Fr. John Allen Peek, SSPX – R.I.P.

14 09 2009

peek

Fr. Peek, staring into the camera, as a seminarian

Recently, I was in the Society of St. Pius X bookstore in Kenner after I had attended Sunday Mass in the adjacent chapel. The books I found there were standard fare for such establishments: lots of lives of saints, Fr. Dennis Fahey, books on why the New Mass is inherently evil and television rots your brain… you know, the stuff you know in your heart of hearts is true but don’t want to write about on your blog out of fear that people will think you are some sort of reactionary weirdo… Truth be told, I spent too much time in that bookstore and bought only one, very reasonably priced book which I will review of on this page in the coming weeks. Spending too much time in that space exacted its price on me, for behind the counter was a rather snarky, and dare I say, bitter older woman who seemed to not have a nice thing to say about just about anyone. In the space of five minutes, she single-handedly condemned one person to Hell, excommunicated 99.9% of the priests of the Catholic Church, and managed to give creedence to every reactionary conspiracy in the book, all before morning coffee. But that is what I was expecting I guess. Truth be told, I don’t know what is scarier sometimes, my occasional trips to botanicas or these kinds of visits to my so-called “co-religionists”.

It’s been ten years now since I, as a recovering Marxist prodigal son, first set foot in an SSPX chapel. What began from there was a journey that would take me to another continent and back, from cabins in the woods with no hot water to humid cloisters on the South American pampa. All throughout this experience, I played a delicate balance between the conviction of conscience and intellectual humility, between wanting to do the “right thing” and not condemning people for doing otherwise. In the end, I couldn’t make it work, and a perceived monastic vocation was my ticket back to the States and out of the House that Lefebvre built. Even though my relationship with the Catholic Church has been, and continues to be, tenuous even on good days, I have since not returned wholeheartedly to the integrist fold. Part of me still wants to be on its margins, even if on the sympathetic margins.

While most people who encounter the SSPX do not have the ambivalent feelings toward the cause that I had (and continue to have), I have met at least one soul who seemed to feel the same restlessness, that pull between the keeping the Faith and the magnetic force of the rest of the Universal Church. When I first moved into the SSPX priory in Los Gatos over nine years ago now, he was the character that, in retrospect, I should have liked the least. He arrived at the retreat center a little before I did, and was the oldest priest there, though not in terms of seniority. He was also the last to show up to chapel for office in common, the one who had the most problem chanting the Mass, and the only convert to Catholicism. His name was Father John Peek.

His story was not at all conventional, and not at all as self-absorbed as most American convert tales. He was a Southerner, raised just outside of Atlanta, though he didn’t really wear this on his sleeve. He had come to the SSPX by the way of a Melkite church in that city, and only after having been fed up with the cultural in-fighting within that Eastern-rite parish, finally decided to side with the Society of St. Pius X chapel there. He befriended Bishop Richard Williamson, then rector of the seminary in Winona, Minnesota, and in spite of the fact that he was well into his thirties, was accepted as a seminarian. (Ironically, it was the youngest seminarian who became his best friend.) He was finally ordained in 1996 and sent into the SSPX chapels to care for a flock of faithful if unruly sheep.

When I first met Fr. Peek, it was clear that he was not like most of the other SSPX priests. For one thing, he had an Eastern-style icon corner in his office. It was also clear that he was not the most “pastoral” of the bunch; though he was amicable, he did not give off the vibe of being “approachable”. His sermons were orthodox, but his delivery unremarkable. While he could be just as hard on the “Conciliar” church as most, he could be equally as realistic about the role of the traditionalist movement within the struggle for Catholic identity. And most importantly, and most impressively, his Catholicism was entirely unscripted, and his approach to life entirely unpretentious. He knew where he was from and he knew where he was planted, and he didn’t have to put on airs about any of it.

