The Rebel Archbishop
THE French journalist jumped into a taxi in Rome and asked to be driven to the Rospigliosi-Pallavicini Palace. The taxi driver gave him a knowing look and said “Si,” he would drive him to “il vescovo ribelle!” (the rebel bishop).
For days everybody who was anybody in Rome had been in a state of excitement. To the great indignation of Vatican authorities, Princess Elvina Pallavicini, a member of one of Rome’s leading patrician families, had agreed to help dissident French Catholic archbishop Marcel Lefebvre air his views in Rome, even sending out hundreds of invitations to a semiprivate press conference. She had placed at Lefebvre’s disposal the family palace that had housed a pope and several cardinals among her ancestors. To make matters worse, she would allow him to hold his conference in the throne room under the huge canopy of Pope Clement IX.
In spite of much pressure brought to bear on her by Vatican dignitaries, the princess stood by her decision. The Roman press reported fully on this meeting, considered to be a “provocation” right “at the Vatican’s doorstep.” The taxi driver was obviously up-to-date on the local news!
The Church “Is No Longer Catholic”
Princess Pallavicini justified her decision, stating that the Catholic Church is divided and that such “serious problems cannot be solved by ambiguous silence but only by courageous lucidity.” By offering Archbishop Lefebvre the opportunity to express his views, she hoped to foster “peace and serenity within the Catholic world.” The prelate thanked his hostess and blessed her and her household, congratulating them for having “kept the traditional faith.”
About a thousand persons attended the meeting, mainly traditionalist Catholics representing several countries, including many press representatives and TV journalists. The archbishop expressed his profound disagreement with official church policy since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). French daily Le Monde commented: “For nearly two hours [Archbishop Lefebvre] aired grievances against the new Church ‘that is no longer Catholic.’ He spared nothing: the catechism, seminaries, Mass, ecumenism, not to mention ‘collectivizing the sacraments’ and ‘Communist-oriented cardinals.’”
Archbishop Lefebvre concluded: “The situation is tragic. The Church is moving in a direction that is not Catholic and that is destroying our religion. Should I obey or remain a Catholic, a Roman Catholic, a lifelong Catholic? I have made my choice before God. I do not wish to die a Protestant.”
Cardinal Poletti, Paul VI’s vicar in the diocese of Rome, stated that by organizing this conference in Rome, “Monsignor Lefebvre offended the faith, the Catholic Church, and her divine Lord Jesus [and] personally offended the pope, abusing his patience and attempting to cause trouble within his apostolic see.”
How the Rebellion Began
That conference was held on June 6, 1977. But even as early as 1965, before the Second Vatican Council had ended, there was talk of a “schism” in the Catholic Church. Many conservative Catholics felt that Vatican II was bringing in reforms that betrayed traditional Catholicism.
Archbishop Lefebvre, former archbishop of Dakar, Senegal, and bishop of Tulle, in south-central France, had taken part in the Second Vatican Council. In 1962 he was elected superior general of the “Holy Ghost Fathers” in France. But increasing disagreement with Vatican II policies being applied within the Catholic Church brought about his resignation from that position in 1968.
In 1969 a Swiss Catholic bishop authorized the dissident archbishop to open up a traditionalist seminary within the diocese of Fribourg, Switzerland. The following year, Archbishop Lefebvre founded what he called the “Saint Pius X Sacerdotal Fraternity” and opened up a seminary at Ecône in the Swiss canton of Valais. He did this with the approval of the Catholic bishop of Sion.
To begin with, this seminary was only marginally dissident. The seminarians did, of course, wear black cassocks and received a solidly traditionalist education. Mass was said in Latin, whereas Pope Paul VI had decreed that a revised Mass should be said in a vernacular language. But the seminary was tolerated by the official church authorities because Archbishop Lefebvre did not at that time propose to train the future priests right up to their ordination. He had hoped that they would be able to complete their education at what he considered to be the last two remaining bastions of traditional Catholicism, the Latran Pontifical University in Rome, and Fribourg University in Switzerland.
The trouble really began when Archbishop Lefebvre concluded that even these two Catholic universities could not be relied upon to train future priests in what he considered to be the true Catholic tradition. He decided that he himself would ordain the future priests trained at the Ecône seminary. To make matters worse, in 1974 he published a manifesto that expressed violent opposition to most of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. By then Ecône had over a hundred seminarians trained by a group of traditionalist professors.
In 1975, acting through the local Swiss bishop, the Vatican withdrew its authorization from the Ecône seminary. Disregarding this, Archbishop Lefebvre continued to ordain new priests as they completed their studies. For this, in 1976 Pope Paul VI suspended him from all priestly functions, including saying Mass, officiating at first communions, administering sacraments, and, as bishop, ordaining priests. Since Ecône continued regardless, this brought about the paradoxical situation of an ultra-Catholic seminary producing scores of ultratraditionalist Catholic priests ordained by a disavowed bishop claiming to be more Catholic than the pope!
