After graduating from McGill, Nicholas Gruner decided to head to Europe and visit places of importance to his father's English roots.
These were personal pilgrim years for Nicholas Gruner, filled with travels in honor of Mary's Motherhood of Men. He began his journey as a deck hand on a freighter to Europe, in 1964, cleaning and painting, until the officers' cook got sick and he took over the job.
Because Baba had a great devotion to Our Lady, he wanted his grandson to visit Aylesford, Kent, in England. Nicholas recalls why Oscar Cameron Gruner had such great devotion to Our Lady. “My uncle Douglas died in Australia when he was only 18 years old, trying to stop a team of horses that were running wild through the town. Douglas took after them on his motorcycle and the horses trampled him to death in January, 1926.”
Many times it has occurred to Father Gruner that his father's sudden conversion was not only due to St. Cecilia, but also to Douglas, his brother, whom he believed offered his life to God to obtain this grace for Malcolm.
“This spirit of self-sacrifice is also reflected in my father who, after his conversion, made the heroic offering of allowing God to take all the merits and prayers for his soul in Purgatory to be offered to other souls before him.
“Shortly after Douglas' violent death, my grandfather Gruner had a dream about Douglas, who was the younger of his two sons. He described how, in his dream, he saw the way saints greet the newest one among them. First, the saints receive him, then afterward, Our Lady welcomes him to their number. He recognized Our Lady in his dream because She resembled the image of Our Lady as She is depicted in the chapel of Hartley, a small chapel in Kent, England. My grandfather described his special dream as follows:
“The picture began by the appearance of a small glow of light... and the picture was of the altar rail and the altar of the Oratory here at Hartley... Very rapidly it became evident that there was a solitary young figure kneeling in the middle of the rail. It was Douglas. His head was bowed low over the rail...
“...The form of Our Lord became evident; robed in brilliant golden light; the raiment and He were one... the upper part of our boy's body being quite lost to view in the blinding light of Our Lord's presence.
“Then I perceived His Face, sharply visible in semi-profile, among the brightness which extended beyond and all round, almost like thick rays; and as He stooped over the boy, and seemed to embrace him, his shoulders, He seemed to be soothing him and comforting him, and embracing him, as a father might...
“...One felt absolutely secure; it was not an atmosphere; it was peace itself; it was living peace...
“...That odor of Peace was all between the place I saw, and right across the gulf down to me, and I was filled with it during the whole time His Form was visible...
“...Suddenly, at his left side, appeared the form of a most beautiful Lady; Her face was in semi-profile; there was a wonderful expression on it; infinite motherhood; the face was not young; the light She gave round Her was extremely intense, much more than that of the angels; and yet it was less intense than that of Our Lord, different really, it was not that peculiar sense of Almighty — security.
“She stooped down to our boy and seemed gently to lift him up, his head lying in Her left elbow; I could not see his features; he was like a babe; and yet I was sure it was still he — still Douglas; he seemed to be sleeping, and yet aware of being in Her arms. His form was indistinct. As She held him thus, the circle of angelic forms rose a little with Her, and there seemed a movement of them all — away from the rail, and towards the Gospel side of the altar, and it was as when a person is carried from among a crowd and the crowd slowly makes as if to follow. At the same time She stood erect, nearly; and was in full profile; and for a moment I saw that Her profile was now exactly the profile of Our Lady of Hartley; but it was not a fancy; She was living; one could tell it was not a statue. The light of the whole scene centered in Her as She moved from the altar rail.
“The details became indistinct for a short time now; but when it was all clear again, I saw that Our Lady had handed the soul of our boy into the care of a great multitude — a very great multitude of bright forms, forms like the angelic ones at the altar, but paler; where their features were visible, one could see they seemed sad — but a happy sadness.
“They seemed to move greatly as She came; they moved eagerly forward to their new companion; it was a very active movement; and yet they did not seem to move away from their place. It was the movement of a sudden intense interest and eagerness to minister to the newcomer. But when the newcomer was among them he became like unto them; not like a baby — form; and he was quite lost to view to me; so dense was the crowd of beings who came round him...”
Father Gruner remembers: “When Baba heard of my trip to England, he insisted I go to Aylesford, which is also in Kent, where Our Lady of Mount Carmel appeared to St. Simon Stock and presented him with the Brown Scapular in 1251.1
“Saint Simon Stock's cell was flooded with light when Our Lady appeared to him. She held the Scapular in Her hand, even as She wore it full size on Herself, and She made this, the Scapular, a sign of Her special love and protection for them.
“She said to Saint Simon, ‘This shall be to thee and to all Carmelites a privilege that whosoever dies clothed in this (Scapular) shall not suffer eternal fire. It shall be a sign of salvation, a protection in danger and a pledge of peace.’
“My grandfather had always been gentle with me but was unusually adamant in insisting I go to Aylesford. So I went there, staying from December, 1964 to March, 1965. I was enrolled in the Scapular during that time and have not taken it off since. That was the beginning of my pilgrimage to Marian shrines.” And since putting on the Scapular, Nicholas almost immediately started to pray the Rosary daily. He has only missed a few days over the last thirty years.
He lived as a volunteer at the shrine for three months, until March '65. From there he crossed over to France, heading for Rue du Bac, Lourdes and also to Garabandal.
Can any priest look back over his shoulder at the grace that has shaped his life and pinpoint with exact precision the moment he first recognized the call to the priesthood? What is the call? What exactly is it calling the young man toward?
A priest is set aside from other humankind by one single fact, he is born with a vacant chamber in his heart that he can fill only after giving it a name.
Breathes there a man who claimeth not
One lonely spot
His own Gethsemane,
Whither with his inmost pain
Would weary plod,
Find the surcease that is known
In wind a-moan
And sobbing sea,
Cry his sorrow hid of men,
And then —
Touch hands with God.
(Gethsemane by Edmund Leamy)
The young man who touches hands with God never forgets the touch, and spends the entire treasure of his life trying to earn that touch again.
Once, in Paris, shortly after visiting the shrine of the Miraculous Medal on Rue du Bac, praying before the incorrupt remains of the silent Saint, Catherine Labouré, and contemplating the famous chair in which Our Lady sat and held Catherine's head in Her lap, Nick Gruner made his confession to a French priest, not in the chapel itself, but in a makeshift confessional corner.