He was really the first to encourage my own journey into the Eastern Church. Even before I got there, he would often go to Holy Virgin Cathedral in San Francisco (ROCOR) and sit in the choir loft during Vespers. He preferred the Eastern Church, I think, because of its sobriety and cultivation of aesthetic beauty. Perhaps as a convert, he never really accepted “Catholic kitsch” as an authentic expression of Christian culture. He would always rail against “devotio moderna”, against the overly sentimental, overly interiorized version of Catholicism separated from liturgy and Scripture. And he was the one that greeted Fr. Anastassy, a Russian Orthodox abbot, in his visit to our Lefebvrist stronghold. His admiration for Eastern Orthodoxy probably helped spark my own “Eastern” phase, though it was by no means exclusionary in terms of his love for the Western Church.

Towards the rest of the “regular” Church, he was far more understanding, and far more ambivalent, than the other SSPX priests that I have met. I remember when the document, Dominus Iesus came out in 2000, he was far more optimistic about what it meant than the rest of the priests at the priory. And he was vocal about it too. He had a much softer line towards the Vatican and the bishops, and though he would stand his ground and never say the Pauline Mass, he had a more nuanced view of what traditionalism meant in the grander scheme of Catholicism. He also had many good things to say about the Fraternity of St. Peter and other “approved” traditionalist groups that served as the SSPX’s main rivals.

During his time in the retreat center in Los Gatos, it was clear, at least to me, that Fr. Peek was not happy. Maybe part of it had to do with the fact that being a priest didn’t come easy to him. It was hard for him not be cynical, and hard for him not to resent the sometimes myopic views of his superiors and the faithful under him. He was also not of good health, as I recall, and the long hours of travel and apostolate took its toll more on him than the rest of the priests. But he was always there when I needed him, and always treated me with respect and an almost fatherly affection. Maybe being a priest didn’t come easy for him, but maybe that was a good thing. Maybe I needed to see in him that priests are human and not overly pious and devout versions of Superman.

Like many priests of the SSPX, he finally left the Lefebvrist fold in 2001, and went on a strange pilgrimage of being a vagante priest. I don’t know why he didn’t just join an “official” group, or whether his departure was strictly on theological or pastoral grounds. I caught up with him two years later, when he was a private chaplain to a wealthy family in Bakersfield, California. I was on my way to the monastery that would be the stage of my ill-fated attempt at Byzantine monasticism. Fr. Peek obviously encouraged this step in my life, and I remember that the conversation with him and his guest family was pleasant and free-flowing. Later, I would catch up with him once or twice more during my time at the monastery. He had made his way out to Boston, and was the chaplain of an independent traditionalist chapel there. I don’t know if he was happy there either, and I don’t really recall the substance of those phone conversations. I just assumed that he would continue to be one of those “independent” priests exiled from the SSPX, leading an ambiguous existence between the “official Church” and the outer darkness of traditionalist ecclesial anarchy.

It was only last week that I saw on Bishop Terence Fulham’s site that Fr. Peek had passed away a little less than two weeks ago. What surprised me is that he had returned to the SSPX in the last couple of years, his health being in a continual state of decline. For me, at least, this is a touching sign of humility for someone who left under such strange circumstances. But this group had given him his formation and his priesthood, and a second chance in life to labor in God’s vineyard for the souls of others as well as his own. I am sure that he died as he had lived: unpretentious, gentle, and firm in Faith in the midst of the violent torrents of life. Tu es sacerdos in aeternum secundum ordinem Melchisedech…

Recently, I told my best friend from seminary of my encounter with the cantankerous bookstore volunteer at the SSPX chapel. He told me, in his rather porteño way, that:

I think someone can keep the freedom of spirit while going to the [SSPX] Mass; it is only enough that one focuses on the sacrifice and do a big “W” of “Whatever” [really, these Argentine kids know American culture better than a lot of Americans] every time someone says something stupid….

