THE ADVANCE OF MARCEL LEFEBVRE AND THE SSPX
One might easily put down the resistance to change during those earliest days to mere human nature, but had that been so it would have soon died out. Both the remaining faithful Roman Catholics and the heretics in the Vatican institution underestimated the situation quite seriously. The Catholics, as yet still making the assumption that the Vatican institution was still simply the Roman Catholic Church, therefore assumed that it must soon return to its senses. Surely the Catholic Church must if She is to be an eternal institution capable of lasting through all of the vicissitudes of time and place. Conservatives and Traditionalists alike were hoping to just "ride it out" or "wait it out" until such time as the madness would be over with. At the worst, maybe it would take clear until Paul VI dies. Then the next pope would be sure to put things back in order. Then again, maybe Paul VI might wake up some day and realize the damage he has done and begin trying to undo it.
But as we move into the next period, Conservatives and Traditionalists begin to part company as the madness dragged on and on, and fewer and fewer places of sound doctrine and reliable sacraments could be found. Over time, Conservatives came to be reduced from fighting for the true Mass to fighting for sound doctrine or reverence in worship, or even the use of Latin hymns. Finally their reduction brought them to the pathetic role of fighting to continue the use of incense or bells, or having statues and altar rails left standing in their parish churches, just like a mother having lost her child might cling tenaciously to that child's things. Eventually they got carried off with all of the rest, just a great deal slower. Many of them were quite old and began dying off. By all human standards, the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church should have been nothing more than a vague and confused memory in the back of the minds of a few elderly people. Another couple generations and it would be forgotten entirely.
Just as Conservatives and Traditionalists both underestimated the seriousness and possible duration of the crisis, so it is also true that the revolutionaries and radicals who sought to change the Church into some model of their own making had absolutely no idea just what they were up against. Since they don't really believe in God (except in the vague Masonic sense of some impersonal "Great Architect" who creates the world and then leaves man to his own devices), they think of the Catholic Church as merely a human organization. Since humans have made it (goes the reasoning), humans therefore have the power to change it or abolish it as they choose.
As for those of a rebellious disposition (the goats), the revolutionaries did not need to concern themselves on account of them, since they already had them on their side. But the sheep, being the faithful and innocent and naive and trusting sheep that they are, were expected to blindly follow their leadership into error. Is that not the natural behavior of sheep? If the pope says, "Today, we must worship the Devil," will not the sheep obediently worship the Devil? The revolutionaries, not believing in God, had no reason to expect that the sheep "will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers." - - John 10:5
In a strange and roundabout sort of way, one can even be grateful for their efforts. After all, without the betrayal by Judas, how would Jesus have ever been caught in order to be crucified? In a similar manner, the betrayal by the Vatican leadership of the Church is even now providing an opportunity for the most spectacular demonstration of God's power and glory and existence since the resurrection of Jesus Christ Himself. As it was in the case of Judas, those in the Vatican leadership who have betrayed the Church do not stand to gain any real and eternal advantage for themselves personally from their folly, but God works even the Devil's worst evils into His own divine plan.
As time dragged on without any end in sight to all of the madness which was going on in "the Church," Catholics became increasingly concerned about the future of the Church. Although thousands of faithful priests still remained worldwide, most of them were getting up there in years and others were caving in to the new religion. Soon it was not thousands but only hundreds of faithful priests left. Even worse, what few seminaries as still remained open at all were no longer turning out faithful priests but all sorts of clowns, revolutionaries, and other faithless losers who clearly didn't even know what a sacrament was, let alone a commandment of God. All the new seminarians were learning anymore was holding hands, singing Kum Ba Yah, and "building a community," whatever that meant. The prospect of "priests" like these becoming "bishops" (or "Pope"?) was unthinkable. Where would the Church get faithful priests and bishops for future generations?
It is with the increasing consciousness of this concern that attention became attracted to the seminary Archbishop Lefebvre had established in Ecône. As the seminary grew in importance to the faithful, so did the attacks upon it. Also, once Lefebvre's declaration became widely known (in early 1975), it immediately became a rallying cry for all true Catholics all around the world. With that, Lefebvre moved from the background into the foreground. This chapter then, is the story of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) a fraternal association of common life which he founded and led up until his death in 1991; it is the story of the largest portion of the Church which was forced to function outside the Vatican institution, and for that matter the largest single priestly order of the Church which can truthfully be called Catholic. As of this writing the SSPX is still just about twice as large (in terms of the number of priests, religious, and lay faithful) as the size of all other traditional Catholic orders put together.
Bishop Mamie who had replaced Bishop Charriere, the diocesan Bishop of Lausanne, Geneva, and Fribourg, was no particular friend of the Catholic tradition. Although he did not start out as a particular enemy of tradition either, he was not truly committed to the Catholic Faith and only all too easily made to cooperate with the other French bishops in the persecution of Lefebvre and the seminary in Ecône. The first two attacks on the seminary had taken place even before the famous 1974 declaration. The first was an illegal attempt by Bishop Mamie to use his diocesan authority to close down Ecône. That is illegal on the technicality that even though a diocesan bishop has the authority to set up a religious society within his diocese, or to allow an existing religious order to open a house in their diocese, only the bishop who himself personally has done this can revoke the permission so given. In particular, a bishop who succeeds a bishop who establishes a religious order in his diocese must have recourse to Rome to shut it down.
