By Anna Arco
Fr Z walks through the bitterly cold Oxford night with the firm, fast steps of a man who has relentless energy, determination and strong convictions. With his black trilby tilted at a raffish angle and his black scarf firmly tucked into his black coat, he looks like a character out of The Matrix. With three mobile devices on him he certainly carries enough electronic kit to warrant the simile. One can easily imagine him being as adept at programming complex computer codes as he is at celebrating a Mass in the extraordinary form.
For those unfamiliar with the internet, the name Fr Z (the "Z" is pronounced "zee") may mean little, but to thousands of wired-up Catholics across the globe, Fr John Zuhlsdorf's well-informed opinions, translations and analyses of matters liturgical are a daily reading requirement. Rumoured to have direct sources in very high places, he is read by members of the Roman Curia, bishops, priests, seminarians and lay people around the world. His articles have made their way into Curial meetings and he says that several bishops have consulted him on documents relating to Summorum Pontificum, the Apostolic Letter with which the Pope Benedict XVI liberated the traditional Mass. Fr Z is a true phenomenon of the information age: a power blogger and a priest.
He tells the story of one seminary rector who said some unfavourable things about Summorum Pontificum. Students at the seminary e-mailed Fr Zuhlsdorf shortly after the meeting. He posted it on his blog and within hours the news had made its way across the world.
"It created quite a stir in that particular community," says Fr Zuhlsdorf. "I know now that people are being a lot more careful about what they say. They [the bishops] are realising that the blogosphere and the internet, with the way the media is today, they know that they are going to be called to account for what they say or do."
A confessed tech-geek, Fr Zuhlsdorf started his adventures with the internet in its early days, back in the 1990s. He effectively hotwired a Vatican telephone in order to access cyberspace with an analogue connection back when analogue was the only option and Compuserve almost the only service provider. In the days before proper websites, when forums were the in thing, Fr Zuhlsdorf quickly became the moderator for the Catholic Online Forum, which he still does today. His "What Does The Prayer Really Say?" column in the American weekly newspaper The Wanderer dealt with the inadequacies of ICEL translations by providing new translations which he made. It became the inspiration for his blog.
In the last two years, his blog, at www.wdtprs.com, has had over 2.1 million visitors. By the standards of today's blogosphere, which has well over 50 million blogs struggling to get noticed, this is not bad going at all. He receives over 500 e-mails a day and says he wishes that he could answer all of them. Traffic on his blog has been so heavy that it has caused the server to crash. More often than not, he has the first news on items concerning the Motu Proprio and whenever something new does develop relating to the extraordinary form, his blog is the rapidly becoming the first port of call.
"I feel that I have an obligation to comment now that I'm one of the bigger ones and people are starting to turn to me quickly," he says. "I'm one of the first blogs people go to when something happens and as long as I can have something useful to contribute I feel the responsibility to ante up." But he tries to limit himself from spending too much time at the computer so that he can live "a regular priestly life".
He feels his blog offers marginalised traditionalists a chance to vent their frustrations, discuss their needs and start the healing process that Pope Benedict XVI began with Summorum Pontificum.
As with many high-profile bloggers, Fr Zuhlsdorf's neatly formulated thoughts are only a mouse-click away, but finding the man behind the blog is a little more difficult.
It is apt that our interview in Oxford, where he has been taking part in a Newman Society colloquium on blogging, takes place in the Eagle and Child, the pub where the Inklings used to meet. He tells me that J R R Tolkien's books played a prominent part in his early life and he says that a childhood correspondence with "the Professor" shortly before Tolkien's death may have been one of things that made him more receptive to Catholicism later on in life. Born to Lutheran parents of German extraction in Minnesota, the man who coined the slogan "Save the Liturgy, Save the World" was turned off by the "ugliness" of the Lutheran mindset. Music and Shakespeare were the two passions of his childhood, nurtured by his grandmother, a former school teacher. While he was interested in religion, he had none himself.
Perhaps his love for the extraordinary form, his conviction that lex orandi is indeed lex credendi and his admiration for the beauties of the liturgy, have their roots in his conversion story. As a young drama major at the University of Minnesota, he was introduced to Latin and loved it. Long-haired and mustachioed, the now clean-shaven Fr Zuhlsdorf worked as a cook in a restaurant to support himself through his studies. "I was practically a pagan then," he says.
One Sunday, called in to work as the restaurant was short staffed, his car refused to start. So he borrowed his friend's battered jalopy and drove through the freezing Minnesotan morning, fiddling with the dial of the old AM radio desperately trying to find something decent to listen to. Chancing on some Gregorian chants, he was mesmerised. When he realised that the music was being broadcast live from a church in St Paul, Minnesota, he resolved to go. He was fascinated by what he saw at St Agnes, which is built in Austrian Baroque style and intrigued by the congregation. "I kept asking myself: 'Who are these people and what do they believe that they do this every Sunday?' " he says. "I wrote my name and phone number down on a piece of paper and handed it over to the guy on the other side of the Communion rail."
Mgr Richard Schuler, the parish priest, rang Zuhlsdorf up and invited him to come round and talk. After a year and a half of directly engaging with the liturgy in the church choir, which was complemented with a rigorous reading list, Zuhlsdorf found that he could answer his own objections to Catholicism and decided to convert. For a long time he resisted the vocation to the priesthood, but eventually came round to it and was ordained in May 1991 in Rome by Pope John Paul II. He was incardinated in the suburbicarian diocese of Velletri-Segni.
His work at the Ecclesia Dei commission, the Vatican body which deals with matters pertaining to the older form of the Mass, put him into the corridors of power and it was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then the Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), who suggested the topic for Fr Zuhlsdorf's licence thesis.
"One day, not long after the document came out on the ecclesial vocation of theologians, I met Cardinal Ratzinger in the hall and I said: 'Your Eminence, I read the new letter.' He said very politely: 'What did you think?' It was an astonishing thing that the Prefect of the CDF was asking me what I thought of the letter and I said: 'Well, Your Eminence, I didn't really like it very well.' And he was a little surprised and said: 'Why?' And I said: 'Well, you spend so many pages on talking about theologians but you don't say who a theologian is.' He looked at me a little quizzically and said: 'Why don't you tell us?' And I said 'How do I do this?' And he said: 'You're working in Patristics at the Augustinianum; why don't you ask St Augustine who a theologian was?' " Fr Zuhlsdorf is now working on his doctorate in Patristics at the Augustinianum in Rome, but divides his time between the Eternal City and the United States, where he has a rural hideaway in the Midwest which he calls the Sabine Farm, after Horace. In the meantime, with things changing as much as they are, he is blogging up a storm.