The priest asked about his vocation and explained, “When God created each individual human being, He, at the same time, gave that soul a vocation. Now if we are faithful to God's call, we will, in fact, be much more happy in this life because we shall fulfill in our lives what God intended us to be.” The priest emphasized, “God created us in a way in which we will be more fulfilled, more ourselves, if we accept the call from God. It is a great obligation, a high vocation, but there is sacrifice.”
The priest put a uniquely French perspective on it, ‘la gloire’— sacrifice. Added to it was the promise that if one does what God wants, one will become more of what God wants one to be, and ultimately more happy.
Father Gruner would remember this promise throughout his life. By 1965, he was in Portugal, where he tried to hitchhike to Fatima but was unable to catch a ride. Eventually, he made his way north to Pontevedra and Tuy, from there to Santiago. He went to Garabandal in March, where he stayed for several days. He came back to Garabandal on June 18, 1965, when St. Michael reportedly gave the last message which told us to have greater charity and more love for the Most Blessed Sacrament and which also warned that many Cardinals, bishops and priests were on the way to hell and dragging many more souls with them.
His journey there really began to take more definitive shape in July, upon returning to Aylesford for Cardinal Carmel Heenan's official re-opening of the Shrine which had been lost to the Church since 1549 under the Protestant revolt in England. While walking behind a young pilgrim couple, he overheard the woman say to her husband, “I'm not sure about this Garabandal business. Is it really Our Lady appearing here? The miracle hasn't happened yet.” Nick introduced himself and said, “You don't have those problems with Fatima. Fatima is approved. The miracle has taken place. The popes have approved it. Fatima is valid, Fatima is good.” Nick also said, “If we listen to Fatima then we need to pray the Rosary, wear the Scapular, these are the message of Fatima. So at least you can resolve to obey Our Lady of Fatima. If you do all She said at Fatima, you need not worry about any, as yet, unapproved apparitions.”
Yet even as he said those words, he was conscious of the difference between Garabandal and Fatima. Fatima was so uncomplicated because it was approved by the Church and thus so easy to promote.
At Garabandal, a pilgrim put into his hand a booklet on the Rosary by an American. It contained the statement of Our Lady regarding Russia, “If My requests are not granted Russia will spread her errors throughout the world raising up wars and persecutions against the Church. The good will be martyred, the Holy Father will have much to suffer, various nations will be annihilated.”2
Interestingly, it was the only thing about Fatima in the booklet, amid meditations on the mysteries of the Rosary. He became preoccupied with what Our Lady's Fatima requests actually contained.
He finally returned to Montreal in August of '65. His brother Tony notes that although even in high school, Nick was similar in nature to what he is now, serious, with his humorous moments, after he came home from Europe there was a difference in him.
“In Europe,” said Tony, “he had made the decision to become a priest.”
He entered the seminary that September and was sent by the diocese of Montreal to Resurrection College in Kitchener to do his year in philosophy. He took as many courses as time would allow, passing them all with flying colors. In September, 1966, he went to the Grand Seminaire, the major seminary in Montreal, for his first year in theology. Most of the classes there were conducted in French. While there, he expressed himself emphatically about the outright atheism on the campus at the University of Montreal, to which the “Grand” was affiliated, and argued forcefully against a group of students, with modernist leanings, who were promoting the idea that Catholic divorce would be permitted in the future.
They claimed that Cardinal Garrone, the new Prefect in the Vatican in charge of all Catholic Seminaries, was on their side. Undaunted by prestigious names, Nick Gruner said, “I don't care if 10 Cardinals hold that position, it is still heresy. Divorce for Catholics can never be approved by the Church.” The rector, in May, 1967, told Nicholas he did not agree with his intellectual position though he acknowledged they were argued intelligently and forcefully, but were not shared by him, and told him to try his vocation elsewhere.
By 1968 he was once more in Italy. He was, in fact, riding a train to San Giovanni Rotundo when he first heard of Humanae Vitae. He vigorously defended it against the naysayers. It was probably the first papal encyclical since the Syllabus of Errors that raised tempers in trains, buses and coffee shops worldwide.
He was to live in San Giovanni during the last six months of Padre Pio's life and was present for the funeral of the man called ‘a living crucifix’ who had suffered so cruelly from the ill will of Vatican bureaucrats, the indifference of Pope John XXIII and the financial exploiters of his name. Few men in this century suffered more for the love of his priesthood, few men were subjected to more suspicion and vilification, than the pious Franciscan of San Giovanni Rotundo.
His lesson to all seminarians might well be that any priest contemplating a new apostolate receives no peace on this earth. Vilification, libel and slander will rain down upon him with relentless force. Only knowing that Christ suffered worse slander allows men like Padre Pio to find strength to continue.
The list of priests, some of whom would later be canonized, who have so suffered is endless. St. John Vianney, St. Louis de Montfort, St. John Bosco, Damien the Leper. Is there a good priest alive today who has not been subjected to the malice of the relentlessly pious of today's Church and most especially from that ingredient of Church life few priests escape — the Catholic matron who considers all she needs to be canonized in her own lifetime is the friendship of a unique man of God, preferably one much in demand and the center of world attention?
Padre Pio showed all too clearly what fate lies in store for the priest who becomes a lightning rod for pious assassins ever active on the phone lines of the current day Church. Nick Gruner lived in San Giovanni from April till September 1968, when Padre Pio died.
On October 13, 1968, he saw Fatima for the first time. The most startling characteristic of the shrine in the Cova da Iria is its masculinity. This is no mere gathering place for sentimental housewives. Here, uniformed Portuguese soldiers, having returned home from the horrors of war in Angola, did the army crawl on their stomachs from the edge of the esplanade to the azinhiera tree to thank the Madonna for bringing them home safely. Here young men walk along the highway in packs with all the panache and swagger of gangs in any big city in the world, but here they carry Rosaries. Here men, young and old, join the women petitioners for the long sojourn on their knees, along the Penitential Way, from the edge of the Cova to the capelinha. Men walking the street with a Rosary in hand is as common as men fingering worry beads in Greece and the Middle East. Men come here to lay down their lives for God. Some never leave, content to pass the remainder of their days, living saintly hidden lives, serving the Virgin in the shadowed laneways spreading out from the shrine. Nicholas Gruner would come back many times. But for now there were more pilgrimages, to Lourdes, to La Salette, and finally to the Holy House of Loreto, in Italy.