When Bp. Mamie failed to shut down Ecône, the second wave of persecution began. This was the rumor, spread by the entire French hierarchy, that Ecône was some sort of "wildcat seminary." While some foolish or ignorant persons bought that lie, many more seminarians just kept right on coming. Though a smattering of priests had already been ordained at Ecône, beginning in 1971, all of them had been transfer students from other seminaries. Finally in 1974, the first seminarian, of what would soon come to be hundreds, was ordained who had been entirely trained and formed under the Archbishop's tutelage. It was also in 1974 that the heat began to be turned up. Having failed to close down the "wildcat seminary" either by diocesan authority or malicious rumors, at length they finally got Rome involved. In March, a group of cardinals met in Rome to discuss the Ecône problem and by June they had decided to send the two visitors who had so scandalized the seminarians in November.
By January of 1975, the two visitors had prepared their report and delivered it to Rome. Although very few people appear to have ever seen it, by what few indications known it seems to have been for the most part a favorable report. However, there was that famous declaration, and that alone provided the excuse for the legal machinery of Rome (which normally moves along at a glacial pace) to creak into high gear. Abp. Lefebvre had been invited to an informal meeting in Rome in February with Cardinals Wright (the same who had so highly praised Ecône only a few years previous), Garrone, and Tabera. Upon arrival, it turned out that he had been invited on false pretenses. The meeting was little more than a berating and "chewing out" session in which the Archbishop was roundly criticized for his declaration. It was a tribunal in which he was already judged guilty and granted no recourse.
Exactly the same fiasco was repeated in March. He was accused of "breaking with Rome" and being the leader of the traditionalist movement and all sorts of "evil." At the same time Fr. de Nantes was publishing articles in which he was predicting that Lefebvre would break with Rome, and all the better for him if he does! Lefebvre was shocked at this and wrote in response an open letter to Fr. de Nantes saying that "if a Bishop breaks with Rome it will not be me." That episode so clearly demonstrates Abp. Lefebvre's personality, and the reason why he earned so much respect from even many of his opponents. No matter what disagreements he had about the way Paul VI was running "the Church," his respect for the person of Paul VI as duly elected Pope and profound respect for the office knew no limits.
Unfortunately, such respect was entirely lost on Paul VI who frankly resented having his failing plans and programs criticized in the public forum. The three cardinals attempted to shut down Ecône, as if their involvement constituted Bp. Mamie's recourse to Rome. Again, it was of no canonical effect because "recourse to Rome" does not merely mean that some cardinal in Rome says something and there it is. There must be a fair trial by competent authority, and that had been specifically denied Lefebvre. Lefebvre wrote Paul VI asking for a fair trial or at least as much forgiveness as he had shown to several truly dissident theologians and seminary professors such as Hans Küng. In June, Paul VI wrote a letter to Abp. Lefebvre in which he affirmed the decision of the three cardinals and attempted to persuade Lefebvre to discontinue his heroic stand.
The same day that letter was written (and therefore before it had arrived), Abp. Lefebvre ordained three more priests who were incardinated into various dioceses. He had over a hundred seminarians in training and over a dozen professors in Ecône, had already opened houses in Albano, Weissbad, and Armada, and without intending it, had become a sort of de facto spokesman for traditional Catholics around the world. The house in Albano, near Rome, had been officially permitted by Bp. Mamie and also Bp. Maccario of the diocese of Albano. Despite its being quite active in training priests, officially the seminary of Ecône no longer existed. Several professors were lost when their religious superiors summoned them back. Perhaps about a dozen students also left at that time, but there remained hundreds of seminarians who simply continued their training, and there were dozens of applicants willing and even eager to take the place of the few who left. By December of 1975, the rumor mill was in full gear.
The Swiss Bishops' Conference published a "dossier" on Ecône in which they simply repeated Cardinal Villot's calumnies against Lefebvre. Worst of all, bishops all around the world were herein advised not to incardinate any priests from Ecône into their dioceses. This bears some discussion since not many people know about the process of incardination. Normally, before a priest gets ordained, he must be incardinated into either a diocese or a religious order. Incardination means that he is expected to serve within that diocese or religious order once he is ordained. Later on he may transfer if his bishop releases him and if another bishop is willing to accept him into his diocese or religious order, but some bishop somewhere must approve the ordination in the first place. Typically that bishop also participates in the ordination ceremony.
The first few Lefebvre priests had already been incardinated into various dioceses and therefore had no problem, but after the promulgation of that infamous "dossier," very few of Lefebvre's priests ever got incardinated directly into any diocese. Even that did not slow up even in the least the steady stream of bright young men eager to place themselves at the service of God and the Catholic Church by entering Ecône and the other seminaries Lefebvre had opened in various parts of the world. Also starting at about this time were both men and women offering themselves to be monks and nuns at the service of the SSPX.
