Father Leonard Feeney

A Latter-Day Athanasius

By Brother John Neumann, M.I.C.M., Tert.

Part III.

From Common to the Country

Father bravely continued to fight the good fight uncompromisingly in defense of a dogma of the Catholic Faith. Even with all the legal defects that rendered it invalid, however, he was nonetheless crushed by the decree of excommunication. His reputation was utterly destroyed beyond redemption. His family was made to share his shame. His spiritual children, the Slaves of The Immaculate Heart of Mary, had become social lepers with him. The hierarchy of His own Church, to which he had devoted his life, had disowned him. But worst of all, the Holy Father, Pope Pius XII, to whom he had rendered filial devotion and obedience, and for whom he held the greatest love, had failed to protect him.

His spiritual father in the Society of Jesus, St. Ignatius of Loyola, likewise had once been accused by the Holy Office. A Doctor of the Church, St. Teresa of Avila, at one time had been under Church censure for her teachings. St. Athanasius had been excommunicated no less than five times for defending the Faith. St. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake as a heretic by Church authorities. And Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself was beheld as a “scandal” by His own people. But these precedents did little to ease the poor priest’s suffering.

Brother Francis and Brother Hugh with friends of St. Benedict Center.

Life for Father Feeney and his religious community in succeeding months and years was effectively summed up by Catherine Clarke (called Sister Catherine as a Religious) in a single phrase: “the catacombs.” They lived in several houses forming something of a compound in Cambridge near the Center, where they were subjected to verbal and even physical abuse. Fakhri Maluf (now taking the name of Brother Francis as a Religious), owing to his Arab origins, seemed to be singled out for especial hatred. Thugs once attacked him on the street, kicking him until a passing truck driver came to his defense. Another time, someone held a lit cigarette to his clothing till it burned through to his flesh. Rocks were hurled at the homes as well as through the Center’s plate glass window.

The constant threat of such menace as well as Father’s poor health led the community in 1958 to purchase the Willard estate, situated in that part of the town of Harvard called Still River, about an hour’s drive from Boston. It was an expansive estate, dating back to the Revolutionary War era, in a bucolic countryside setting overlooking the Nashoba Valley. The tranquil serenity of their new home, far removed from the tense, embattled life that was their lot in Cambridge, was an ideal bromide for Father’s health, and afforded a peaceful environment in which to practise a more suitable monastic lifestyle of prayer and study. But by no means were the Slaves of Mary’s Immaculate Heart abandoning their crusade for a contemplative life. On the contrary, they continued publishing books and other printed materials, which they distributed throughout the entire country as an apostolate they simply called “book-selling” — small teams of Brothers or Sisters sent across the country, calling on business establishments and asking for donations for their printed wares. By this means every major city and innumerable towns in the United States were visited in the years following, and millions of souls were reached with the salvific message of the Faith.

Fr. Feeney with statue of Mother Seton, whose biography he wrote.

The move, however, did present one hazard to the crusade: After years of living under continued abuse and persecution in Cambridge, “battle fatigue” had to have been an element that made life in peaceful Still River so much more appealing to these longsuffering Religious. All worked hard at the new St. Benedict Center. But it was healthy and fulfilling work — not as taxing or humiliating as having to withstand the abusive insult which they so often confronted on book-selling trips. As one who spent five years working 14 hours daily at the Center, I personally saw close up how much this was becoming a factor, and how, by degrees, the appeal of monastic lifestyle for some began to overshadow the community’s apostolic vocation.

Father Feeney was the spirit of the Center, and despite what would happen in the future, let it be said that all his spiritual children in the community loved him with filial devotion. But, as all of them would agree, he was not, in the strictly organizational sense of the word, a leader. That was Sister Catherine’s outstanding contribution and talent. Without officially adopting the title, she was a Mother Superior to the Slaves. In 1968, she succumbed after a heroic battle with cancer. Father called her a saint and said he somehow drew new strength with her death.

Yet the day-to-day affairs of managing a religious community and its activities, all knew, was something not to be expected or asked of him. Others would have to try to fill that void.

Fortes in Fide

One morning after the community had first taken up quarters in Still River, one of the Brothers whose cubicle was next to Father’s bedroom anxiously had informed Sister Catherine that he heard their Founder vomiting in the middle of the night. “Didn’t you know, Dear?” she responded with no sign of alarm. “Father is sick every night.” She explained to the worried Brother that Father Leonard, while a seminarian, had had half his stomach removed, and how that had left him with a lifelong affliction. One can only imagine how much this condition must have been aggravated by all his tribulations with the Jesuits and the hierarchy, and by the barrages of vulgarities and blasphemies shrieked at him those many Sundays on Boston Common.

Father Feeney advanced in years and sanctity.

Father was now old. Adding to his physical difficulties, he had Parkinson’s Disease, which severely impaired short-term memory and, to a lesser degree, his mental processes — though one still could not engage him in conversation for more than thirty seconds before he would bring Our Lord and Our Lady into the discussion! He was bent over with age, and his hand would go into tremors when at rest.

During the latter 1960s and early 1970s, differences unfortunately began to arise among the community, and these led to a division. (It was not a development without precedent. Something remarkably comparable afflicted the Redemptorist Congregation after its founder, St. Alphonsus, had grown infirm.) One of the factions, which included a majority of Religious, had grown apprehensive of their future as a religious community, knowing the founder could not have much time left. Being under official censure by Rome, what would they do when Father Leonard died? How would they receive the Sacraments? Worse yet — far worse — many of them were, in varying degrees, compromising on their doctrinal stand. Liberals were emerging in the very bastion of anti-Liberalism!