During the years when Vatican II had been in session, Nick, like most of the world, did not follow it daily. He was aware of it, but was preoccupied with his seminary studies at that time. Indeed the sacrifice spoken of by the priest confessor at the Rue du Bac had not been long in coming, for by the Sixties the attack on the seminaries was already in full swing. The domino effect, the Council inadvertently set in motion for Catholic education and theology itself, was already threatening to unbalance the spiritual and intellectual foundations of the priesthood. It was during these years that the ideologies that had haunted the Church since Pius IX ceased being mere specters and seized control of seminaries, colleges, high schools, and even began to filter down to the Catholic grade school level. Americanism, Leo XIII had labelled it. Modernism, Pius X had called it. Democratic socialism and secular humanism were its classroom euphemisms.
In the resulting confusion spreading everywhere in the dogmatic, hierarchial, sacramental Church, a seminarian had little but his own spiritual instinct (sensus fidelium) to help him discern what was true from what was not. Our Lady had promised those who prayed the Rosary daily, would not fall into heresy. Father Gruner reflected in later years, “How fortunate I had rediscovered the Rosary as an adult, before entering into the seminaries in those days of confusion.”
For him the determination to always fight for what was true had been founded long ago. His entire educational trajectory reveals an independent mind prepared to stand alone regardless of the cost.
Political and organizational abilities which would be so crucial to his own future apostolate had been already in evidence as early as 1956.
Throughout those years, his sister Jennifer recalled, Nick remained thoroughly involved in the normal activities of day to day life. In 1956, he became president of Annunciation Teenagers Club (A.T.C.). The older teens were letting it close down but Nick took it over and made it flourish for many more years, despite jeering opposition from the older teenagers.
“The older teens basically despised the efforts of the founder, a Mr. Coleman, a Vice-President of Kraft Food in Montreal, and talked about closing the club down. I wrote that we would like to keep it open. As a result of that letter, I was elected president and we were allowed to try one more time. In spite of the jeers of the older teens, we were able to revive the club, making it active within the parish once more.” This initiative of his also helped others, he recalls, “I recruited Eric McLean, who was one year lower in school, to work on our executive committee. He became the next president of ATC and later went on to join the Jesuits. Today he is the Provincial for the English-speaking Jesuits in Canada.”
At McGill University, he became president of the Newman Club, winning the election by one vote — that of the returning officer, who had the deciding vote since the vote had been tied. He found himself in a leadership role responsible to and for people who had, to some extent, opposed him. The experience foreshadowed future battles.
In October 1970, he was offered a position with a small Mexican religious community housed in Rome. He took them up on the offer, staying a year. While there, he completed his second year of theology, taking his courses at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas.
That brief stay with the Mexican Community would ultimately involve Nick in the drama of initiating a new and unique seminary. At the Mexican Community, the founder, Father Morelos, urged the novices to work on Sunday in the orchards. Gruner chose not to engage in physical labor on Sundays and so, after exams, in June, he departed, at the insistence of Father Morelos. Thereafter he was left to find his own way, relying on some money he still had left in his bank account from teaching.
As Father Gruner recalls:
“In the summer of 1971, I used to go to Mass near St. Paul's Outside the Walls, and pray there every day with some Franciscan friars who were just beginning to form their own community. I had just left St. Paul's Basilica to go back to my room when I noticed the car from the Mexican community that I had left one month before.
“I met a Father Carlos and two other visitors to Father Morelos' community, Ron Tangen and Les Stelter, who had come looking for me at my previous address, having been directed to me by a friend in London, England. They were looking for a seminary.
“I told them about Brother Gino, a religious well known in Rome as a stigmatist and miracle worker and, as many said, the successor to Padre Pio. Some days later they came by and wanted me to take them to Brother Gino, which I did. I translated for them and told Brother Gino they were looking for a seminary, and Brother Gino suggested that all three of us join his Order, the Oblates of the Blessed Virgin Mary (O.M.V.), and study there, at San Vittorino, where Brother Gino lived. Ron was overjoyed with the suggestion. Brother Gino told me to be their ‘guardian angel’. I refused to translate this at first, since it wasn't addressed to them, but at the guys' insistence I finally translated what Brother Gino had said. Brother Gino told us there was going to be a general chapter of the order in mid August and to not apply now, but come back after the general chapter had been held.
“Brother Gino had the gift of foretelling the future sometimes and was a prudent counsellor. They took his advice. As Brother Gino appointed me to be their guardian angel, they invited me to go with them to Garabandal, Fatima and Lourdes. They had a third companion, Mike Larshack. They were all over six feet tall and somehow all fit into a Fiat Seicento, much smaller than a Volkswagen. I took the fourth seat.
“On the pilgrimage trip that followed, we travelled over 1,000 miles and we stopped at a number of places including San Damiano, where it was reported Our Lady was appearing. There we met Andy Winchek and picked him up to bring him to Rome. In Garabandal we met Jim Shelton from Ohio, who was 39, 10 years older than I and we brought him back to Rome as well. In Rome, we met a third American, Jim McArdell, from New Jersey. They all agreed to join the Oblates.
“Although Brother Gino suggested we stay at San Vittorino, and we were welcomed when we went there every so often, we continued to be stationed in Rome at the OMV parish of St. Helen's.
“Shortly after joining the Oblates, five of us English-speaking seminarians went on another trip to Eastern Europe with Father Michael, the priest in charge of the seminarians, along with three other Italian-speaking seminarians. We visited the OMV house in the same city where the Council of Trent was held. We also visited Austria where the Oblates had a parish and a house in Vienna. From Austria we went to Hungary.”
It was during their stay in Hungary that Father Gruner gained a first-hand view of what Communism was really like.
“Early in September, 1971, eight of us seminarians and a priest drove to Hungary. Visas to enter the country were only issued for 36 hours and the fee was the largest I had ever seen for such a brief visa. As we approached the Austrian-Hungarian border, I took a closer look at the landscape. In both directions the fields were ploughed up and mined and steel watchtowers were planted every half mile or so. The whole country was like a giant prison camp with miles of barbed wire fencing. The sentinel scrutiny towers seemed high enough to watch for anyone trying to make a run across the minefields, making escape virtually impossible.