Over the course of 1976, the wound continued to fester even more as Paul VI, who had been up until that point very much a background figure in this problem and one who furthermore had obviously never been fully informed of the facts, began to take an active participation in the persecution of Lefebvre. Speaking as if he had a better understanding of what "tradition" is than the entire line of previous popes, he said in one speech that "there are those who, under a pretext of a greater fidelity to the Church and the Magisterium, systematically refuse the teaching of the Council itself, its application and the reforms that stem from it," by which he meant to refer to Abp. Lefebvre and all Catholics in sympathy with him.
Finally, again without due process or a fair hearing or trial (and therefore illegally), through the mediation of Abp. Benelli Paul VI threatened to suspend Lefebvre if he did not turn aside from providing for the future of the Church which Benelli disparagingly referred to as a "blind alley." Lefebvre was specifically told not to ordain any more seminarians, in fact, none of the 15 seminarians he was to ordain that year had been incardinated into any diocese, so effective had Cardinal Villot's "dossier" been. Operating on the advice of several canon lawyers, Lefebvre took the radical step of incardinating those priests directly into his own order, the Society of Saint Pius X.
Frustrated in his attempts to shut down the Catholic Church, Paul VI raised the stakes much higher by attempting to suspend Abp. Lefebvre on July 1, 1976. Again, no legal recourse was ever offered and no due process of law ever observed. The suspension of Lefebvre on that day goes on record and remains to this day by far the most irregular "suspension" of any clergyman in the entire history of the Vatican. Both Paul VI and the villainous cardinals in league with him in Rome on the one hand, and Lefebvre and his priests and seminarians on the other, fully well knew that this suspension was an illegal and irregular one and therefore of no legal or moral force.
The press (both Vatican and secular) on the other hand published a very different view of these events. Both portrayed Lefebvre as some sort of rebel who had broken with the Roman establishment and was ready, willing, and (in the eyes of the secular press at least) able to take on the entire Vatican establishment. Neither press really understood. The Vatican press presented Lefebvre as some sort of rebel who was being disobedient to the Church. The secular press praised Lefebvre as is he were some sort of twentieth century Luther ready to start a new Church. Both of course were entirely wrong, but the voice of sanity was barely heard at all. Feuds and fights (even where clearly fabricated) always sell more copy than warmth and friendship, and both presses played this card to the hilt.
Lefebvre did not break with Rome; a far more accurate thing to say is rather, that "Rome" broke with Lefebvre. It was the Biblical story of Cain and Abel all over again. God did not accept Cain's fruit offering "which earth has given and human hands have made" and likewise did not accept the increasingly false and invalid new "mass" at which the bread and wine were merely bread and wine fit for a memorial supper served over a nondescript table. But God clearly did accept the flesh and blood offering, the "sacred and unspotted Host," of His loyal servant Abel, and likewise accepted the true, reverent, and unquestionably valid Masses of Abp. Lefebvre and his priests where the Body and Blood and Soul and Divinity of our Lord was still to be found.
The "mass" of Paul VI had already by then driven hundreds of millions out of the Church, but also produced no sanctity and no saints. What very few saintly ones who could still be found (such as Mother Teresa of Calcutta) had long since been formed and blessed by the old ways of the pre-Vatican II Church. On the other hand, Abp. Lefebvre's order, the SSPX, and also his male and female postulants, his seminarians, and the regular lay parishioners grew quite dramatically in numbers and in sanctity. The sinful envy the Vatican leadership had of Lefebvre and the evident blessing God gave his offerings was precisely identical to the sinful envy Cain had of Abel and the evident blessing God gave his offerings.
When, at about this point, a large group of Traditional Catholics made a pilgrimage to Rome on foot, hoping to gain an audience with Paul VI so as to request a return to the traditional (Catholic) Mass, Paul VI demonstrated the profound depth of his apostolic solicitude by refusing even to see them, but instead chose to be entertained by the Belgian Soccer team. Where the suspension and refusal to hear any appeals over the next couple months or so correspond exactly to the murderous blows Cain inflicted on Abel, what happened next can only be described as the voice of Abel's blood crying out from the ground, a voice which sent the twentieth century Cain, Paul VI, into flight. In the view of this writer, history has already made its judgment, and that judgment is clearly in favor of Abp. Lefebvre and just as clearly against Paul VI.
Abel's blood was heard from the little French town of Lille, Marcel Lefebvre's own native region. On August 29, 1976, Lefebvre celebrated Mass there despite the invalid suspension, and over ten thousand persons came. Originally, and even up to merely a week previous, that was not what Lefebvre had intended. What he intended was that he would go home and say Mass in some small chapel which someone had granted to him in the midst of this crisis, and perhaps about 100 local people from Lille would show up and be blessed by the sacrament. Word of this intended Mass electrified the entire Catholic community and so spread like lightning throughout it. People started showing up from all over the world. Entire tour groups from foreign countries who had come for this were turned away, but came back anyway.
At practically the last moment, the auditorium of the International Fair in Lille was rented with seating capacity for 10,000 persons and not only was that filled, but thousands more had come who all had to stand, in many cases, outside that facility for sheer lack of standing room. In his homily which went much longer than he had planned, he reiterated his reasons for training, forming, and ordaining seminarians, explained that this Mass was not a protest demonstration but a manifestation of Catholic belief and loyalty on the part of those attending. He clarified the fact that he was not any sort of "leader" of the traditionalists but merely a simple bishop doing his job. He decried the perverse attempt to unite the Church to the Revolution which only produced bastard rites of doubtful validity, and he advocated a missionary stance.
