Father Gruner has been the victim of a long and unjust campaign of harassment at the hands of those in the Church opposed to his work on behalf of the Fatima Message. All the documentary evidence and the testimony of innumerable witnesses demonstrates conclusively that the "controversy" regarding Father Gruner has nothing to do with his status as a priest and everything to do with his resolute and unswerving determination to promote a message that disturbs and discomfits many in the Vatican bureaucracy.
To date, the Vatican bureaucracy has contumaciously refused to discuss the real agenda behind their attacks on Father Gruner. There can be no doubt that what he says and does in support of the Fatima Message is perfectly allowed and, in fact, encouraged by the laws and teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. The bureaucrats surely know that any challenge to his activities on behalf of Our Lady of Fatima would almost certainly fail in any open and fair courtroom.
In the last 20 years, thousands of priests have left the priesthood. Why does Father Gruner continue to soldier-on in the face of almost unprecedented opposition from within his own Church? In reply, Father Gruner says: "I believe Our Lady means it absolutely and literally when She says 'If My requests are granted, many souls will be saved and there will be peace. If My requests are not granted, Russia will raise up wars and persecutions against the Church, the good will be martyred, the Holy Father will have much to suffer, various nations will be annihilated.' I don't think we have any other choice but to continue to promote Our Lady's full Message with all our strength. What else can we do?"
B.L. Drake is a freelance writer living in Atlanta, Georgia and frequent contributor to Catholic publications. The writer wishes to gratefully acknowledge the contribution of Francis Alban who provided much of the background for this article. Mr. Alban has recently completed a biography of Father Nicholas Gruner to be released in the Winter of 1997.