It is noon in the more than 700-year-old church of Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet in Paris, which has been occupied by the SSPX since 1977. All masses here are mumbled in accordance with the Latin ritual, accompanied by Gregorian chants, with the priest turning his back on the congregation -- all standard practices for centuries, until the Second Vatican Council destroyed the traditions. A noticeably large number of young people are kneeling on the cold stone floor, and the air is heavy with incense smoke.
The Paris branch of the SSPX has noticed a sharp increase in church attendance since the beginning of last year. The priests have had to increase their weekly supply of communion wafers by 300 wafers, so that there will be enough to place on the tongues of the faithful. Perhaps the Holocaust scandal was responsible for the rise in attendance, or perhaps the new additions to the flock were encouraged by the pope's lifting of the excommunication of the four bishops -- or perhaps both factors played a role.
France is the society's stronghold. It now has 100,000 supporters there, and 4,000 children attend its schools. Traditionalists see the movement as the future of Catholicism.
Niklaus Pfluger has just returned from mass at Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet. In the hierarchy of the order, the Swiss priest is second only to Bishop Fellay. When Williamson shocked the church a year ago by denying the Holocaust in an interview, Fellay immediately sent Pfluger to Argentina, where Williamson was staying at the time, to stop the renegade bishop from talking to the media.
Pfluger is still puzzled about the motives of his fellow SSPX member. Sitting in the Bistrot Saint Honoré in Paris, over a plate of mussels and a glass of 2002 Ladoix 1er Cru, he attempts to piece together an explanation. Williamson, he says, happens to be a first-class provocateur and has always had strange ideas. Right away on Sept. 11, 2001, he claimed that the US government had staged the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. He also claims that it wasn't Japan but the White House that ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor, in an effort to draw the Americans into World War II.
During a sermon in the Canadian province of Quebec in April 1989, Williamson said that the Jews had invented Auschwitz as a way to derive certain benefits. Someone filed a criminal complaint against him, and Williamson has done his best to avoid Quebec ever since.
"He is actually an artist and not a scholar," says Pfluger. "He gets an idea into his head, becomes fixated on it and exaggerates. But he doesn't study the documents." He calls Williamson a "ticking time bomb" for his organization, but he also points out that the bishop has many merits, and that he shouldn't be "exiled to the Moon."
Pfluger is also concerned about the health of the 69-year-old bishop, who has apparently had Parkinson's disease for several years. Could this explain his moody, unpredictable behavior? Pfluger and his fellow Pius Brothers have often been irritated by the emails they receive on a regular basis from London. In a recent email, Williamson wrote that "1.3 million deported people" were not gassed in the Treblinka, Majdanek, Belzec and Sobibor concentration camps, but were simply transported to the part of the Soviet Union that was occupied by Germany. Ridiculous rumors to the contrary, Williamson added, should be ignored.