Some controversy was generated when he praised the government of Argentina for having restored a significant measure of peace and order for that nation because he had not intended to make any sort of political statement at all. He was not endorsing that government in either its leaders nor its structure, but merely pointing out the prosperity, even in a material sense, which logically follows from taking at least a somewhat Catholic stance on the part of that (or any) secular government.
He summed up by pointing out the rather bizarre fact that any other kind of worship was being allowed in the Churches that numerous Catholic saints had built and worshipped in, but the traditional faith was not. Moslems? Come on in! Buddhists? You too! Jews? No problem; we have room for all! But traditional Catholics? Forget it; you're not wanted here! The one and only mode of worship these great cathedrals and churches were built for had now become the one and only mode of worship now prohibited in these same cathedrals and churches.
After so great an event, an astonishing thing happened. Abp. Lefebvre was suddenly invited to an audience with Paul VI. Having attempted for years to obtain one and after being repeatedly told that it cannot happen until he closes his seminaries and renounces his Catholic faith, suddenly here it was, and that without having renounced a thing! It was in the course of this audience that he learned that Paul VI had not been truly appraised of the facts of his case. Paul VI had evidently been told that Abp. Lefebvre has his seminarians take an Oath against the Pope, a calumny clearly calculated to prevent the meeting between Paul VI who bemoaned the autodemolition of the Church, and the one solitary bishop who knew precisely how to put a stop to it and restore the Church to order. Paul VI was also quite hesitant to meet up with Abp. Lefebvre because deep down he knew he was wrong to disagree with Lefebvre, in whom spoke all the reliable popes of the Church.
The Vatican press subsequently denied it of course, but the facts are clear and indisputable: Someone (presumably Cardinal Villot) had deliberately kept Paul VI in the dark about the traditional Catholic Faith, its adherents, and the need for its existence. Lefebvre and Paul VI achieved some measure of peace and reconciliation and even closed their time together with some prayers. Alas, after this brief peace, on October 11, 1976, Paul VI wrote Lefebvre saying that he must surrender each and every facility, property, seminarian, religious, and every other asset of every kind to the by now very doubtful Vatican hierarchy or else face a suspension from his clerical duties.
Needless to say, the Archbishop never surrendered the assets of the SSPX, and Paul VI never actually carried out his vacuous threat to have him suspended. There the matter rested until January of 1978. In the meantime, several other events of interest took place. In 1977, Abp. Lefebvre ordained 16 new priests, and had come to have over 40. His sister, Mother Mary Gabriel Lefebvre, ran a general house (founded in 1974) which moved that year to St. Michel-en-Brenne. Parishes, mass centers, religious and lay followers continued to grow dramatically in numbers. A group of thirty Catholic University teachers signed a manifesto in which they gave public expression to their solidarity with Abp. Lefebvre and the Catholic Church in all of Her pristine greatness for which he stood. It was in February of 1977 that another miracle happened.
In Paris, a large parish church by the name of St. Nicholas du Chardonnet, which had room for thousands, was quietly taken over by traditional Catholics. On the last Sunday of that month, Catholics began coming inside in greater and greater numbers. One of the (Novus Ordo) parish clergymen there seemed pleased that so many people would show up that morning. Out of curiosity he turned to one of the laymen who had come in with the rest of the new people and asked, "Who are you? Why are you here? We're overcome with delight." The layman answered him saying, "Let's hope you're still delighted in a few minutes' time."
After that few minutes' time, Msgr. Ducaud-Bourget came in, flanked by a deacon and subdeacon. The funky wooden table along with its tattered purple cloth was summarily folded up and packed away while Msgr. Ducaud-Bourget made his triumphant procession up the center aisle and proceeded to say the tridentine Mass on the high altar. Without any real violence, the Novus Ordo priest and those parishioners who were not glad to see the faith they ostensibly believed in restored to their parish church were gently driven out of the building. The traditional Catholics just moved in and took over. When the Novus Ordo clergymen called the police they were informed that in France, the government had taken over all Church facilities, although they have continued to allow the Church to use those facilities for Her worship. The Novus Ordo clergy were simply ignored.
It turned out that the Mayor, the Chief of Police, and practically the entire police force were all of a truly Catholic opinion and would not lift a finger to help the Novus Ordo clergymen. Many of them personally attended the tridentine Mass as said by Msgr. Ducaud-Bourget. For the next several years, the Novus Ordo establishment tried to get it back, but they never could. Although Msgr. Ducaud-Bourget has since gone to his reward, St. Nicholas du Chardonnet continues as a traditional Catholic parish to this day. Since that time it has been fixed up, cleaned up, and made to look just as it did when it was new.
As Lefebvre continued his formation and ordination of priests and while St. Nicholas du Chardonnet became one of the largest Catholic parishes in all of Europe, abuse continued to be heaped on him by practically every member of the almost entirely apostate Vatican hierarchy. Although Lefebvre never quite embraced the opinion that Paul VI had somehow lost the papacy, he demonstrated himself to be very close to such an opinion at various times when he referred to the Vatican establishment as being in schism by having departed from the truths previously established and defined by the Church. In one sermon in 1977 he went so far as to say "The Deposit of Faith does not belong to the Pope. It is the treasure of truth which has been taught during twenty centuries. He must transmit it faithfully and exactly to all those under him who are charged in turn to communicate the truth of the Gospel. He is not free.