“There was a heavy steel barrier at the Hungarian border that you would not dare to try to run through with your vehicle. As if that wasn't bad enough, once inside that barrier you found you were trapped between that and yet a second steel barrier. We noticed something very unusual when the immigration compound was changing guard. There were not just two military border patrol men being replaced by two others. There were three guards, all with machine guns drawn, replaced by three other men, also with guns drawn. The third, Father Michael told us, was to shoot the first two guards if they should ever try to escape. Was he serious? I don't know. But none of us were about to start testing them.
“After some time, we were finally released and allowed into the country. We had 36 hours to drive to Budapest, look around and get out before we were officially breaking the law and liable to some fine or imprisonment. We drove to the capital and noted how empty the streets were, hardly any cars. But there were long lines of people at the grocery stores waiting their turn to buy bread.
“That evening, around 9:00 p.m. we went to a restaurant. Again, hardly anyone was there except for an older woman who started to speak to us. She raised her voice and spoke excitedly in Hungarian for a minute or so. Quickly she was surrounded by two or three men in trench coats and without ceremony hurried out of the restaurant. No one moved or did anything — and, we did not see her again. We decided, then and there, not to experiment in free speech in a public place.
“The following morning five of us went to the American Embassy to see if we could visit Cardinal Mindzenty. It was watched by two Hungarian plainclothes police who paced in front of the embassy all the time. I had never had any trouble entering an American Embassy anywhere else around the world, but here I was not allowed in as I was not an American citizen. I was told it was because of the ever watchful Communist police who were looking for some pretext to accuse the Americans because of the high profile exile, Cardinal Mindzenty, who had been living inside the embassy for the last 15 years.
“The Hungarian Communist police outside were there as spies to ensure that Cardinal Mindzenty did not escape and to see who was going in to visit him. He represented a real and continuous threat to the morally bankrupt regime that had imposed itself on the Hungarian people for the past 25 years.
“That one man represented such a threat shows what moral authority the Church had and would have if it would follow the courageous example of that great witness to the Catholic Faith.
“I learned afterwards that not even the four American seminarians who were let inside the Embassy were able to meet Cardinal Mindzenty. Obviously, access to him was near impossible. Cardinal Mindzenty had come freely to the Embassy in 1956 when he was released from the clutches of his Communist torturers and prison guards during the brief Hungarian uprising. He stayed there as a symbol of resistance, resistance against the religious and civil oppression his countrymen had been and still were undergoing.
“The Cardinal was, no doubt, treated humanely inside the Embassy, but it was clearly a crucifixion for him. May he pray for us today, now that he is in Heaven. I believe his case will be introduced shortly for sainthood. We need many more Catholics of all levels from laypeople to Cardinals like him.
“One of the Americans with us spoke German, which is the international language of Eastern Europe and thus we were able to communicate and find the address of an old acquaintance of his living in Budapest. The man and his wife had not dared have their children baptized because they would have lost their good-paying jobs. They both were like middle managers in a State run concern, part of a small fortunate group who would own their own home after paying the mortgage on it over 35 years.
“This home was a very small apartment on the 8th floor of a very large and run down apartment complex. The toilet top was made of wood with tin to prevent the water leaking out of it. The concrete beams and columns in the stairwells were crumbling to dust. We estimated the building would not be standing in 35 years, but this was the ‘workers paradise’.
“Obviously they were getting neither the kingdom of God nor much else on earth. It is indeed sad that people do not realize how true Our Lord's statement is: ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and all things will be added unto you’. One could say, by way of implication, ‘Seek first the paradise of man on earth and you will get hell here and hereafter’. To us this point was clearly made in Hungary.
“On Saturday morning after we went to the U.S. Embassy we looked at more of the sites in the city. The historic Church of St. Stephen had been turned into a museum by the Communists. We saw it for the historical record of what it had been in the past and also to see what Communism did to famous churches. Creeping secularism in the West also has the effect of turning our famous cathedrals into mere tourist traps and quasi-museums, but in Hungary the effect was achieved by a deliberate state policy.
“Saturday afternoon, our Hungarian host took us to the monument built in honor of the Russian soldiers who ‘liberated’ the city. It is a massive monument placed in the prime location of Budapest overlooking the Danube River which runs through the city. It is an historic spot, not just because of the ‘liberation’ monument, but because it is symbolic of the glorious days of Hungarian history before Marx, Lenin and Stalin were even heard of. Here at this monument stand not only several giant statues of Russian soldiers laboring to take over Budapest, but also several live flesh and blood Russians with real guns standing guard.
“Les Stelter decided to have his picture taken in front of the Russian monument. There he stood, 6'2" with his arms upraised holding in his hands a giant sized wooden rosary for all to see. Several pictures were taken when our Hungarian host called me over to him and quietly but firmly said, ‘Tell your friend to take down his rosary. You see that Russian soldier over there?’‘Yes’ I said. ‘Well he might think your friend is mocking the Russians and he will have me imprisoned.' Les took his rosary down in this city supposedly ‘freed’ by the Russians, yet not free enough to display a rosary in public.
“We left that afternoon in a hurry because our 36-hour visa was running out. Thanks to our two guides, we had seen more than most in that short period of time. We made it back to the border with only half an hour to spare. After our luggage was thoroughly inspected and rummaged through, we were allowed to leave.”
When they returned they saw first-hand that the writing was on the wall for conservative and orthodox seminarians. Father continues:
“We went to St. Helen's parish where Father Michael was in charge of seminarians in Rome, 25 km from San Vittorino, in the Casalina district of Rome, close to the heart of the city. They were renovating the seminarians' chapel. The altar was not going to be left against the wall but put in the center. Father Ron, who had spent four years looking for a good seminary and had been invited by Brother Gino himself to join the Oblates, was not about to take this chapel renovation lying down. He objected quite strenuously and went to Brother Gino and told him his objections. Brother Gino told us to ask to be transferred out to San Vittorino and take seminary training there and take a car in, every day, to the Angelicum.