It was under these circumstances that some from the larger faction began negotiating with the Archdiocese, hoping to have the censures imposed on St. Benedict Center lifted. That was something expressly forbidden by Father, who had given orders that any contact with higher authorities must be on the issue of the doctrinal crusade and must not give the impression of any kind of compromise. (“On the issue,” in fact, became a consecrated phrase at the Center.) Ignoring Father’s policy marked a weakness of faith in the Providence of God and in Our Lady’s protection.

This, in fact, was the cause of the division within the Community. For other Brothers and Sisters, conscious that Liberalism and the false ecumenism — the causes of their original protest — were now more rampant than ever, knew it to be their duty to remain steadfast as a challenge to these trends, until the truth of the dogma for which they stood was clearly vindicated.

In any event, as pre-conditional to lifting the Center’s censures, and without Father Feeney having any realization of what was really happening, Auxiliary Bishop Lawrence Riley of Boston quietly arrived at the Center on August 23, 1972. A number of Religious were gathered with Father when it was suggested that everyone, Father included, sing the Athanasian Creed. Bishop Riley accepted this simple profession of faith by Father as sufficient to remove any bans of excommunication and interdict that had been imposed on him.

However uncanonically, those censures had been imposed because of Father’s strict adherence to, and unyielding defense of, the doctrine No Salvation Outside the Church. Ironically, the Athanasian Creed chanted feebly in Latin by Father as a profession of faith before Bishop Riley, contains these words: “Whosoever wishes to be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt shall perish everlastingly....”

In a storm of persecution and punishing humiliation twenty years earlier, Church authorities had decreed the excommunication of Father Leonard Feeney before the whole world. Now, before an informal gathering of some of his Religious, the Church’s hierarchy very quietly embraced him once again as a priest in good standing. And he did not even know it!

In the meantime, after the dogma No Salvation Outside the Church had become nearly universally repudiated by Catholics, an Ecumenical Council had been convened. It opened the era of so-called “ecumenism” — reaching out to schismatic, Protestant, and even non-Christian religions, in a spirit of brotherhood and unity of purpose — without any unity of faith. In the wake of that Council, the Divine Liturgy of the Roman Rite was replaced with one admitted to be perfectly consonant with a Lutheran service. Pope Paul VI safeguarded the Supreme Magisterium by affirming that Vatican II was a “pastoral” council, not a doctrinal one whose proclamations would be binding on the Faith, and he later lamented that “the smoke of Satan has entered the Church” since Vatican II.

Humberto Cardinal Medeiros.

Throughout that turbulent era, meanwhile, Father Leonard Feeney continued to celebrate the traditional Latin Liturgy, the so-called Tridentine Mass. He continued to preach lovingly on Our Lady and the Blessed Sacrament. He continued to hold fast to the infallible teachings of the Church. And he especially continued to maintain his defense of the dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus without any compromise whatsoever.  Even Cardinal Medeiros of Boston once had admitted, “in some of his concerns he was right. He could probably foresee some of the things that have happened in the Church.” In point of fact, Father Feeney had clearly predicted the disastrous state to which the Church has fallen, precisely because the doctrine of salvation had been so completely repudiated.

*   *   *   *   *
As each year passed, and as Father Leonard grew older — and his mind and body more weakened by his afflictions — I saw less and less of him. But even when I could only glimpse him at a distance, I still saw within his bent and aged frame a heart still filled with unquenchable love for his “little Mary,” his Blessed Mother. And I know it never stopped repeating that rhythmic phrase which was so much a part of his priestly career: “No Salvation Outside the Catholic Church.”

Winter came on, and Father Leonard, now eighty, had grown too ill to be cared for adequately at his Still River monastery. He was taken to Nashoba County Hospital, in Ayer, a few miles from the Center.

In a small hospital room, on January 30th, 1978, the feast of St. Martina — exactly 20 years after saying his first Mass in Still River — the voice that had resounded across the globe with the message of salvation fell silent. Leonard Feeney had quietly passed away. And his soul in that moment, I believe, was embraced in the arms of his beloved “little Mary.” I believe this because Our Lord promised: “Blessed are ye when men reproach you, and persecute you, and, speaking falsely, say all manner of evil against you, for my sake: Rejoice and exult, because your reward in heaven is great” (Matt. 5:11,12).

A poem Father wrote many years earlier begins with these lines which seem befitting of the heroic sacrifice he had made with no regrets:

I burned my bridges when I had crossed.
I never brooded on what I lost.
Nor ruined with rapine my holocaust.
Though his voice is now still forevermore, the thunder of his doctrinal message yet reverberates. For fifty years, his faithful spiritual children, the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, have continued to defend and proclaim the dogma, extra ecclesiam nulla salus, by both word and print. Greater numbers of priests are coming to realize, as Father did half a century ago, that it is the denial of this dogma which has brought the Church to its present state of spiritual disorder and “auto-demolition,” as Pope Paul VI described it.

The graves of our founders, Fr. Leonard Feeney, M.I.C.M. and Sister Catherine Goddard Clarke, M.I.C.M. May their souls forever rest in peace!

One day, the world will know and embrace the One True Faith. We know this because Our Lord assured us. And when it does, it will acknowledge its debt to Father Feeney for having shown us that only in and by that Faith can there be true unity.

In the meantime, for bringing me back to the sacraments, for enabling me to discover and to love my Faith in its fullness, I personally thank you, Father Leonard. God rest your blessed soul.

Read Part I.
Read Part II.

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