"But should it happen because of mysterious circumstances which we cannot understand [the loss of authority back at Vatican II], which baffle our imagination, which go beyond our conception, if it should happen that a pope, he who is seated on the throne of Peter, comes to obscure in some way the truth which it is his duty to transmit or if he does not transmit it faithfully or allows error to darken truth or hide it in any way, then we must pray to God with all our hearts, with all our soul, that light continues to be thrown on that which he is charged to transmit.
"And we cannot follow error, change truth, just because the one who is charged with transmitting it is weak and allows error to spread around him. We don't want the darkness to encroach on us. We want to live in the light of truth. We remain faithful to that which has been taught for two thousand years. That what has been taught for two thousand years, and which is part of eternity, could change is inconceivable.
"We have made our choice. We have chosen to be obedient in the real sense, obedient to what all the Popes have taught for twenty centuries and we cannot imagine that he who sits on Peter's throne does not want to teach these things. Well, if that is the case, then God will judge him. But we cannot go into error because there is a kind of rupture in the chain of the successors of Peter. We want to remain faithful to the successors of Peter who transmitted to us the Deposit of the Faith [the reliable popes]. It is in this sense that we are faithful to the Catholic Church, that we remain within it and can never go into schism. Since we are attached to twenty centuries of Faith we cannot make a schism. That is what guarantees for us the past, the present and the future. It is impossible to separate the past from the present and the future. Sustaining ourselves with the past, we are sure of the present and the future."
It was on January 28, 1978 that activity between Lefebvre and the Vatican hierarchy resumed, this time with a letter from Cardinal Seper. In it, as Prefect of the "Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith" (what had become of what was once known as the Holy Office), he asked Lefebvre to explain and clarify his position in an official way. Over the next several months, some correspondence and even a personal meeting allowed Lefebvre to answer all questions put to him and to defend his position as he had lawfully asked from the very beginning. Throughout this inquiry, relations between Abp. Lefebvre and Cardinal Seper were quite cordial and for the most part the questions were fair and reasonable, and the answers were clear and complete.
The book Apologia Pro Marcel Lefebvre, Volume Two (See Bibliography) describes the proceedings between Cardinal Seper and Archbishop Lefebvre in far more detail. Their goal had been to attempt the lawful suspension of Lefebvre which had never actually taken place. They failed because legally and doctrinally Lefebvre had in fact done no wrong and therefore could not be lawfully suspended or excommunicated. He had been far too circumspect. It was during the time that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which had been tying itself in knots trying vainly to extract from Lefebvre's answers to their questions some legal basis to suspend him, was suddenly overtaken by events. As one traditionalist priest so brusquely and pithily put it, "Then on August 6, 1978, Paul VI did something which made a great many people happy. He stopped living." With him died the great push to suspend, or if possible even excommunicate, Lefebvre. The case against Lefebvre became just another stack of paper in the "IN" basket on the vacant pope's desk.
It might be interesting to take stock of the careers of these two men, Paul VI and Lefebvre up until this point in 1978. Paul VI had come into the highest office any human could attain to, being directly in charge of nearly a quarter of the earth's population. Over the course of his papal (?) career, he managed to eradicate the Catholic faith from all but perhaps half a million believers who were either barely on the fringe of, or utterly outside of, the institution he presided over. Even those who embraced his new religion dropped drastically in numbers as parishes closed, baptisms and marriages and religious vocations fell precipitously while marriage annulments skyrocketed and many religious orders completely evaporated. He had presided over the most disastrous council in the entire history of the Church, the only one which had promulgated heresy, or at least come so close as to escape by only the most obscure and complex of technicalities. He has the distinction of being the only "pope" who ever promulgated sacraments of undeniably human origin to replace the God-given sacraments of the Church.
By contrast, Lefebvre started out retired in 1968 with nothing more than a pension just large enough to provide him with sustenance and covering for the rest of his declining years. In a mere ten years he had formed and ordained over 50 priests and formed a society to which at least as many others had either formally joined themselves or at least expressed solidarity and support. And he was just barely getting started. By this time there were in addition to that perhaps another 100 or so priests worldwide (excluding the Eastern Rites) who were faithful to the Church and Her traditions, but who preferred to keep their heads down and stay out of the "Lefebvre" affair and quietly see to the needs of their parishioners.
A few of these others such as Fr. Georges de Nantes, Fr. Noel Barbara, and even the Dominican Fr. des Lauriers were of the opinion that Lefebvre had gone too far in trying to be diplomatic with the apostate Vatican leadership and for that reason kept their distance. For example, Fr. des Lauriers, who was the main instigator behind the Ottaviani Intervention, had served as a professor at Ecône for several years, but had been let go after the 1976-77 academic year because of his position against the papacy of Paul VI. These couple hundred priests and the two bishops Lefebvre and de Castro Mayer constituted the entire visible Western Hierarchy of the Church, although none of them realized it at the time.