And he is right. I suppose I have fallen into the error of thinking that advocating an unpopular truth goes hand in hand with hanging out with a bunch of crazy people who you would not trust to babysit your cat even for an hour. But that is just life, really. It is people like Fr. Peek who make me think that there really is hope; that just because you feel that the world is going crazy, that doesn’t mean that you have to go crazy in return. Throughout his life, at least the part of it that I knew of, Fr. Peek was not about making the right decision or the wrong decision. He was about making best decision. We as God’s fallen creatures, spirits stuck in the muck of base mortality, could learn a lot from that.

I end with Fr. Peek’s own words:

The real issue is Divine Providence and belief in it. Then there is the question how far Divine Providence will go in using defective human characters to work His eternal plan? Our Lord Jesus Christ said immediately before His ascension: “All power in heaven and earth is given unto me”, and “Behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.” (Matt.28;18,20) Divine Providence knows no limits then, and so defective human characters can be used by God any way he sees fit. The devil’s own persecution of Our Lord and the devil’s leading the chief priests into putting Him to death won the devil’s own defeat and our redemption. If he who is titled the Evil One can be made an instrument of his own downfall how much more sinful men can be God’s instruments willing or not. Even the damned souls in Hell will serve God against their will by serving His justice. Judas betrayed and became an instrument of redemption but in his pride wouldn’t accept the price of humility on his head for the rest of his life and gave himself over to the devil. He is contrasted with Peter, who although honored by being the first pope had the opprobrium of having denied that he had even ever known his Savior.

It is those who spend inordinate time preoccupied with the devil’s pomp and successes who fall into a kind of defeatism regarding God calling the shots. The King of this world is already judged. These words the Lord declared and the words mean what they say or else Christ isn’t God. It is all as simple as that. Further complications and complainers need not apply.

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5 responses

16 11 2011
Anonymous

I started attending an SSPX chapel some years ago now, mostly to get away from the NO masses, aspects of which bothered me. I know closely some of the “bookstore lady” types, and indeed am obliged to drive them to the SSPX chapel each Sunday. I feel that close contact with these types will weaken your faith and enthusiasm for attending any Mass whatsoever, and I reached that point some time ago.

29 11 2009
Kalynne Pudner

I know several of the Peeks, including their mother, Mary, whom I met at a Fellowship of Catholic Scholars annual meeting in Atlanta. Little sister Regina is a friend, the wife of my daughter’s soccer coach. What a family! I can only aspire…and pray, in reference to what I find here, “ut omnes unum sint.”

22 11 2009
Anonymous

hey arturo get off the margins and back in the chapel or we will throw you back in the pool clothes and all !!

14 09 2009
Leah

I really liked this post too. I had to leave my FSSP parish for reasons too complicated to explain in a combox. While I never felt like I fit into the traditionalist sub-culture, it seems like the folks at my NO parish think I’m a frothing maniac, aided perhaps by the fact that I take communion kneeling, continue saying the responses in Latin, and spend the whole mass reading from my pre-Vatican II prayerbook. Oh well. That’s life, I suppose.

Incidently, I’m familiar with the Melkite parish the departed Fr. Peek attended. The church building is quite beautiful, as it used to be owned by Asa Candler (the guy who aggressively marketed Coca Cola in the 19th century and built it into a major corporation) in a previous life, so to speak. When I visited it several months ago, I noticed that its ethnic make-up consisted of Middle Eastern Christians with a good number of whites. Afterward, an elderly white Southern lady asked my mother and I to attend the coffee hour saying, “Those Arabs do make a good cup of coffee.” I didn’t stick around to find out whether this was true or not (I’m not a coffee person).

14 09 2009
thewhitelilyblog

This is a lovely piece, not the least in its honesty.

I go to an SSPX chapel, and we have our share of your bookstore ladies. In his sermon Sunday Father Gardner told us to go forth and try to be a little less kooky.

On the fringe, are ye? Would you send me your rosaries for the Crusade? You know you agree with the premise! I’m logged in so you could find me. I’d turn them in for you, under your name or a pseudonym.

Peace to you.

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