“The Superior General, Father Ottello Ponzanelli, who was about to leave for a three-month tour of the Oblate houses in South America said he did not want the seminarians to go to San Vittorino. He left the decision to us English-speaking seminarians but strongly counselled against it. I said I would stay with the majority, since I was the translator.
“Then Ron and Les and a third seminarian decided to go to San Vittorino, I then said I would go as translator. The other two Americans also then agreed to go. This was the beginning of a seminary that would rock the Vatican.
“By September, 1972, we had 50 new seminarians and would have had 100 had the Oblate middle-managers allowed us to accept the Nigerian applicants. I was authorized by the Superior General to speak on behalf of the Oblates, in the summer of 1972, on vocation-gathering trips in the U.S. and Canada. I acted as the official translator and travel companion of Father Capello. He was opposed to what we stood for, was very ‘modern ' but I suppose that was the Superior General's way of maintaining control and placating the strong opposition he was getting from some of the ‘modern’ Oblates.
“My role in the founding was getting professors who were orthodox and conservative, the distinction between conservatism and traditionalism hadn't been made yet. We found Father Buckley, Father de Voss and Father Vansteenkiste to teach philosophy.
“Basil, Ron and I drew up and printed a brochure about the seminary, with the Superior General's approval. Ron wrote a letter explaining his experiences. He started as follows, ‘I am writing before the Blessed Sacrament exposed’ and went on to describe his experience looking for a seminary for four years, and how they were all bad ones, and how his dream was fulfilled by going to San Vittorino. Over several months, it got published in eleven small journals. We circulated our brochure, especially in Ron Tangen's mailings, to prospective seminarians who had written him as a result of his letter being published. The brochure explained that the seminary was based on the rule of the saintly Father Lanteri, a humble Italian priest from the Piedmont district of Northern Italy, who lived through the troubled period during and after the French Revolution, and died in 1830.
“One of the purposes of Father Lanteri's congregation was to fight current errors. Alas, the modern Oblates' attitude was, ‘We don't fight current errors anymore.’ Father Lanteri spoke of St. Thomas as the first choice as teacher of dogmatic theology and St. Alphonsus as first choice as teacher of moral theology, both being Doctors of the Church.
“During the fall of 1971, while living at San Vittorino, I heard from my friend, Nimal Mendez, about his brother Basil's plight. Basil had been a professor of philosophy in Ceylon, who decided to become a priest, and entered a diocesan seminary in Ceylon.
“Basil's agony was not unlike my own persecutions at the hands of seminary administrators. I told Brother Gino about Basil, and in keeping with Father Lanteri's spirit, Brother Gino agreed for us to pay for Father Basil's plane ticket to bring him over. Father Basil had fought against heresy in the Ceylon seminary and told the Cardinal there, quoting St. John Eudes: ‘When heresy is taught in the seminary, there will be blood flowing in the streets.’ And indeed, sad to say, there has been blood flowing in Ceylon almost ever since Father Basil left the country. In fact, recently, they had a strike in nearby Madras, India, in sympathy for the ongoing bloodshed continuing in Ceylon.”
In their brochure, the young seminarians promised a rich prayer life to others interested in the priesthood: 15 decades of the Rosary every day, and one hour before the Blessed Sacrament, Mass and Communion; and a spiritual apostolate afterwards, giving the sacraments, preaching the gospel, saving souls, as well as being taught St. Alphonsus and St. Thomas.
“The brochure struck a nerve.” Father Gruner recalls, “We got hundreds of letters. The seminary was written up around the world, thanks to the prayers and sacrifices of Brother Gino and, of course, the fact that we were offering a genuine Catholic training to serious young men who knew that finding a true Catholic seminary was becoming very difficult.
“We operated our outreach on a shoestring with only a few dollars donated here and there which, after six months, started to be more sizeable. By October, 1972, one year after we had started to recruit seminarians, we had collected and spent $25,000 to promote Oblate vocations. This was only one quarter of what the Archdiocese of New York had, just for their vocation outreach.”
Nick, Ron and Brother Gino had demonstrated by October, 1972, that there was no lack of vocations in North America.
At the same time, in 1972, the North American College in Rome, sponsored by the National Bishops Conference of the USA, was openly talking about closing down because they couldn't get enough seminarians to fill it. The whole hierarchy of the USA couldn't find enough seminarians to keep the North American College going, even though at the College each seminarian had a private room, bathroom and office, which by any seminarian's standards are palatial. The Archdiocese of New York alone had a $100,000 budget per year to find seminarians but was not successful in finding many, if any, while that year with only $25,000 the Apostolic zeal of these Oblates brought in fifty new seminarians.
Then the fight began. As has happened so very often in this century, a success story attracting the attention of the Vatican upper echelon spelled trouble. Specifically, it brought into the picture Cardinal Garrone, at that time the head of the Congregation for Education. Father Gruner continues the story:
“When I returned to San Vittorino on the feast of St. Francis, September 17, Vini Young, a personable young seminarian, said how relieved he was that I was back. Four seminarians suspected of being Communists, and who were not part of the movement we had generated, had turned the Superior against the vast majority of seminarians. They insisted we remove all outward signs of piety, such as medals worn on the outside, crosses on our briefcases, and what have you.
“Our Lady helped us in this crisis through Brother Gino. God gave Brother Gino a vision of the Communist seminarians phoning a Communist priest in the Vatican at 2:00 a.m. Brother Gino went downstairs and surprised these communist infiltrators as they were on the phone in the kitchen where they thought no one would find them at that late hour.
“After this, Brother Gino took me aside and said, ‘If you don't stand up to them now, you will lose the seminary you want to form. Stand united’. That's how Communists work, a small number can overwhelm a larger number too intimidated to stand up to them.
“I explained his words to the others and we did stand united. The four Communist seminarians saw the ranks closing in on them, saw that they could not carry the day in modernizing the seminary and finally gave up. They were ultimately shown the door.”
Brother Gino said later, “Because of the presence of one person (Gruner) and the absence of another, (who had supported the four), we were able to get rid of four Communist seminarians.”
Brother Gino was asked by the seminarians, after the Communists left, why this was allowed to happen. He replied that it was because God wanted them to be trained and aware that these things were going on. “The training was not lost on us and not lost on me today.”