The cardinals of the Vatican institution held a conclave at which they nominated Albino Luciani to be their leader who took the name of John Paul I. It has been said that at this conclave Abp. Lefebvre received several votes (no doubt from what few cardinals remaining still truly deserved the title), clearly the only time in recent centuries anyone who was not a cardinal ever received so many votes at a papal conclave. Although Lefebvre himself would have adamantly denied it, the authority void at the Vatican had made him the nearest thing to a true leader of the Church to exist in the closing twenty years of his life. Since he refuses to be considered the head of the traditional movement, then at least he must go down in history as having been its backbone.
John Paul I presided over the Vatican institution just long enough to die under suspicious circumstances which went a long way to strengthen those who held to various crackpot theories as to what it is that had gone wrong at the Vatican. Evidence which is admittedly rather circumstantial nevertheless points rather clearly at Cardinal Villot as having been the one who poisoned John Paul I and cleaned up the evidence. John Paul I was planning to remove Freemasons such as Cardinal Villot from the hierarchy. Unfortunately, that (along with a gentle and kindly disposition) seems to have been John Paul I's only real claim to fame. Once again, "the Church" was without a leader and once again the Vatican cardinals held a conclave at which they elected Karol Wojtyla of Poland who took the name of John Paul II.
Meanwhile, none of this stopped Lefebvre from continuing his ministry. In 1978, he ordained 18 more priests, transferred his German seminary from Weissbad to Zaitzkofen but kept Weissbad as a house of preparation, and opened new centers in Madrid, Spain, and Brussels, Belgium. Also in that year he opened a seminary in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with 12 seminarians. In America, the SSPX acquired a splendid property in St. Mary's, Kansas. This property had once been a Jesuit seminary, but as their numbers declined they closed it down and sold it off to someone who felt that it should be preserved for historic purposes and therefore used as a Catholic facility. In the hands of the SSPX, this facility soon became a Catholic University (College), the only one to this day in the United States. Even a fire in its chapel later that year barely slowed them down. Another event in America that year was the beginning of their American publication, The Angelus, in their South West district, then based in Dickinson, Texas. Their other district in the United States, the North East district, was based in Oyster Bay Cove, New York.
With the arrival of new Vatican leadership, first briefly with John Paul I, and then again with John Paul II, there spread hope throughout the Church and the Vatican institution that normalcy would at last be restored. The fault, they were sure, had been that of Paul VI who would undeniably go down in history as the worst pope the Church ever had, bar none. As long as the man was blamed, it was easy to believe that a replacement of the man would fix the problem. Furthermore, John Paul II, as the seminarian, priest, bishop, and cardinal Karol Wojtyla, had long been a very conservative leader and seemed quite open to a return to the traditional worship of the Church.
Whatever doubts Lefebvre may have secretly harbored as to the papacy of Paul VI towards the end of that man's peculiar career, and despite his expressed doubts as to the procedure of John Paul II's election (cardinals over the age of eighty were arbitrarily excluded from the voting process, a dangerous precedent and one which could properly raise doubts as to the validity of the election) Lefebvre decided to accept John Paul II's election as a valid election to the papacy. Much of that acceptance was grounded, I believe, in the character of John Paul II himself which is undeniably a very good one. Had such a one been elected back in 1963, one can believe that the modern mess the Vatican institution is in would never have happened. In charge for barely a month, John Paul II received Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in a private audience on November 18, 1978.
On their meeting, John Paul II seemed quite willing to work with Lefebvre on the problem of the Liturgy. John Paul II wanted Lefebvre to assure him of his acceptance of Vatican II. Lefebvre gave it, on the condition that it would be interpreted "in the light of Tradition." John Paul II casually remarked that "of course it would be interpreted in the light of Tradition," so he therefore felt that the "problem" had been solved then and there. Unfortunately, Lefebvre and John Paul II had been talking at cross purposes. To Lefebvre, "interpreted in the light of Tradition" meant "understanding the documents in a way which does not in any way contradict the teaching of the Church as established through nearly 2000 years of scripture, fathers, doctors, popes and councils." To John Paul II it meant merely that "they need only be understood as I personally see fit to approve," with no reference to the previous teachings of the Church.
Then Cardinal Seper was brought to the discussion and almost no sooner did he arrive he turned to John Paul II and said of Lefebvre and the SSPX that "They are making a banner out of the Mass of Saint Pius V." The interview ended shortly thereafter, with John Paul II leaving it all in the hands of Cardinal Seper to sort out the "Lefebvre" problem. In January of 1979 Cardinal Seper and Archbishop Lefebvre began anew the same sort of examination they had gone through the year before, but this time under the somewhat different guidance of John Paul II.
