March 2015 Print

“Go East”

Interview with Fr. John Jenkins, SSPX, priest in the Autonomous House of Eastern Europe

The Angelus: Father Jenkins, you were assigned to Eastern Europe in 2004. How was it that you were sent to Poland? Do you have any Polish heritage or family in Poland?

Fr. Jenkins: No, my family has been in Connecticut since 1635, and the ancestors of my maternal grandmother arrived in America even earlier. The Jenkinses and the Williamses are all Welsh in origin, so I am sad to say there is not any Slavic influence in the family. However, St. Paul says that in Our Lord “there is neither Jew nor Greek, Barbarian or Scythian, but Christ is all and in all.” Thus a priest, who is “according to the order of Melchisedek” and has neither “family nor genealogy” [Heb. 7:3], must be ready to be sent to any and all nations of the earth.

One could say that the true proof of being Catholic, or universal, is this willingness to be sent to all nations, like the Apostles. A priest is not for himself, but sent by someone, sent for the salvation of others. Each and every priest has to be a missionary in some sense or he will lose either his sense of mission or even his Catholicity. So it has always been for me a great privilege to be sent to other countries to preach the gospel, even at the cost of leaving a beloved family.


The Angelus: Was Eastern Europe your first post after ordination?

Fr. Jenkins: My first nomination after my ordination was to Switzerland, to the priory in Geneva, where I was given the responsibility for the chapel at Lausanne. It was a very agreeable assignment, and was very close to Ecône and so I had the pleasure of being “close” to the Archbishop. But it was in Lausanne, a few minutes before the evening Mass on Wednesday that I heard a phone ring in the sacristy. It was quite a surprise to hear Fr. Selegny on the other end of the line (he was General Secretary at the time) informing me of my new assignment to Poland!


The Angelus: And yet how to preach the gospel if you don’t know the language? Did you study French or Polish before?

Fr. Jenkins: Of course one of the first things to be done upon arriving in another nation is to learn the language. However, one must not think that a priest can do nothing if he doesn’t know the language. Although it may not seem so at first sight, the Latin language is an enormous pastoral instrument in itself. Latin guarantees the essential work of the priest for the faithful. The priest can say the Mass, the breviary, the rosary, the sacraments and even hear confessions with the aid of a small card on the first day of his arrival. Thus all the essential needs of the faithful can be fulfilled as the priest prepares himself for preaching in their language.

For the priest learning a new language, Latin provides the mental scaffolding upon which to learn the grammar of another language. For example, the Slavic and Baltic languages are very much like Latin in their grammatical structure of seven cases and multiple declensions. The teaching and learning of Latin is essential for the mission of the Church, not only as an official language of her public offices, but even for the pastoral care of the faithful.


The Angelus: Is the difficulty of learning a language profound?

Fr. Jenkins: The missionary’s life is full of many sacrifices and many labors, many of them unseen and which only God can reward. I do think that the difficulty in learning a language is one of the most sanctifying for a priest. It demands a profound discipline of the mind to constantly bend one’s self-expression to the objective rules of grammar in order to be understood. Learning a language also teaches humility because you are reduced to the stage of an ‘infant’ (not being able to speak) for quite a long time. The task of translating the sermon often reduces the flowers of rhetoric to simple and clear statements that can be understood, which actually helps the faithful as well as the priest to concentrate on what is most important.

Learning a language is above all a lot of work! If you ever come across a book that promises you a language “without difficulty” or “in ninety days,” I can guarantee you that it is simply not true! However, the effort is worth it, as with each language you can preach to so many more souls.


The Angelus: What about the life of the missions? What is the daily life in the missions of Eastern Europe?

Fr. Jenkins: I arrived in Poland in 2004, some eight years after the establishment of the missions in Eastern Europe. Fr. Stehlin had already bought a small house which became the priory, and this house had just recently been added on to when I arrived. The Sunday Masses were held in the rather small chapel with some 40 people at the time (now there are close to 400 and a large church). The difficulties were immense, especially financially and materially as well as spiritually. Poland at that time was just coming out of the nightmare of Communism, and it was a bit like salvaging what one could from an enormous shipwreck to make some sort of life boat.

The first work is always assuring the basic functioning of the priory and the regular offices, and to begin preaching the Catholic Faith to everyone whom you can. Of particular importance are the preaching of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. These exercises give a fundamental understanding of the principle truths of faith with a specific goal of putting these truths into practice. Many of our faithful came to know about Tradition by the five days they spent in our priory following these Exercises. Catechism, of course, every Sunday is a sacred obligation for the priest that can never be neglected. Also it is important to give recollections during the important times of year such as Lent and Advent. In Poland during the months of May and October there are special devotions to Our Lady and conferences to be preached.

