Five years before Bishop Richard Williamson denied the murder of millions on Swedish TV, he taught young men in Winona how to serve God.
Williamson made international headlines in January when he told a Swedish journalist that 6 million Jews didn’t perish in the Holocaust and that the Nazi gas chambers never existed. The interview unleashed worldwide outrage and sparked a diplomatic crisis at the Vatican.
But for 15 years, Williamson made numerous similar statements in Winona, where he was rector of the St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary between 1988 and 2003.
“There was not one Jew killed in the gas chambers. It was all lies, lies, lies,” he said in a speech in 1989, shortly after he became rector. “The Jews created the Holocaust so we would prostrate ourselves on our knees before them and approve of their new State of Israel ... Jews made up the Holocaust, Protestants get their orders from the devil, and the Vatican has sold its soul to liberalism.”
For most of his time in Winona, Williamson kept a low profile at the seminary, secluded on Stockton Hill from 1988 to 2003, writing letters on his beliefs and occasionally making speeches. Williamson is a bishop in the Society of St. Pius X, a sect that considers itself Roman Catholic but doesn’t recognize the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s. Williamson was excommunicated by the Vatican in 1988 because he was ordained by an archbishop not recognized by the church. But Pope Benedict XVI, attempting to thaw church relations with the society, recently rescinded the excommunication of Williamson and three other bishops.
The same day as the papal announcement, the Swedish interview aired Williamson’s remarks about the Holocaust. The resulting outcry spurred the Vatican to publicly condemn Williamson’s statements and, on Wednesday, demand he recant them. Williamson has not yet done so publicly.
The pope’s decision to reinstate Williamson astonished Jews worldwide, and Israel’s highest religious authority severed ties with the Vatican last week to protest the move. Local Jews like Maureen Feran Freedland are disturbed that Pope Benedict XVI would embrace Williamson, who has also said Jews are bent on world domination and are responsible for world wars.
Freedland’s parents survived the Holocaust in Czechoslovakia but lost dozens of family members to the Nazi death camps.
“I find this outreach to these bishops, and especially Bishop Williamson, of great concern,” Freedland said Thursday from La Crosse, Wis. “I am determined that the tragedy of my own ancestors should not be denigrated.”
Williamson’s words from Winona
Born a British Anglican in 1940, Williamson later embraced Catholicism and was ordained a priest of the Society of St. Pius X by
its founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, in 1976. Williamson became rector of the society’s American seminary in Connecticut in 1983, and the seminary moved in 1988 to occupy the former St. Peter Martyr Priory in Winona.
The Rev. Thomas Asher, a spokesman for Aquinas seminary, says it has ordained about 100 priests in the past 20 years, and 90 men now study there. About 200 people attend Sunday Mass at the seminary, Asher estimated.
In an e-mail to the Daily News this week, Asher said Aquinas seminary agrees with the condemnation of Williamson’s remarks issued last month by Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior general of the Society of St. Pius X.
“These comments do not reflect our views nor those of the society,” Asher said.
But the recent interview wasn’t the first public airing of Williamson’s beliefs about Jews. Aside from his 1989 comments, Williamson wrote during his time in Winona that Jews were attempting to conquer the world and that “Judeo-Masonry brought about the first two world wars.”
The seminary’s Web site has nothing but praise for Williamson. It touts his “first-rate intellect” and “absolute fearlessness in standing for Catholic principles.”
“Bishop Williamson set out to expose the modern world’s lies and perversions of the natural law; to teach seminarians how to distrust and despise (to paraphrase the Bishop) ‘the glitz and glitter; the artificial, plastic world with its sentimental slush,’” the Web site reads.
Local Catholic leaders, meanwhile, say they paid scant attention to Williamson’s writings and had little contact with him during his 15 years in the area. The Rev. Donald P. Schmitz, vicar general of the Diocese of Winona, said the diocese has long been estranged from the society despite its presence in the area.
“There wouldn’t have been anyone having a lot of dialogue with (him),” Schmitz said.