By June of 1979, Cardinal Seper had once again obtained satisfactory answers to his questions and once again found himself at a loss for any basis to suspend or excommunicate Lefebvre. Over the next several years, a thin trickle of correspondence passed between Ecône and Rome, to no real avail and with no real consequence, to either side. During this time, Lefebvre continued to turn his attention to forming his priests and managing his fraternal association, the Society of Saint Pius X. In 1979, Lefebvre moved his American seminary from Armada (which property he kept as a priory and retreat center) to Ridgefield, Connecticut. Also that year, the North East district started its own publication, The Roman Catholic, which initially had a format and content quite similar to that of The Angelus. As the society grew, a few difficulties began to show themselves and Lefebvre, in the interest of keeping unity of purpose among his priests and seminarians, had to make some difficult decisions. The next year, a new University opened in France; there are now only three truly Catholic Universities in the entire world, two in France and one in America, all operated by the SSPX. No other traditional Catholic order is as yet large enough to have opened even one.
It was not very far into the reign of John Paul II that believers all around the world began to worry over the fact that John Paul II seemed quite content to leave the Vatican institution pretty much as it was. At least he would slow things up from getting much worse, but extremely little if anything was being done to restore "the Church" to order. Little by little it became clear that the problem had not merely been Paul VI. That man had been dead now for several years and yet his legacy of grievous damage to the Church just didn't seem able to die.
Conservatives and traditionalists both found themselves in a quandary. Both had figured that the trouble would end with the death of Paul VI but it didn't. Some conservatives converted to the new religion Paul VI had promulgated while others became traditionalists. Traditionalists themselves began to argue amongst themselves over what had gone wrong. While you, dear reader, have had the convenience of knowing from earlier chapters of this book precisely what it is that had happened to the Church, namely its legal detachment from the Vatican institution, Catholics of this particularly painful period from 1979 to 1984 didn't have a clue. Theories and explanations began to multiply.
The problem was that different theories often resulted in different solutions as to what to do as Catholics in this crisis. Lefebvre, not having the answer to the problem, could not believe that anyone else had the answer either. Perhaps no one's answer satisfied him. For lack of an adequate answer, all he could do was exert what limited authority he had over the priests in his order as their Superior General. Finally, a horrible scandal forced him to take action.
One priest he had ordained back in 1978 by the name of Juan Fernandez Krohn, had got in his head the idea that John Paul II himself was somehow the problem and if only he weren't around, the Church could start to heal. Being of a somewhat violent temperament, he decided to take matters into his own hands; he took a knife and attempted to stab John Paul II with it during a visit to the shrine in Fatima almost exactly a year after John Paul II had been shot by an Islamic terrorist. This was in May of 1982, several years after his departure from the SSPX (he had left it in the first few months of 1979), but the fact that he had been ordained by Lefebvre and was once a member of the SSPX made for a public black eye on the society.
Eager to distance himself from the possibility of their being any more such dangerous and scandalous priests within his order he set about purging the SSPX of any priests (even those of clearly peaceable intentions) whose opinions of John Paul II's ministry had even the faintest similarity to those of Fr. Krohn. This made for some rather considerable unpleasantness when quite a number of fine priests had to be ejected from the SSPX. These included nine priests many of whom held leading positions within the American North East district (including the District Superior, the District Bursar, the Rector of Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Ridgefield, the Headmaster of the University at St. Mary's, and his assistant). Over the next several years, perhaps ten to fifteen percent of his priests worldwide had been ejected from the SSPX, ending in late 1985 with four Italian priests, Frs. Franco Munari, Curzio Nitoglia, Giuseppe Murro, and Francesco Ricossa. Of these ejected priests (particularly the nine American priests ejected in 1983) more will be said in a later chapter.
Cardinal Ratzinger, who had succeeded Cardinal Seper in 1982 after the latter passed away in late 1981, praised Abp. Lefebvre's efforts to purge those certain priests from his society, saying in a July letter, "the Pope acknowledges the devotion of Archbishop Lefebvre and his fundamental attachment to the Holy See, expressed for instance by the exclusion of members who do not recognize the authority of the Pope." Although that is a slight misreading of the nature of those excluded priests, the gesture of excluding those priests went a long ways toward smoothing diplomatic relations with Rome and John Paul II.
Also in 1982, Lefebvre had finished twelve years as Superior General of the SSPX and it was time for him to step down, even though this stepping down action took place in 1983 shortly after the ejection of the nine American priests. Succeeding him was Fr. Franz Schmidberger, a German who was fond of mathematics and who had been elected to the post of Vicar General of the SSPX during its first general chapter. Later, in November of 1983, Lefebvre and de Castro Mayer jointly published a "Bishops' Manifesto" which read:
May Your Holiness permit us, with an entire filial openness, to submit to you the following consideration. During the last twenty years the situation in the Church is such that it looks like an occupied city.
Thousands of members of the clergy, and millions of the faithful, are living in a state of anguish and perplexity because of the "self-destruction of the Church." They are being thrown into confusion and disorder by the errors contained in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, the post-conciliar reforms, and especially the liturgical reforms, the false notions diffused by official documents and by the abuse of power perpetrated by the hierarchy.
In these distressing circumstances, many are losing the Faith, charity is becoming cold, and the concept of the true unity of the Church in time and in space is disappearing.
In our capacity as bishops of the Holy Catholic Church, successors of the Apostles, our hearts are overwhelmed at the sights throughout the world, by so many souls who are bewildered yet desirous in continuing in the faith and morals which have been defined by the Magisterium of the Church and taught by Her in a constant and universal manner.
It seems to us that to remain silent in these circumstances would be to become accomplices to these wicked works (cf. 2 John 11).
