Given his advancing age and failing health, as well as the reluctance of the authorities in Rome to deal seriously and honestly with the Society of St. Pius X, Archbishop Lefebvre was faced with a serious and inevitable decision, with far-reaching consequences for the Society he founded and for the Church herself.
The need for a bishop to replace Archbishop Lefebvre, so as to continue his priestly Society and provide traditional priests for the future was beyond question a critical one. Archbishop Lefebvre made every humanly possible attempt to engage the Roman authorities, but in vain. It was impossible to reach them as they failed to see the dilemma in which the Society found itself. Without a bishop there can be no priests, and without a traditional bishop there can be no traditional priests, and the situation has not changed to this day.
Without a worthy successor in the episcopate, Archbishop Lefebvre would be forced to abandon what was truly the essence of his life’s work, the promotion and fostering of the Sacred Priesthood in a time of ever increasing apostasy. To maintain a truly Catholic notion of who and what the priest is forms the basis of a correct evaluation of the work of this courageous, if not heroic, Archbishop. The priesthood was in danger of being lost in a distorted and false understanding of its true meaning and function in a period of unprecedented decline following the turbulent years of the Second Vatican Council.
After many years of prayerful deliberation and discreet consultation and extraordinary prudence, Archbishop Lefebvre alone took the fateful decision, trusting in the providence of God to consecrate bishops for his Society and for the Church. On June 30, 1988, along with his co-consecrator Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer he proceeded to raise to the episcopate four priests of his Society to continue a work so evidently blessed by Divine Providence. In the history of the Church there is a recurrent theme of stoning the prophets and later canonizing them.
A Truly Providential Event
The episcopal consecrations of June 30, 1988, will eventually be seen in the light of history as a truly providential event of the latter part of the 20th century.
The ever worsening situation of the Church worldwide particularly in relation to the priesthood and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass prompted Archbishop Lefebvre to exercise his episcopal power for the good of the universal Church.
This fateful decision was not taken lightly. It was put into effect after many years of prayerful reflection and prudent deliberation. It is a self-evident truth that the Church would cease to exist in any meaningful sense without true priests to dispense the sacraments so necessary for the faithful to reach their eternal destiny. Only bishops can make priests, and without bishops there will be no priests.
A Heroic Act of Fidelity
After the disappointing refusal of Rome to deal seriously with the request of Archbishop Lefebvre to give him worthy successors in the Catholic episcopate, he found himself in the dire situation, given his advancing age, of having out of necessity to ensure the work of his priestly Society.
This momentous decision to continue the traditional Catholic priesthood was interpreted wrongly as an act of defiance and rebellion, whereas it was a heroic act of fidelity to the Church herself and her past with a clear intent to preserve her in the present and for the future.
Bishops alone have the fullness of the priesthood by means of which priests are ordained and the faithful are confirmed in the Faith. No wonder, then, that the Archbishop described his actions as a survival operation. Without it where would we be now?
Where would the Church be now?
Funeral of Archbishop Lefebvre
"If today, on all continents of the world, there is a new generation of apostles and witnesses to the Faith working in true seminaries, priories, retreat houses, schools, convents, and monasteries; and if we see groups of Catholic youth and families with many children, it is due in very large measure to the fruit of this man's faith, a faith that was capable of moving mountains."
—Fr. Franx Schmidberger, Superior General, April 2, 1991
Tribute to the Faithful Servant of God
Marcel François Marie Joseph Lefebvre was born in Tourcoing, France, not too far from the Belgian frontier. He died on March 25, 1991, at 85, in the local hospital in Martigny, Switzerland. He had been diagnosed with cancer, and though he survived the operation he died not long after. His funeral took place eight days later as he died in the early part of Holy Week.
His body was taken from the small chapel of Notre Dame des Champs in the seminary to the main chapel where it lay in state for a few days. The Apostolic Nuncio to Switzerland, Msgr. Edoardo Rovida, and the diocesan bishop, His Excellency Henri Schwery, came to pay their respects and prayed at the mortal remains of the deceased prelate.
The solemn Requiem Mass was held under a large canopy, and the body rested on a raised catafalque. The Mass was celebrated in the presence of the four bishops he consecrated to continue his work—“Operation Survival” as he called it—and the sermon was preached by Fr. Franz Schmidberger, the Superior General. A very large number of faithful and priests were present to hear the Superior General pay a glowing tribute to the work of this faithful servant of God.
Not too long afterwards, His Eminence Cardinal Oddi, the former Prefect for the Clergy, came and prayed at the tomb of the Archbishop, saying out loud for those present to hear, “Thank you, Monsignor.”