Winona Bishop Bernard J. Harrington feels the church “longs for unity” with the society, Schmitz said. But Schmitz also said the pope’s recent decision shouldn’t be interpreted as an embrace of the society’s beliefs or an endorsement of its practices.
“This has not changed radically our relationship with the people on Stockton Hill,” Schmitz said. “We’re recommended not to go there.”
Worldwide fallout to bishop’s comments
The worldwide reaction to the papal decision to rehabilitate Williamson was overwhelmingly negative, especially in the pope’s native Germany, where Holocaust denial is a crime. German authorities are considering filing charges against Williamson because the interview was conducted in Germany.
The backlash hasn’t just come from secular leaders. German Cardinal Karl Lehmann told a TV station the pope’s decision to re-admit Williamson had been “a disaster for all Holocaust survivors.” Some members of the Catholic press also bristled, perhaps because they saw the controversy coming. The Catholic Herald, a British newspaper, reported some of Williamson’s anti-Semitic comments in March 2008.
Many find the papal decision to embrace Williamson more difficult to dismiss than the bishop’s comments, said Ellen Kennedy, who directs the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota. Kennedy suggested it is implausible that Pope Benedict XVI knew nothing of Williamson’s previous statements, though she stressed the efforts of many Catholic priests to expose historical truth about the Holocaust and promote Catholic-Jewish dialogue.
“It is imperative that this rehabilitation be retracted and that the pope publicly condemn SSPX for its promulgation of hate,” Kennedy wrote.
WHAT IS THE SOCIETY OF ST. PIUS X?
The society was founded in 1970 by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in opposition to the Vatican II reforms instituted in the Catholic Church in the 1960s. The society includes nearly 500 priests worldwide and celebrates Mass for its followers at more than 700 locations worldwide, including the St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Winona. Priests of the society reject the liberalization and openness brought about by Vatican II and adhere to traditional hallmarks of Catholicism including the Tridentine Mass said in Latin.
HOW WERE WILLIAMSON AND THE SSPX BISHOPS EXCOMMUNICATED, THEN WELCOMED BACK INTO THE CATHOLIC CHURCH?
In 1988, Lefebvre consecrated four SSPX priests — Williamson, Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais and Alfonso de Galarreta — as bishops, which a SSPX press release says was done to “ensure the survival of Catholic tradition.“
Then, later in 1988, the Vatican declared Lefebvre’s ordinations a schismatic act. Lefebvre, a bishop who assisted in the ceremony and the four newly consecrated bishops are excommunicated by the Vatican, meaning they were barred from receiving Catholic sacraments. The SSPX still maintains these excommunications were never valid.
WHAT WILLIAMSON SAID WHILE RECTOR AT AQUINAS SEMINARY IN WINONA:
“There was not one Jew killed in the gas chambers. It was all lies, lies, lies. The Jews created the Holocaust so we would prostrate ourselves on our knees before them and approve of their new State of Israel. ... Jews made up the Holocaust, Protestants get their orders from the devil, and the Vatican has sold its soul to liberalism.“ (From a speech in 1989 at Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes church in Sherbrooke, Canada.)
“The Jews have come closer and closer to fulfilling their substitute-Messianic drive towards world dominion.“ (From an October 2001 letter to friends and benefactors of SSPX)
“Judeo-Masonry brought about the first two World Wars.“ (From a September 2002 letter)
ON THE TERRORIST ATTACKS OF SEPT. 11:
“God’s punishment has surely started, but will surely not finish, with the September 11 attack on the United States.”
“Politically, behind the Arab terrorists are most likely the would-be architects of the New World Order, who have long been using the United States as an instrument to achieve their control of the world.” (From an October 2001 letter)
“Because of all kinds of natural reasons, almost no girl should go to any university!“
“Woman’s nature is intrinsically geared to motherhood, so that in all things pertaining to motherhood she is man’s superior, in all else she is his inferior.“ (From a September 2001 letter)
“The sin is so unnatural that Mother Church ranks it alongside murder.“
“What is ‘innate,’ or in-born, in human nature concerning homosexuality is a violent repugnance.” (From a September 2001 letter) Winona Daily News