The Angelus: After the interview of Fr. John Jenkins on his Polish apostolate, we are pleased to hear from another American priest laboring in the Eastern parts of Europe, Fr. Shane Pezzutti. And, by way of introduction, Father, would you mind telling us about your background before joining the SSPX shock troops?
Fr. Pezzutti: Well, I was born in Columbus, Ohio, and I am the oldest of 8 children from a Catholic family. After attending Catholic schools, I graduated with a degree in the history of philosophy. My journey to Catholic Tradition began with the reading of papal encyclicals, comparing them with the texts of Vatican II and discovering the many contradictions. Later, I went to the SSPX Mass in Cincinnati. I was so impressed by the priests there, the altar servers, the people, and the Gregorian chant that I never returned to the indult Mass in Columbus.
The Angelus: Did you find your vocation to the priesthood in Cincinnati?
Fr. Pezzutti: Yes, it was at the Cincinnati chapel that I met traditional Catholics like the future Fr. Themann and his family, but later I met Fr. James Doran. He was replacing the pastor one weekend, and after Holy Mass we spoke together and he invited me to visit Winona. So, I owe a lot to him for his great priestly inspiration. Then, as a seminarian, I was also tremendously blessed to have Fr. Yves le Roux as Rector, another outstanding priestly example for all of us at the seminary. I was ordained a priest in 2010.
The Angelus: Was Eastern Europe your first assignment?
Fr. Pezzutti: To my great surprise, yes! We joked among ourselves that maybe this new priest would go to Africa or that new priest would go to Mexico, etc., but we never joked about Eastern Europe, because…well, that was simply out of the question--or so I thought! I was actually driving when Fr. Beck broke the news to me. He said to me, “Well, Father, unfortunately you are not staying in the USA. Yeah! It says here that you will be going to Poland. That’s all I know, so you will have to contact Fr. Karl Stehlin.” When I heard that, I almost ran off the road! How could I go to Poland? I’m not Polish; I don’t know Polish! I thought to myself: “Does the SSPX even have missions in Poland? Well, God certainly knows better than I. He knows what He is doing. He will send me where He wants me.”
The Angelus: I am sure that you got in touch with Fr. Stehlin, didn’t you?
Fr. Pezzutti: Indeed! He called me from Poland. When I told him that I was ready and willing to help in Poland however I could, he answered in a jovial and enthusiastic voice, “Well! Not exactly, Father. You will be living in Lithuania, and you will be responsible for the other two Baltic countries of Estonia and Latvia.” What? Again, I was stunned: “Where in the world is that? Do we even have missions in those countries?” As I got off the phone with him, I told my parents and we were all shell shocked.
The Angelus: Before your trip, did you do more research about your destination?
Fr. Pezzutti: Yes. We quickly realized that Lithuania was right next to Russia! We discovered that it was a former republic of the Soviet Union. It felt like the twilight zone. I have to admit that I was pretty nervous. Then, checking the SSPX websites. I quickly began to discover the tremendous work that Fr. Stehlin had done in Eastern Europe and his great devotion to Our Lady, the Immaculata. I had really never heard much about it, but I felt honored to work with such a priest and in such an interesting mission. Also, somehow I felt that maybe with this assignment in Eastern Europe, and so close to Russia, I could do something to help Our Lady of Fatima!
The Angelus: What was your trip to Lithuania like?
Fr. Pezzutti: After quite a long and adventurous journey with many delays, I finally arrived in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. On my way to the priory in Kaunas, in an old nasty Soviet train, I met a young man who spoke to me in English, but with a heavy Russian accent. He asked, “Are you a priest?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Why? Why would you believe in religion? I don’t believe in religion. I’m from Moscow and I am an atheist.” I said to myself, “Welcome to Eastern Europe!” Well, after a long and interesting conversation with the young man, he stood up and said: “I don’t believe in religion, but I respect you for your beliefs.” Maybe somehow a seed was planted in his soul. I still pray for him.
The Angelus: Any first impressions of the city of Kaunas?