The lesson was: be too successful and they'll try to shut you down. Either by infiltrating your operation or...
“We wanted to have philosophy as well as theology at the seminary taught by orthodox professors. Not all professors at the Angelicum were orthodox. There were among them professors who promoted heresy, even though the Angelicum was reportedly ‘the best’ of all the Roman theological universities. Our aim was to get a degree from the Angelicum with our own professors. The Dean of Philosophy agreed to it, as did the Dean of Theology, the Rector of the university, and the Superior General of the Oblates. A confirming vote by the Senate of the Angelicum was merely a formality in such a situation.
“Thus in the spring of 1972, we took their word for it and did what they told me. Then a few days later, the closed door meeting of the Senate was held and shot down our proposal. I had not been invited to be present. The Dean of Philosophy apparently stood up and said the Congregation for Education under Cardinal Garrone would not accept it. With that remark from the Dean of Philosophy, no one else said or did anything in our favor and then the Senate voted us down.
“When I found out the next day, I asked the Dean of Theology, Father Salguero, what happened. I reminded him that he personally had told me not to worry about our proposal for Angelicum professors teaching at our seminary and that he had reassured me that the Senate, the supreme governing body of the Angelicum, would easily accept our proposal.
“I believe it was Father Salguero who then told me that it was the Dean of Philosophy who had intervened, as I described above, to shoot it down.
“I then went to the Rector Magnificus, Father Gieraths, and I asked him why I had not been told of the problem before the meeting. Perhaps I could have done something to prevent the negative vote.
“Father Gieraths told me I should have talked to the student president beforehand, who could have represented our proposal, had he wanted to. No one ever told me that before our proposal was torpedoed, and I did not even think the student president had much to say in anything, up to that time. Well, I decided the Rector cannot have it both ways, when it came to the election of the student president a few years later.
“The upshot was we could not give degrees for those studying theology in the internal school. They had to go to the Angelicum and be exposed to heretical and less-than-orthodox teaching but we kept our hopes that in September we could have an internal school for theology and philosophy.
“We knew from the Legion of Christ that their Superior General had gone into the Dean of Philosophy's office one day and said, “Get rid of that professor or I will take my students out tomorrow.” Only then did the dean get rid of him. This proved we knew what we were talking about in choosing our own professors.
“We didn't need their degree to be ordained. The Oblates had the right to train their own and they didn't have to graduate with university degrees to be ordained. But come September, we ended up studying theology at the Angelicum but managed to save our philosophy school by having philosophy under Father Buckley and Father de Voss, but even that wasn't acceptable to the powers that be. Over the next three months they managed to have Father Buckley removed and then over the next few months succeeded in totally closing down what remained of our internal philosophy school. But they did not rely only upon internal agents in the seminary to close it down, the Vatican's Cardinal Garrone got involved.
“Cardinal Garrone was reliably reported, at a meeting in the Vatican, to have become angry upon hearing in early fall 1972, that there were 50 seminarians at the school, and of all the things we were trying to do. ‘That place must be closed’ he said, pounding the table with his fist. At first, the young seminarians could hardly believe this report, but in time it was proven to be true.
“Before 1972 was over, the Superior General of the order came to visit me in the Novitiate near Turin, after his visit to South America.” Father Gruner recalled, “I was in far Northern Italy because by October, I was identified as the leader in getting the seminary started and holding it together, plus, I did have a track record for getting rid of the four bad seminarians that Father Capello had sided with. Thus the local Superior insisted I do my Novitiate up north.
“I did not know much of the details of what was going on in San Vittorino after I started my Novitiate on November 21, 1972. I got my largest dose of news in December from the Superior General, Father Ponzanelli.
“The Superior General said the pressure on him was tremendous. Even though he was somewhat modernist, he was sympathetic to getting vocations. Father Buckley was bounced. An investigating team from the Vatican came to look at what was going on in the seminary. There was nothing to investigate. (The investigation was merely window dressing for what they intended to do).
“By the spring of 1973, our internal school was closed. All the seminarians had to go to the Angelicum, with good and bad professors.
“In September 1973, I was still in the novitiate of the Oblates of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Superior General had just come back from some lecture where a professor denied that Christ rose physically from the dead. He agreed with this heretical teaching and repeated it to me and as well to all the Fathers and novices, including Basil. I simply said, ‘That is heresy.’ The Superior General repeated his point and I repeated ‘Heresy’. He still kept it up and after the third time I remained silent as this was not a child's game. A few months later, I was out on my ear, a conclusion that is not surprising. In reference to my saying it is heresy, their reasoning was ‘Since you have no confidence in your superiors, it is not reasonable you stay with us in this order.’
“In the mid 1980's, Father Basil, now editor of Christ To The World, a small journal sent to 1500 people, published an article by an English priest demonstrating that Garrone's tenure in charge of Catholic education around the world was a disaster. Garrone was furious and expressed his fury in a letter to Father Basil. Shortly after, Garrone was replaced.”
Long-time friend Jean Fioretti of New York recalls meeting Gruner in those early days when he was not yet ‘Father’, merely ‘Nick’.
“My husband Bob and I knew another seminarian who was studying at the Oblate seminary in San Vittorino who invited us out for a visit. That was in November of 1972. There was a gathering at which Brother Gino received people from many different countries. Nick, as it turns out, was Brother Gino's interpreter and right hand. We became friends and remained in touch with him throughout his studies and his ordination.
“It's a custom in Italy for seminarians to go home for the summer and so, sometimes, he visited with our family here in New York. Many of the young men stayed at our home in the summer. The other seminarians all used to say Nick was too rigid. But nobody could argue with him and prove him wrong. They had all gone into the seminary with a very strong faith. But it was the Seventies. Things were changing.”
By 1975 Nick was in St. Thomas Aquinas University in Rome, where once again he found himself in the role of challenging election irregularities — a candidate with the lesser count of votes had been declared the winner. The vote was 66 to 63 on the first two ballots with only two candidates running. Still the Dean and Rector called for a third ballot.
“It meant challenging the Dean of Canon Law and the Rector, Father Gieraths; addressing the ‘fixing’ of an election; studying the existing constitution and discovering the law was on our side; petitioning against the validity of the election, then, appealing over the heads of the Dean and Rector to the Master General of the Dominicans who still upheld the Rector.”
