Angelus Press: Father, this year you are celebrating your 40th anniversary as a priest. Forty years ago in the middle of the post-conciliar confusion, the Society of St. Pius X had just been formed. It would enter into a gigantic struggle to preserve Tradition! You followed all the twists and turns of those battles, first as the Superior General of the Society from 1982 to 1994, and then in the various combat positions you held. Currently you are the rector of the SSPX German-speaking seminary in Zaitzkofen, where you reside. What were your reasons for entering Archbishop Lefebvre’s seminary?
Fr. Schmidberger: On October 14, 1972, after earning a degree in mathematics, I entered the Seminary of St. Pius X in Ecône because, like other young people from a student group in Munich to which I belonged, I was categorically opposed to the Novus Ordo Missae and the whole modernization of the Church. I could never have entered a seminary which had adopted the new liturgy, and I also did not want to be ordained by a bishop who celebrated the New Mass.
Angelus Press: How would you summarize your time at the seminary?
Fr. Schmidberger: At first it was a matter of improving my competency in French, which dated back to secondary school. But afterwards the seminary in Ecône was, for me, a true time of grace. We had excellent instructors in all disciplines: Fr. Gottlieb for Spirituality; Canon Berthod, seminary rector and moral theology professor; Fr. Ceslas Spicq for exegesis; and another Dominican from Fribourg University, Fr. Thomas Mehrle, for dogmatic theology.
We received our formation in prayer and the spiritual combat from Fr. Barrielle, the spiritual director who also transmitted to us the inestimable treasure of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. He did everything he could so that we would, in turn, would be able to preach the Ignatian Exercises. We cannot thank him enough for that.
But most of all, there was the figure of the archbishop himself, who, as a man of the Church, set the course, and, as a true father of his seminarians, instilled in our hearts an aversion for modern errors, liberalism, and secularism. Among the major events of the seminary, we experienced the canonical visitation in November 1974, and the completely illegal suppression of the Society on May 6, 1975, which caused the departure of a dozen seminarians.
Angelus Press: During the same year you received the order of subdiaconate, the diaconate, and the priesthood! You were ordained a priest on December 8, 1975, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Can you explain these circumstances?
Fr. Schmidberger: Since I had already studied philosophy in Munich, after the Year of Spirituality I was immediately enrolled in third-year seminary classes. So, as a matter of course, I received ordination to the subdiaconate on June 29, 1975, during the Holy Year. A little earlier, the archbishop put me in charge of the organization of the German-speaking seminary in Weissbad, (Switzerland), which actually opened its doors on July 16, the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. A young, newly-ordained French priest was to be the rector. In mid-September, after a preparatory meeting, he said to the archbishop, “I cannot stay alone here; Fr. Schmidberger must come to help me.”
So at the end of the retreat that started the academic year, the archbishop ordained me deacon in Weissbad on the feast of the Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, then priest in Ecône on December 8th. I was overjoyed at having received all three major orders during the Holy Year.
Angelus Press: You worked alongside Archbishop Lefebvre for many years. How did it happen that he entrusted the direction of the Society to you during his lifetime?
Fr. Schmidberger: In 1976, he entrusted the direction of the German-speaking seminary to me, at first for two years in Weissbad, then for a year in Zaitzkofen. Later he named me head of the District of Germany and Austria, which in those early years was regarded as one unit.
A wise man who did not seek his own glorification, he was worried about the continuation of his work after his death and thought about a successor whom he could assist with his advice and support during the rest of his lifetime.
So, on his recommendation, the General Chapter in 1982 chose your humble servant to be Vicar General with right of succeeding him as the head of the Society. Then in 1983, on occasion of the priestly ordinations in Ecône, he announced his decision to resign as leader of the Society and asked the members from then on to turn to his successor.
Angelus Press: What are your memories of 1988?