Fr. Pezzutti: I kept thinking about the fact that I was in a former Communist territory, with such a painful history. Lithuania had been ruled by the Russian empire, and afterwards by the Soviet Union, and it was tossed between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Russia during World War II. This tiny Catholic Baltic nation had suffered long decades of persecution. And, although Lithuania has many very beautiful forests and scenery, you can also still see many old apartment buildings from the Soviet era. They used a peculiar white brick material which, in my opinion, is hideous. That made a deep impression on me.
The Angelus: Can you tell us more of the era of persecution?
Fr. Pezzutti: You have to understand that the Soviet Union was a terrible godless political system which terrorized its own citizens. It ferociously persecuted all “traitors” to the communist ideology. It publicly proclaimed that religion was a psychological disorder and that it corrupted the minds of Soviet citizens. For over 70 years, the Communists severely persecuted religion, especially Catholicism in Lithuania. Millions were tortured and murdered. Even in Catholic Lithuania, up until the 1980s, atheistic school teachers forced the children to draw blasphemous pictures which mocked Our Lord Jesus Christ and priests. Teaching catechism publicly to children was forbidden. These were the terrible errors of Russia, which Our Lady of Fatima warned us about.
The Angelus: How about the priory? Were things pleasant there?
Fr. Pezzutti: Well, Lithuania has some very unique and actually quite tasty food, but I had to get used to some of it. By way of anecdote, at that time, we had an intimidating Lithuanian cook. After a while, I got up enough courage to ask her to make some lasagna, which I was missing terribly! She answered very seriously, “Oh, no; we don’t have comfort here.” Lasagna is comfort? She was serious! I thought that was funny. Anyway, our priory in Kaunas is kind of a center for a lot of the missions in Eastern Europe, but of course it depends on our headquarters in Poland. It is a really nice building, and presently it houses three priests. We take care of as many as six mission chapels: two in Lithuania, two in Russia, and one chapel in both countries of Belarus and Estonia. The priory hosts also an Oblate sister of the SSPX from Lithuania, and sometimes pre-seminarians.
The Angelus: What were your first duties in the strange new world of the East?
Fr. Pezzutti: My first priority was to learn the intimidating Lithuanian language, and to solve the various visa troubles which arose. After that, Fr. Stehlin soon visited Kaunas in order to take me on my first mission run to Latvia and Estonia. My duties were basically the following: I had to help in Lithuania on the second and fourth weekends and on the first and third weekends to travel to Latvia and Estonia, which was pretty difficult. I usually left by bus on Friday morning. After over four hours on an old Soviet bus I arrived in Riga, Latvia, where the Society actually works together with a Byzantine Rite priest.
The Angelus: What did it feel like to be celebrating Mass in a bi-ritual church?
Fr. Pezzutti: That was a whole new world to me even though I had always been interested in the Eastern Rites. In Riga, we have an Eastern Rite Community there, and a Latin Rite Community which I was responsible for. Both groups were very thankful for my presence. Also, at first, it was also a little awkward to get used to the fact that the priest there was married, as you can imagine. My duties were usually to offer Mass in Riga on Friday night and, the next morning, jump on another four hours bus ride to Tallinn, Estonia. Our mission there also was quite small, with only about 30 faithful for Sunday Mass. Sunday travels were also a challenge. I would offer the Holy Mass in Tallinn and preach in the Estonian language, and then teach catechism. Then I would rush to the bus station and four hours later I was back in Riga, Latvia. I would preach in the Latvian language and then give catechism. Sundays were long days and, so, I slept very well before getting back to Kaunas on Monday morning. The difficulty was that it was a long four day trip through three countries, with three different languages, three different currencies, and about seventeen hours on the bus.
The Angelus: It seems hard enough as you mention it. Were there times when you felt overwhelmed by your responsibilities?
