A Costa Rican priest says he has been suspended, removed from his parish, and sent to psychological treatment by his bishop who is angry with him for celebrating the reformed liturgy in Latin and ad orientem.
Fr. Sixto Eduardo Varela Santamaría, who until very recently was the Chancellor of the Diocese of Alajuela, had been celebrating the Mass since 2019 for a community of hundreds of faithful who are devoted to the Catholic Church’s traditional Roman rite, known popularly as the “Tridentine Mass.” The liturgies were celebrated at the parish of San Jose, of which he was a pastor, with the blessing of his bishop.
Fr. Varela and other members of the faithful say that the priest obeyed his bishop’s refusal to grant him permission to continue celebrating the pre-reform “Tridentine” mass, but exercised his right under canon law to celebrate the reformed or “Novus Ordo” mass in Latin, stoking the ire of his prelate and leading to his ouster.
The removal of Fr. Varela leaves hundreds of devotees of the traditional liturgy in Costa Rica without a pastor and without the traditional sacraments.
The country’s episcopal conference declared a total ban on the ancient liturgy last month in response to Pope Francis’ recent letter Traditiones custodes, which imposes restrictions on the traditional rites but does not require their prohibition. However, the bishops also prohibited any practices “proper” to the pre-1970 liturgy, which appears to include the use of Latin as well as the custom of the priest facing the altar with the people. The Church’s ancient repertoire of Gregorian Chant would also be swept away in such a prohibition.
In an audio recording sent to his former parishioners and obtained by Catholic World Report, Fr. Varela said he has been sent to live with his parents for a half-year “sabbatical”, and has been prohibited from celebrating the sacraments in public. He added that his bishop, Bartolomé Buigues, will also be sending him to a clinic in Mexico that gives “psychological” and “medical” care.
“I’ll be going to Mexico for three months to an institute that the bishop has designated so that they can accompany me spiritually, psychologically, and medically – at least that is what the page says of this institute, which is run by the Missionaries of the Holy Spirit,” said Fr. Varela.
Fr. Varela explained that the decision to banish him from his parish was made after he submitted to the decision to prohibit the traditional liturgy, but sought to continue his ministry to his flock using the liturgical books of Pope Paul VI, commonly called the “Novus Ordo,” in Latin. “The bishop didn’t prefer that, didn’t like that either,” said the priest, adding that his bishop sees this as the act that “unleashed” the disciplinary measures against him.
As of this posting, Catholic World Report has not received a response to interview requests sent to the Costa Rican Episcopal Conference and to the Diocese of Alajuela by Catholic World Report.
Claim of “disobedience” denied by witnesses
A representative of the Diocese of Alajuela told the Costa Rican newspaper La Nación that the priest had continued celebrating the pre-1970 mass after he was denied permission, a claim that was contradicted by both Fr. Varela in his audio testimony and the president of the Summorum Pontificum Association of Costa Rica, José Pablo Arias Soto, as well as by a parishioner whose written testimony was obtained by Catholic World Report.
Arias Soto told La Nación that Fr. Varela had obeyed the prohibition of the pre-Vatican II rite and had begun to celebrate mass “according to the Missal of Saint Paul VI in Latin, as is established in canon 928, something that has never been prohibited nor can be prohibited by an Ordinary.”
He added that “any claim that Fr. Sixto has been disobedient regarding the celebration of a prohibited rite, is absolutely false and, out of respect for the truth and for justice, it must be rejected with the greatest forcefulness.”
A diocesan official also told the newspaper that Pope Francis had “limited the use of the mass prior to Vatican II only to communities that existed before the reform of 1970,” and that the faithful were required to know Latin. However, neither restriction is found in the motu proprio Traditiones custodes nor its accompanying letter.
In a brief press release issued today the Diocese of Alajuela claimed that Fr. Varela had received three “admonitions” prior to his suspension but no details were given regarding their content, nor was any offense named to justify the actions taken against him.
Although he noted that he had committed “no offense named in the Code of Canon Law that corresponds to a punishment of this magnitude,” Fr. Varela said in his recorded statement that he had decided not to carry out any appeals but rather to accept the suspension. He said that he would use the time to reflect upon the future course of his life.
Priest known for defending Catholic doctrine and morality
The “admonitions” referred to by the Diocese Alajuela of may refer to previous occasions when Fr. Varela generated controversy in Costa Rica for defending Catholic doctrine and morality.
In 2016, he made headlines in the secular media when he refused to allow a practicing homosexual to act as a godparent in a baptism, applying a rule that has existed in the Church for many centuries, which requires baptism sponsors to be a good example to their godchildren. Although he received no public punishment for his stand, he was condemned strongly by pro-LGBT parliamentarians, and seems to have received no public defense from he episcopal hierarchy.