Fr. Schmidberger: Our revered founder spoke to me for the very first time about his idea of consecrating bishops in August 1983, after he had experienced problems with his health. With the Assisi Meeting in 1986 and the thoroughly disappointing responses to our Dubia (questions) about religious liberty, we decided by common consent to make a final attempt to come to a peaceful resolution about our status. We accepted Rome’s proposal for a canonical visitation by Cardinal Gagnon and Msgr. Perl from November 8 to December 8, 1987. The archbishop saw that he could not have any confidence, despite the very positive report of this visit, in the people in Rome at that time.
Despite the pressure, the influence, and the pleas from all sides, he was prepared, for the good of the Church, to proceed with the consecrations on June 30. Indeed, a single thought guided him: without Catholic bishops there are no Catholic priests; without Catholic priests there is no Holy Mass. For that reason, the episcopal candidates were selected by common consent between Archbishop Lefebvre and the Superior General.
Angelus Press: After the consecrations in 1988, you were the Superior General of a little congregation having difficulties with Rome and having five bishops, including the founder! But its missionary expansion was unbelievable. How did you experience these contradictions?
Fr. Schmidberger: When the archbishop relinquished control of the Society in 1983, it had foundations in 12 countries: France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, England, Ireland, the United States, Canada, Argentina, and Australia. Five more foundations were added in 1984: Mexico, Columbia, South Africa, Holland, and Portugal. The Society was established in Gabon, India, New Zealand, and Chile in 1986, and in Zimbabwe in 1987. Then in 1988 Holy Cross Seminary in Australia opened its doors.
Angelus Press: After that, the external expansion was slowed strategically, particularly because it was necessary to strengthen the internal work. It was not until 1993 that we would see the first foundation in Poland and the extension of the apostolate to the countries of Eastern Europe.
Fr. Schmidberger: Priestly ordinations in those years were very numerous. The seminary in Ecône was so crowded that it became necessary to subdivide it and to start a new seminary in Flavigny, France in 1986.
Of course it was not easy to direct this work, because it was necessary to strengthen internal cohesiveness and at the same time respond to requests by the faithful throughout the world who were begging for us to come. With the grace of God, the Society succeeded rather well, not without many difficulties, trials, and crosses, but also with much joy and profound consolations.
Angelus Press: Do you have any special memory from those years of missionary expansion?
Fr. Schmidberger: Everywhere people thanked us for our help in keeping the Catholic Faith. Could there be any greater joy than to contribute to sustaining the Faith in the hearts of many families and celebrating the Holy Mass, according to its ancient and venerable rite in numerous countries? All this has left beautiful memories deeply engraved in my mind and always lifts my soul in gratitude and awe towards God.
December 8, 1984 was an absolutely unforgettable day when the Society, with all the superiors gathered in Ecône, solemnly consecrated itself to the Mother of God, so that it would no longer be our work, but her work, and so that she might keep each one of its members staunchly faithful through all trials.
Angelus Press: At the death of the archbishop, you had become an orphan. To what extent did the archbishop continue to be your counselor, and how?
Fr. Schmidberger: First, let me answer this way: shortly after the death of this great man, Cardinal Hyacinthe Thiandoum asked me if there were any miracles attributed to Archbishop Lefebvre. I told him that the greatest miracle that he did every day was the maintenance of the Society, as well as its continual expansion. The cardinal smiled and seemed satisfied with this answer.
In addition, our founding father left all of us a rich inheritance, especially this watchword: “Neither liberal, nor modernist, nor schismatic,” (i.e., separated from Rome or falling into the sedevacantist error), but to remain Catholic, Roman Catholic. Furthermore, we simply follow his teaching, his spirituality, his numerous spiritual instructions, and his example so as to remain on the path he had charted. And most certainly, from his place in eternity, he supports in a special way those who bear the responsibility for the Society of St. Pius X, just as he did during his lifetime.
Angelus Press: Do you have a greater sense of all of Archbishop Lefebvre’s virtues now that he has let you direct his work?
Fr. Schmidberger: The archbishop gave us a wonderful example of humility and a sense of the common good, whether for the work that he had founded or for the Church. After his resignation, he took second place at the table, leaving the first to the Superior General. In such moments, it is a matter of recalling Christ’s words: “When you shall have done all these things that are commanded you, say: ‘We are unprofitable servants.’” (Lk. 17:10).