Fr. Pezzutti: It was tough, but I have to say that Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Immaculata blessed me with such a great peace and happiness during that first year. Whenever the difficulties began to escalate, I always saw the merciful hand of God lifting me up and helping me along. I had seen that same thing throughout my time in the seminary also, and I saw it again as a priest. God is a very good Father, and He will always help us when we really are in need. That is a fact. I also had to try to study those three difficult languages: Lithuanian, Estonian, and Latvian, and to preach in them. Usually I would write a sermon in English and one of the faithful would translate it, and then I would simply read it to the people. But, still it took a lot of time and practice just to read those languages correctly.
The Angelus: Besides the physical exhaustion that went with the travels, what was the most difficult aspect of your parish responsibilities?
Fr. Pezzutti: I found it quite challenging to understand the various mentalities of the faithful in Eastern Europe. If you observe how they practice religion and how they pray, you see immediately how little they know. The Soviets were very effective in destroying religion and faith in souls. So, it took me some time to adjust to that fact. Indeed, I am still trying to adjust to it. I had to realize that I was not surrounded with hundreds of traditionalist faithful, all who probably knew theology and the situation in the Church better than I! The faithful in the USA, for example, take initiative and organize a lot by themselves. Our faithful in Eastern Europe are less equipped religiously and more dependent on the priest.
The Angelus: That is quite a different mindset from what we are used to.
Fr. Pezzutti: Indeed, and to top it all, there is also what we call the “Homo-sovieticus.” The Soviet Union, besides malevolently attacking religion, created a universal climate of suspicion. Everyone was a potential spy. You had to hide everything, even from your closest friends, because you were never sure who would inform on you. Also, you had to accuse your neighbor before he accused you! The KGB is said to have recruited one out of every three persons to gather information about “treacherous activity.” This mentality still permeates society there even among our faithful.
The Angelus: You mentioned the two other countries of Belarus and Russia. What about them?
Fr. Pezzutti: After my first year, I was asked also to help in our missions in Belarus and Russia. Now, I would be visiting five ex-Soviet countries, with four different languages! I prayed often to the Immaculata to keep me sane. My first trips to Belarus and Russia were quite exciting. People say that Belarus is the country where you can best see the remnants of the Soviet Union and, of course, visiting Moscow felt quite daunting. St. Petersburg, by contrast, was always a joy to visit because it is an incredibly beautiful city. At that time, I was traveling a lot, and I had to begin studying Russian. The cyrillic alphabet takes quite some time to get used to.
The Angelus: Besides the regular Sunday apostolate, what is the strategy to strengthen the faithful?
Fr. Pezzutti: Fr. Stehlin wanted us to preach Ignatian Retreats for the faithful, because through retreats we could begin to build some kind of religious and moral foundation in these souls. Often enough, we had to start from ground zero, something unheard of among Western traditionalists. We also organized conferences and pilgrimages to maintain the fervor of our little troops. Besides that, I was also trying to develop our internet apostolates, and publishing humble little magazines and books about Tradition in the various languages. They do not have the Angelus Press over there! There was a lot of work to be done. After three years of such work, I was appointed prior in Kaunas, which only increased the workload.
The Angelus: Do you have any big plans for the future?
Fr. Pezzutti: We wish mostly to follow Divine Providence. Our priority is to strengthen our existing missions and develop them slowly and organically. We are always short on priests, but that is a problem everywhere in our Society. We have a building project in Tallinn, which will greatly help our apostolate there. Also, we recently purchased a chapel ideally situated in St. Petersburg, and we are presently renovating it.We are very hopeful that things will develop there. In Moscow, we are also seriously looking for a chapel location because currently we are renting a hotel room for Sunday Mass. We also have plans to expand the work in Lithuania.
The Angelus: To conclude, how would you define your Eastern apostolate?
Fr. Pezzutti: We want to bring the work and heritage of our founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, to these countries, the heritage of Catholic Tradition, the heritage of all the Catholic saints and popes. We want to reestablish Catholic Tradition in these countries, through the traditional Mass and through devotion to Our Lady of Fatima, the Rosary and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. We are seeing more and more vocations, which is a great blessing for our humble missions. Our small and poor missions really depend on the generosity of Western benefactors, especially from the USA. May the Immaculate Heart of Mary bring all of those who have helped us many graces for their generosity and prayers!