Undaunted, that encounter saw Nicholas Gruner taking the kind of direct and positive action that has long since become his trademark.
“We sent the documentation to Si Si No No when Father Putti was still editor and publisher there. Whether or not this had anything to do with the future of the Angelicum, the fact is the Rector, Father Gieraths, was never re-appointed.”
Gruner received his Bachelor's Degree in Sacred Theology and the Licentiate Degree in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, in Rome. Achieving ten out of ten on all courses and papers save one, where he obtained a nine out of ten, he successfully completed all required courses for his doctorate in Sacred Theology. His doctoral thesis alone remained.
The subject of his Licentiate thesis was Mary's Motherhood of Men in the Supernatural Order of Sanctifying Grace. A good part of the thesis dwelt on this teaching of the Church prior to and during Vatican II and the post-conciliar teachings of Pope Paul VI. In part it read:
“‘For the glory of God’ and at ‘the most solemn and most opportune moment’, Pope Paul VI proclaimed Mary Most Holy to be ‘Mother of the Church’. The Holy Father did this to satisfy his own desire, and the requests of many Council Fathers, to make an explicit declaration of the maternal function which the Blessed Virgin Mary exercises towards the Christian people.
“Paul VI gives the dogmatic foundations of this title: 1) It is a title widely used by the faithful and the Church; 2) Her Spiritual Maternity is based on Mary's Divine Maternity. Because She is the Mother of Christ, She is also the Mother of the Mystical Body of Christ.
“It seems to me”, Nick Gruner wrote, “that this affirmation by Pope Paul VI that Mary's Divine Maternity is the foundation of Mary's Spiritual Maternity should stop all further discussion which tries to say that Mary is only the most excellent member of the Church and no more, since only She is the Mother of the Whole Christ.”
As an elected student representative at St. Thomas Aquinas for the doctorate year in Theology, this meant being invited to faculty meetings and he found himself with a vote in the election of the dean.
“When the current dean, Father Salguero, stated with, shall we say, ‘official humility’, that he should not run again, I took him at face value and began to seek other members of the faculty's help in getting a better dean. Even so, I was soon prompted to bear in mind that they still had some say in whether I graduated or not.
“In faculty meetings, we student representatives had not only a consultative but a decisive vote. In other words, our vote would count toward whether or not a decision would be made. Father Salguero, Dean of Theology, wanted to appoint Father Barnabus O'Hearn, C.P., as a visiting Professor of Scripture, in the Angelicum. I enquired around about him and was given an article by a priest, a recent Doctoral graduate, which was published in the Wanderer, against O'Hearn, by Msgr. Bandas, who had impeccable theological credentials. His degrees included a degree higher than Doctor of Theology. He pointed out that O'Hearn was suspect of heretical writing. When the item came up on the agenda at the next meeting, the Dean of Theology asked if there were any objections to appointing Father O'Hearn. I then proceeded to distribute copies of the article. After reading his copy, Salguero became very angry and yelling at me, said, ‘Gruner, don't ever bring anything like that in here again.’ I was centered out and felt like crawling under a table. The dean regained his composure and insisted on a secret ballot. When the vote box had only been three-quarters circulated, some of the voters opened the ballot box and saw the votes up to that point, thus making the vote invalid. The dean however declared it valid and that the vote went against us. We lost the battle but we won the war because O'Hearn, some weeks later, claimed health problems and did not come.”
A former dean of the faculty, Father Lemeer, who had participated in the meeting, told Gruner afterward that he agreed with him that the article he had circulated was fair comment and his circulation of it did not deserve the criticism it got. Nicholas Gruner reflected on that: “I wondered to myself why, then, did he not stand up at the meeting in defense of the article and my position?”
The reality is — the way business is conducted at faculty meetings demonstrates clearly why professors who are orthodox, and know better, do not stand up when they should. They are simply afraid that they themselves will be thrown out, as was Father Giuliani, an orthodox professor of Christology, who was dismissed by the modernists who were in control.
Personalities on staff at the Angelicum merely confirmed the unhealthy dynamics at work in Catholic education in that era: “A visiting Spanish Professor of Theology went out of his way every class to take many shots at St. Paul, saying St. Paul discriminated against women, basing it on his admonition that women should obey their husbands.” After hearing this many times, Nicholas Gruner felt it his duty to speak out, even though he was endangering himself. He countered with, “Do you have to obey your superior? Do I have to obey a legitimate order from a bishop? Is that discrimination against us?” The debate, conducted in Italian, in class, ended after 20 minutes, with the Professor left with nothing to say. Except for one or two passing remarks, he never spoke about it again in Nicholas Gruner's hearing. Neither did he return the following year.
Father Gruner reflecting on this incident, says: “The victory was all Our Lady's — I was so mad at his scandalous comments that I prayed one Hail Mary after another — asking for the right words, and they came to me even as I was speaking, just an instant before I needed them.”
In mid 1975 his spiritual director was the famous Father Gabriel, a Servite Father who had a following of thousands of faithful in Rome. He advised Nicholas not to join any religious order unless they obtained his ordination first. When the Conventual Franciscans of Frigento offered to take him in, he told them the conditions laid down by Father Gabriel. Gabriel had the reputation of being a holy, gifted man, so they conformed to his advice and found a bishop for him on November 21, 1975, the Feast of Our Lady's Presentation in the Temple, in the diocese of Avellino. In the same manner, they had already ordained one Father Paolo, a seminarian from Padua, whom Gruner had met on pilgrimages around Rome.
The Bishop of Avellino, Pasquale Venezia, a short man, five-foot-five, had a heart attack shortly before Nick Gruner arrived for his incardination. The whole diocese had turned out en masse to pray for his recovery. When the young seminarian was incardinated into the diocese on April 15, Holy Thursday, 1976,3 the Bishop jokingly said, “I blame all the priests. It's your fault. If you've got me for longer now, it's your fault because you prayed for me.”
On the Feast of Our Lady's Queenship, on the Octave of the Assumption, August 22, 1976, his father's birthday, and also the day designated by Pius XII in 1946 as the Feast of the Immaculate Heart, at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Frigento, Italy, Nicholas Gruner received Holy Orders, conferred upon him by Bishop Pasquale Venezia.4 Among those present at the ceremony were Malcolm and Jessie Gruner, as well as Fathers Manelli, Pelletiere and Sutton.