That is why we find ourselves obliged to intervene in public before Your Holiness (considering all the measures we have undertaken in private during these last fifteen years have remained ineffectual) in order to denounce the principal causes of this dramatic situation, and to besiege Your Holiness to use his power as Successor of Peter to "confirm your brothers in the Faith" (Luke 22:32), which has been faithfully handed down to us by Apostolic Tradition.
To that end we attached to this letter an appendix [not included in this book] containing the principal errors which are at the origins of this tragic situation and which, moreover, have already been condemned by your predecessors. The following list outlines these errors, but it is not exhaustive:
- A latitudinarian and ecumenical notion of the Church, divided in its faith, condemned in particular by the Syllabus, No. 18 (Denzinger 2918).
- A collegial government and a democratic orientation in the Church, condemned in particular by Vatican Council I (Denzinger 3055).
- A false notion of the natural rights of man which clearly appears in the document on Religious Liberty, condemned in particular by Quanta cura (Pius IX) and Libertas praestantissimum (Leo XIII).
- An erroneous notion of the power of the pope (cf. Denzinger 3115).
- A Protestant notion of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the Sacraments, condemned by the Council of Trent, Session XXII.
- Finally, and in a general manner, the free spreading of heresies, characterized by the suppression of the Holy Office.
The documents containing these errors cause an uneasiness and a disarray, so much the more profound as they come from a source so much the more elevated. The clergy and the faithful most moved by this situation are, moreover, those who are the most attached to the Church, to the authority of the Successor of Peter, and to the traditional Magisterium of the Church.
Most Holy Father, it is urgently necessary that this disarray come to an end because the flock is dispersing and the abandoned sheep are following mercenaries. We beseech you, for the good of the Catholic Faith and for the salvation of souls, to reaffirm the truths, contrary to these errors, truths which have been taught for twenty centuries in the Church.
It is with the sentiments of St. Paul before St. Peter, when he reproached him for having not followed "the truth of the Gospel" (Galatians 2:11-14), that we are addressing you. His aim was none other than to protect the faith of the flock.
St. Robert Bellarmine, expressing on this occasion a general principle, states that one must resist the pontiff whose actions would be prejudicial to the salvation of souls (DE ROM. PON. I.2, c. 29).
Thus it is with the purpose of coming to the aid of Your Holiness that we utter this cry of alarm, rendered all the more urgent by the errors, not to say the heresies, of the new Code of Canon Law and by the ceremonies and addresses on the occasion of the Fifth Centenary of the birth of Luther. Truly, this is the limit!
May God come to your aid, Most Holy Father. We are praying without ceasing for you to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Deign to accept the sentiments of our filial devotion, [signed] S. E. Monseigneur Marcel Lefebvre, International Seminary of Saint Pius X, Ecône, Switzerland [and] S. E. Monseigneur Antonio de Castro Mayer, Riachuelo 169, C. P. 255, 28100 Campos, (RJ) Brazil.
At last, in 1984, John Paul II finally gave permission (albeit on a most grudging and miserly basis) for the tridentine Mass to be said. On the surface it seemed to grant everything Lefebvre was asking for, but it had been carefully worded so as to exclude those for whom the Mass of Saint Pius V is a banner, namely Lefebvre and the SSPX, and even more so, such priests as Lefebvre had ejected from his society. While Lefebvre couldn't help but praise this small step in the right direction, he knew that to throw his society in with this special permission would have been to win a battle but lose the war.
Over the next three years, the thin trickle of correspondence between Ecône and Rome continued, equally unavailing and equally ineffective. A very few priests of the SSPX obtained Indults, but most more or less ignored it as they went about their business seeing to the needs of the souls in their parishes. Then, in late 1986, John Paul II pulled the most outrageous stunt of his entire career. He organized a joint prayer session with the leaders of just about every known religion on the face of the earth. They gathered at a place called Assisi and each in turn prayed to their respective gods for world peace. One can't help but believe that John Paul II had done this entire fiasco "at" Lefebvre, since immediately thereafter he sent a letter to Lefebvre practically daring him to say that he was not the pope. Lefebvre refused to take that bait but once again in response repeated what he had said in his 1974 declaration about the difference between Eternal Rome to which his loyalty is ever committed, and Modernist Rome which was showing itself to be all the more schismatic and heretical than ever before. And there the matter stood until June of 1987.
Meanwhile, the SSPX continued to grow and expand into more countries, England, Mexico, Columbia, South Africa, Holland, Portugal, Australia, India, Sri Lanka, Gabon, Senegal, New Zealand, New Guinea, Japan, South Korea, Luxembourg, Chile, and Zimbabwe. Seminaries, priories, Carmelite orders, Dominican orders, Benedictine orders, parishes, and mass centers continued to expand in numbers all around the world. Abp. Lefebvre wrote his first book, An Open Letter To Confused Catholics, and toured the world, confirming thousands of Catholics everywhere he went; crusades and pilgrimages were led in which thousands participated. And with each passing year, more and more priests got ordained. In 1987, over 200 priests were members of the SSPX, and perhaps another 100 or so were nonmembers who were also faithful to Tradition.
Return to Main Next Level Up Previous Chapter Next Chapter