However, in 2018, Fr. Varela was openly condemned by the bishops’ conference of Costa Rica when he accused the country’s president and other public officials of being “disguised atheists” following their support for the legalization of abortion and homosexual marriage. Despite the president’s anti-Christian stance on such issues, he and other government officials continued to attend the Mass in public and to be given Holy Communion.
“We continue to participate in the political theater of these disguised atheists!!!! Forgive us, O Lord, forgive us!!!! If this man is Catholic, let him act like a Catholic!!!! No more using the Church to tranquilize the masses!!!!” an outraged Fr. Varela wrote on his Facebook page. He removed the post soon after, but it was republished by local media.
“We profoundly regret the interpretation regarding this act that was made public by Fr. Sixto Eduardo Varela Santamaria, which differs totally from the motivations and sentiments that animated the celebration,” the bishops’ conference stated in response to Fr. Varela’s words. They added that they could not “judge the reasoning and the longings present in the heart of a child of God, and we are the first to recognize and respect the exercise of freedom of religion of all citizens, including the President.”
In less than two years, President Carlos Alvarado had signed a law legalizing abortion in a variety of circumstances. In 2020, after several years of effort, he succeeded in approving a law creating homosexual “marriage”.
Bishop Bartolomé Buigues, who was appointed by Pope Francis to the Diocese of Alajuela in March of 2018, has himself been the subject of controversy in Costa Rica due to his own statements regarding same-sex unions.
On the eve of the first such “marriage” under Costa Rican civil law, in May of 2020, the bishop stated in a public sermon that “we have to be tolerant. We live in an open society. We live our faith, we deepen our faith, but we rejoice that there are different types of human relationship, distinct ways of having a family and I think that where there is a manifestation of affection and of family in some form, there God is made manifest, and we have to favor it.”
The next day the bishop removed the video of the statements from his Facebook page and reaffirmed the Church’s teaching on marriage, but also added, “As, in fact, these other unions have been recognized by our legislation, I have an inclusive view of them, far from any discrimination. And I hope that with their experience they will also provide ties of affection, care and protection to our society.”
Costa Rican bishops seek total prohibition of Latin, ancient liturgical customs
The bishops of Costa Rica, who have long stonewalled and rejected appeals for the traditional Mass by the Catholic faithful, have taken Pope Francis recent pastoral letter Traditiones custodes as a mandate to eliminate the traditional liturgy completely in their country, not only in its pre-1970 manifestations, but even in the “New Mass” of Pope Paul VI.
To the great disappointment of hundreds of Catholic faithful who have for years participated in the one traditional Mass available in the whole country, the bishops claimed that no group of faithful had ever existed in Costa Rica that met the description of Pope Benedict, those who “continued to be attached with such love and affection to the earlier liturgical forms which had deeply shaped their culture and spirit.”
They also accused those faithful who sought the traditional liturgy of not “always expressing their view regarding the validity and legitimacy of the liturgical reform, of the dictates of Vatican II and the Magisterium of the Supreme Pontiffs” and claimed that they didn’t meet the requirement of having to know Latin so that they could participate in the mass.
However, the bishops went further than this, adding that the reformed liturgy “must be protected from any element that originates in the ancient forms. The prayers, vestments and rites that were proper to the liturgy before the reform of 1970 must not be introduced.” It appears that they are including in this prohibition the use of Latin, the ad orientem orientation of the priest, and other traditional elements of the Roman rite.
The restrictions are a particularly bitter pill to swallow for the Catholic faithful who attended Fr. Varela’s masses, because the group was formed specifically for those who did not wish to participate in the masses of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X (FSSPX), which functions without the approval of the bishops. When the country’s Una Voce leadership decided to participate in the masses of the FSSPX, a new organization was formed by those who wanted to remain attached to the bishops. Now they are being accused of the very disloyalty they sought to reject.
“The existing group of laity has received the strongest of blows from the pastoral staff,” wrote a laymen of the parish who wished to remain anonymous. “They are now without a priest to accompany them, without the the celebration of the Holy Mass now not only with the Mass of 1962, but also the new Mass in Latin”.
“What will happen to those faithful? Many of them have been shunned in their parishes of origin. The Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X has insisted that they will continue celebrating the Traditional Mass, even in the diocese of Alajuela, and have invited people to disobey Pope Francis and the bishop.”
However, he rejected such a solution, calling instead for prayer. “May those who can, unite themselves in prayer, both for Fr. Sixto, and for the group of faithful,” he wrote. “That is the best weapon.”
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