Immediately after, Malcolm Gruner, whose early years in Italy, and his conversion at the tomb of St. Cecilia, had forever linked his family to that country, celebrated his 71st birthday by receiving Communion from his own son's hand at his first Mass. It is the moment the parents of a priest await for their entire life. Much of the salting of the ensuing apostolate had already been determined by the people and the events of that day. When Malcolm had converted, under the influence of St. Cecilia, the faith came to him with its abundance of treasures in a sudden flash of knowing, so that soon after, he was able to say to those who charged that devotion to Mary competed with devotion to Jesus, that it was Jesus Himself who delighted in honoring His Mother.
As it so often does with a new priest and his parents after ordination, the ensuing months were devoted to family. All priests know that time will never come again. In this case, they went on pilgrimage to the shrines of St. Anthony of Padua, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Michael of Mount Gargano, St. Leopold in Padua, St. Gemma Galgani's burial place, St. Peter's in Rome and St. Nicholas of Tolentino, to commemorate the Saint on whose feast day, September 10, in 1930, his parents had married and in whose name he had been christened.
After ordination to the priesthood, but before entering the Novitiate, Father Gruner lived and worked in the house of Our Lady of Good Counsel, Casa Mariana, the Marian House of the Franciscan Friars, under the direction of the local superior, Father Stefano Manelli.
The work included some travel, with permission from the bishop. He entered the Novitiate on October 4, 1976, and received his name, Father Nicholas Maria. He remained at the Novitiate of the Franciscan Friars until February 1977. At that time, he began inquiries, with the permission of the provincial, to see if he could continue his Novitiate in North America, in one of the provinces of the Conventual Franciscans.
With permission of his superiors, he travelled to the USA and Canada.
By May, after talking to and visiting with provincials of two of the four Franciscan provinces, he was directed to Marytown in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The provincial there could not promise that he would incardinate him. He would only consider it after he completed his Novitiate in Italy. But there were language difficulties, for, in Avellino, the bishop would not let him preach unless he had written out everything. And to hear confessions in Italy, the bishop wanted him to first learn the difficult local dialect. That would have taken years.
The possibility of forming an English house in Italy, at that time, seemed pretty well hopeless. There was nothing left for Father Gruner to do but write to the Bishop in Avellino, asking permission to seek a bishop in North America.
He travelled across North America introducing himself and seeking incardination, seeking a bishop who did not order his priests to give Communion in the hand: Washington, D.C., New Mexico, Texas, Florida, North Carolina, New York, Kentucky, Wisconsin, all to no avail. Then in August of 1977, acquaintances in Ottawa asked him to come help save a Fatima Apostolate centered in that city. He arrived on the Feast of Saint Clare, August 12, 1977.
By 1977, little remained of the pontificate of Paul VI. In the sixteen years since John XXIII's ‘inspiration’ the Church had become barely recognizable. Virtually nothing remained of the moral authority it had wielded in the past. A sneering triumphalism was assumed by the enemies of the Bride of Christ. Any attention paid to spokesmen for Roman Catholicism by the Left Wing establishment of the Ecumenical Church was an exercise in sheer condescension.
In the waning months of Paul VI's life, traumatized Catholics hoped and prayed for a successor who would strengthen the primacy of the Chair of Peter and promote the rights of Christ over those He redeemed with His Blood on Calvary. The knowledge that Paul VI was nearing the end spurred many who had suffered myriad varieties of martyrdom in defense of the faith during his pontificate. Restoration movements sprang up around the world. In anticipation of the inevitable conclave, grief-stricken Catholics began offering nothing less than the balance of their entire lives for the salvation of their sacred heritage.
On June 5, 1978, Bishop Pasquale Venezia officially granted Father Gruner written permission to live and work outside the diocese of Avellino.5 With that blessing, Father began his full time commitment to Our Lady of Fatima's Apostolate.
On August 6, 1978, Paul VI died. Grief was the legacy left the Church. Grief for the passing of treasured aspects of the faith that were consigned to oblivion. Grief that the truths of the faith had been lost by poorly educated clergy in theology chairs.
Those fatal years coincided with the most dangerous time in history for the unborn children of the planet. A New World Order was on the horizon. Population controls were on the agenda of world health organizations. The new missionary to the Third World was the contraceptive salesman. A slaughter of the innocents of the world was about to be launched supposedly to harness mankind's growth down to a manageable number. In the Western hemisphere, mass infanticide would be launched in the most unlikely country on earth.
1. This shrine is unique among all Our Lady's shrines. The Carmelites prayed to Our Lady, their perfect example, for guidance, and She led them to Aylesford, England, in 1241, with the help of Saint Simon Stock. One day, July 16, 1251, Simon Stock went to his cell there in Aylesford and prayed with all his heart for Our Dear Mother's intercession.
Saint Simon Stock's cell was flooded with light when Our Lady appeared to him. She held the Scapular in Her hand, even as She wore it full size on Herself, and She made this, the Scapular, a sign of Her special love and protection for them.
She said to Saint Simon, “This shall be to thee and to all Carmelites a privilege that whosoever dies clothed in this (Scapular) shall not suffer eternal fire. It shall be a sign of salvation, a protection in danger and a pledge of peace.”
2. Frère François de Marie des Anges, Book One, Fatima: The Astonishing Truth, Immaculate Heart Publications, Buffalo, NY, pg. 104; also, Fatima in Lucia's Own Words, Sister Lucy's Fourth Memoir, pg. 162.
3. Copy of document maintained in diocese of Avellino.
4. Congratulations Father Nicholas Gruner, The Fatima Crusader, Issue 53, Summer 1996, pgs. 1-2; also, Picture of Father Gruner's Ordination , The Fatima Crusader , Issue 18, Oct-Dec 1985, pg. 13.
5. Father Nicholas Gruner, A Canonical Recourse to the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy, The Fatima Crusader, Issue 53, Summer 1996, pgs. 19-20; also Father Nicholas Gruner, Father Gruner's Letter to Cardinal Innocenti, The Fatima Crusader, Issue 29, Sept-Nov. 1989, pg. 34.