The Angelus: What other unique apostolates do you have? How is life different as a missionary today, as opposed to previous centuries?

Fr. Jenkins: One of the main activities that I am able to do in Poland is to preach conferences to university students. About two to three times a month I preach a conference on a topic by the invitation of a professor or one of the faithful. Topics include not only the crisis of the Church but also Sacred Music and Western Culture, or, for instance, why the Mass ought to be in Latin. For these conferences there can be well over 100 people, and there is always a discussion with questions and answers that typically last longer than the conference itself. This is very important especially for those who are about to enter public life after their studies.

Also the Internet and modern communication, which is not free of danger, nonetheless provide the means to reach many people whom we could never reach otherwise. Not only by our website [] but also by our online radio station [] we are able to transmit many of the conferences to thousands of people with very little additional effort. Following the example of St. Maximilian Kolbe we have always tried to use technology as much as we can to promote the Faith. But simple correspondence, even electronic, is not sufficient. The priest must go to the people.

The Angelus: Can you tell us about the travel involved in serving the mission chapels?

Fr. Jenkins: In Poland in the beginning we traveled almost exclusively by public transport—trains and buses, simply because the cost and the conditions of Polish roads did not allow for traveling by car. Normally each priest would have two or three chapels to celebrate Mass for the faithful each Sunday. The distances would be three to six hours by train, sometimes more if there was not a good connection. This time spent on the train may be difficult, but it can also be put to good use—not only as a sacrifice for the souls you are about to meet, but also plenty of time to say one’s breviary and even talk to a few people in the train of spiritual things.

Even though the missions start small, often with only 10-15 people, they are not intended to stay that way! With the work of the retreats, conferences, and recollections, and especially with catechism and the adorning of the Mass with truly sacred music, a chapel will naturally grow. In fact the chapel will grow in measure of how perfectly the faithful can live therein the entire Christian life, and not just Sunday Mass. For larger chapels, such as the one in Poznan, which now has over a hundred faithful, I would also travel to say the Mass for each first class feast, in addition to the holy days of obligation. When God grants us the priests and the means to accomplish it, these larger chapels will be able to live the entire liturgical life, become priories, and in turn send out their priests to other missions.


The Angelus: What is most important for a missionary priest?

Fr. Jenkins: Perhaps the most important for the priest in the missions is an understanding that he is there for the people and not for himself. A priest who is searching for consolation or comfort in the missions will always get in trouble or at the very least will drive the faithful away and make his apostolate fruitless. He must be generous with his time, and not think that he sacrificed six hours of travel just to say Mass quickly and leave as soon as possible.


The Angelus: Is it difficult establishing a small chapel?

Fr. Jenkins: There is much patience to be practiced in the establishing of a small chapel. Many times there will not even be a sacristan to prepare the Mass, nor anyone to clean the chapel, and so the priest must do this himself. There might be no one who even knows how to serve the Mass. The music will often be far from what it should be. Most if not all of the faithful are very ignorant of most simple religious truths. So the foolish priest might think that he is wasting his time.

Yet nothing is further from the truth! In fact if everything is imperfect, if the liturgical life is not being lived, it is only proof that these people need the priest! This is the reason why he is being sent to this chapel, to give this life to them! The sacrament of orders is above all a sacrament to put order into souls, and by putting order into souls you bring order to society. To give order to souls you must start somewhere, sometimes just by teaching someone how to clean the chapel, and by word and example bring them to such a state that you can finally give them Our Lord Himself in Holy Communion.


The Angelus: What would be the most satisfying moment in your life as a missionary in Eastern Europe?

Fr. Jenkins: The good Lord has blessed our work here in Eastern Europe so abundantly that I could not easily count the blessings. However, perhaps the most important would be the founding of our two schools here in Poland. The Apostles were sent to “teach all nations,” and so teaching is the fundamental work of the Church. The founding of a Catholic school is not only a great satisfaction as an instrument of transmitting the Faith, but also it is, as it were, the fulfillment of God’s promise that His word shall never pass away. Even though we priests become old and tired as the years go on and the labor never stops, there is the next generation receiving the doctrine of Our Lord by means of the school.

And we know, as certain as God is faithful, that some of these young souls will one day have the courage to share what they have learned with peoples of far away nations and so bring about the extension of God’s Kingdom on earth. May God grant us many holy priests and many holy religious vocations!