Extent of the Rebellion
The rebellion of this French archbishop would not be worth the telling if it were limited to a seminary tucked away at the foot of the Swiss Alps. But Archbishop Lefebvre quickly became the rallying point for an influential segment of Catholicism throughout the world. In his book L’Église Catholique 1962-1986—Crise et renouveau (The Catholic Church 1962-1986—Crisis and Renewal), author Gérard Leclerc wrote: “The traditionalist controversy does not reflect the tendency of a tiny minority. It expresses the feelings of a large part of the faithful.”
Archbishop Lefebvre has received the financial backing of many conservative Catholics throughout the world. This has enabled him to travel widely, often at the invitation of groups of traditionalist Catholics. He has criticized Vatican II before large audiences in many countries, saying Mass according to the Latin liturgy of the 16th-century Council of Trent, called the Tridentine, or Pius V, liturgy. These traditionalist meetings were sometimes held in the most unusual places, such as an unused supermarket north of London, England.
This wide financial support has enabled the rebel archbishop to open up additional seminaries for training traditionalist Catholic priests in France, Germany, Italy, Argentina, and the United States. In February 1987, French daily Le Figaro reported that these institutions were then training 260 seminarists. Archbishop Lefebvre has been ordaining between 40 and 50 priests a year from many parts of the world, including Africa.
Many of these traditionalist priests operate from the 75 “priories” that Archbishop Lefebvre’s “Fraternity” has established in 18 countries in North and South America, Europe, and Africa. These priests celebrate Mass in Latin for conservative Catholics in those countries.
Traditionalist services are often held in specially created chapels. But more and more right-wing Catholics are waging a fight with the orthodox Catholic hierarchy in order to obtain the right to use regular Catholic church buildings for their services. This has given rise to situations that have deeply disturbed many sincere Catholics.
Fights Over Church Buildings
Ever since 1969, when Pope Paul VI introduced the new Mass that involves the use of the vernacular and other reforms, traditionalist Catholics have organized private Masses using an older Latin liturgy. In Paris, France, hundreds of them would gather in the Wagram Hall, near the Arc de Triomphe. Since the new liturgy was obligatory at that time, the local Catholic archbishop refused to allow them to use a church.
Finally, on February 27, 1977, the traditionalists took matters into their own hands and, led by a conservative priest, forcibly occupied the church of Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet, in the Latin Quarter. The regular Catholic priests and parishioners found themselves evicted from their own church. When they tried a few days later to hold Mass inside the church, a fight broke out. One priest had to be taken to the hospital, and the others took refuge in the nearby presbytery.
At present, ten years later, Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet is still occupied by traditionalist Catholics, in spite of two court orders expelling them. About 5,000 people attend the five Latin Masses celebrated there every Sunday. Services are held by a priest ordained at Ecône by Archbishop Lefebvre, and the “rebel prelate” regularly comes to this church for the confirmation of traditionalist Catholic children.
A few months after Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet was first occupied by the traditionalists, several hundred progressive Catholics held a meeting to protest against the forcible occupation of this church. Several priests and Catholic professors from the Sorbonne and the Institut Catholique de Paris took part. Suddenly, a group of traditionalist Catholic youths forced their way into the hall and broke up the meeting, using iron bars and a smoke bomb. Several people were injured, and one Catholic professor had to be taken to the hospital.
The Catholic bishop of Strasbourg in eastern France was harassed by traditionalist Catholics when he tried to enter a church they had occupied in order to celebrate Mass in Latin. In Paris “commandos” of traditionalist Catholics burst into Catholic churches to break up services. They did this because a woman was being used to read the gospel during Mass or because Protestant and Orthodox ministers were present for an ecumenical service.
In March 1987 traditionalist and regular Catholics almost came to blows in Port-Marly, just west of Paris, and had to be separated by the police. The fight was over who was to occupy the Catholic church of Saint Louis. The following month traditionalist Catholics used a battering ram to break down a walled-up door and enter the church to celebrate Palm Sunday Mass in Latin. The Times of London, England, reported on this under the headline “Battle of St Louis—French Catholic rebels back in contested church.” Latin Mass was said for them by a priest ordained by the rebel archbishop Lefebvre.
A Wound in the Church’s Flank
Catholic author Gérard Leclerc writes: “Over 20 years after the [Vatican] Council, the traditionalist dissent remains an open wound in the Church’s flank.” And in their book Voyage à l’intérieur de l’Église catholique (A Journey Inside the Catholic Church) Jean Puyo and Patrice Van Eersel state: “If Rome is so dismayed by Monsignor Lefebvre’s activities, it is because he is asking basic questions. Bishop Mamie of Fribourg and Geneva, who found himself obliged to condemn the activities of his rebellious confrere, told us frankly: ‘The distress of those of the faithful who have followed him is not without foundation. The thousand-year-old doctrine of the Church is in mortal danger.’”
Thus, from the luxurious patrician palaces in Rome to millions of humble abodes throughout the world, many sincere Catholics are deeply perplexed. They are asking: “Why is my church divided?” The reason why, and what some Catholics are doing about it, will be considered next.
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Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre
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Ecône, the rebel archbishop’s traditionalist seminary in the Swiss Alps
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Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet church, in Paris, illegally occupied by traditionalist Catholics for the past ten years