Finally, we have the obligation—or rather, we have the honor—of serving a cause that goes far beyond our little selves: God and His kingdom on earth. What a grace, what a privilege!
Angelus Press: From the Society’s beginnings, you have been closest to Archbishop Lefebvre in his dealings with Rome. The circumstances changed from Paul VI to John Paul II. The Archbishop negotiated an agreement before yielding to evidence that he would not receive the needed help for Tradition. Then he consecrated the bishops. In your opinion, did he think that nothing else could be done with the Roman authorities and that only a miracle could convert them? Did he give you any instructions, advice for the future?
Fr. Schmidberger: After the episcopal consecrations, Archbishop Lefebvre very probably counted on the possibility of new discussions with Rome. One day, with regard to the future direction of the Society and especially the forthcoming General Chapter in 1994, he told me in very precise terms:
“If Rome approaches you with new contacts, it would be better for a bishop not to be Superior General, because it might be difficult for Roman officials to deal with an ‘excommunicated’ bishop. If that proves not to be the case, then a bishop also could take over the leadership of the Society.”
He really expected that one day things would become normalized, would have to become normalized, especially given the facts: on the one hand the decline and the rapid, continual breakdown of the official Church; on the other hand the continual extension and growth of the Society.
Specifically in regard to such contacts, the archbishop gave us our marching orders: there can be no compromises on doctrine nor on the integrality of the Catholic Faith, but there could be flexibility in applying these principles. In other words: fortiter in re, suaviter in modo [unbending in the essentials, but gently in manner]. If the Roman officials, particularly the pope himself, calls us to lend a hand in the re-Christianization of society, then we can only be glad, while keeping watch over the conservation of our integrity, to remain what we are.
Angelus Press: Catholic Tradition through the profession of the Faith and its many works is very much alive today. The torch has been passed on to the next generation. What encouragement can you offer to those who are tempted by weariness or bitterness? What would you say to the young people who are now benefiting from the treasures that were preserved at the cost of such great efforts?
Fr. Schmidberger: There is only one solution: fight to the death modernism and liberalism in the heart of the Church with the weapons of the Spirit, i.e., with sound teaching, a profound spirituality based on the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and by a holy life. It is only when faith, liturgy, and life are completely in agreement and completely harmonious that our position is convincing, and, in the long run, will win the victory. Let us therefore continue to fight. God Himself, in His own good time, will give the victory in the Church and in society, not to us, but to Christ the King and Eternal High Priest.
Moreover even here there are small signs of visible progress, for instance the formal granting of jurisdiction to hear confessions to the priests of the Society during the Holy Year, regardless of the fact that we are giving this Sacrament validly and licitly on the basis of the state of necessity in the Church. To sum up, weariness and bitterness are both very bad advisors, especially in today’s difficult situation.
Angelus Press: This past year you traveled to the United States to preach the retreats for the priests. You likewise visited several of our American chapels. What were your impressions? What message do you have for our American readers?
Fr. Schmidberger: These two journeys to the United States of America allowed me to see that the apostolate there is flourishing. I can only congratulate my colleagues, thank them for their work, and encourage them to continue on this Catholic path. There is no other solution for the problems in the Church and in society.
I would like to thank the American faithful just as much for their energetic support and their help throughout these years. Their loyalty has paid off and borne much fruit. Keep working, dear faithful, with all your talents, all your abilities. With a clear mind and an ardent heart, continue to support this work, which is not our work, but properly that of Our Lady, of her Immaculate and Sorrowful Heart.
Angelus Press: With all our heart we thank you, Father. Along with our congratulations and thanks for these 40 years of faithful service, be assured of our prayers. Ad multos annos! We make our own this prayer offered by Archbishop Lefebvre on the day of your ordination:
“Fidelity, if it is linked to the virtue of faith at its foundation, in its practice is linked to the virtue of fortitude. It is this fortitude, this gift of fortitude, that we ask the Holy Ghost to give to you in your priesthood.”