Archbishop Lefebvre and Saint Pius X
The founder of the Priestly Society of Saint Pius X surely had reasons for placing the work of safeguarding the Catholic priesthood under the patronage of Pope Pius X.
What were they? What bonds could have existed between the French prelate born in 1905, and therefore just eight years old when Saint Pius X breathed his last breath on August 20, 1914, on the eve of the first World War that he dreaded and had predicted?
When he was asked about the patronage of Saint Pius X over his priestly brotherhood, Archbishop Lefebvre invariably answered: “It is not so much because St. Pius X condemned modernism and liberalism, than because he worked for the formation of priests, and especially their holiness of life; and because he promoted genuine ‘Catholic action,’ which is the work of laymen for the social reign of Christ the King.” In a word, it is the pontifical program proposed and achieved by Pius X, Omnia instaurare in Christo, which was the model for the actions of the Prelate of Ecône and which continues to be the program of his priests in their apostolate. Such is the heritage of St. Pius X.
Of course, Pius X is the last pope to be canonized, and, as Pius XII said, canonized as pope; as such Pius X could not but draw the attention of a bishop like Archbishop Lefebvre, anxious to build bastions of Christendom, truly Catholic societies: “As a missionary and then as a bishop,” he said, “I always wanted to make Catholic societies.” St. Pius X’s motto, “to bring everything under one head, Christ,” was inspiring, especially in a time when the reign of our Lord Jesus Christ over civil society is despised and disavowed by the post-conciliar popes and by the hierarchy as a whole.
At the French Seminary in Rome, the young Marcel, who at the age of seventeen entered the seminary on the Via Santa Chiara, still experienced the aura of his masters’ devotion to St. Pius X. Father Henri Le Floch, rector of the seminary, would expatiate on the motto of the pope who had died just nine years before; the spiritual talks of the rector were imbued with a frankly anti-liberal spirit, but anti-liberal because he was engaged in a supernatural combat, which is that of Christ the King. This is what ought to be explained and highlighted.
Of course, the Archbishop affirmed the anti-liberalism of Saint Pius X as conveyed by Father Le Floch. He told his seminarians in 1976:
“‘He was the one who taught us what the popes were to the world and the Church, what they had taught for a century and a half—against liberalism, modernism, and Communism, and the whole doctrine of the Church on these topics. He really made us understand and share in this battle of the popes to preserve the world and the Church from these scourges which plague us today. That was a revelation for me....I remember...coming to seminary with incorrect ideas which I modified during my studies. For example, I thought that it was excellent that the State was separated from the Church. Oh yes! I was a liberal!’
“Obviously this confession made the seminarians who heard burst into laughter: Archbishop Lefebvre had been a liberal! What had brought about his intellectual conversion? Quite simply,
“‘I listened to what the older students were talking about. I listened to their reactions and especially to what my professors and the Superior had taught me. And I realized that in fact I had quite a few wrong ideas....I was very pleased to learn the truth, happy to learn that I had been wrong, that I had to change my way of thinking about certain things, especially in studying the encyclicals of the popes, which showed us all the modern errors, those magnificent encyclicals of all the popes up to St. Pius X and Pius XI.
“‘...For me it was a complete revelation. And that was how the desire was quietly born in us to conform our judgment to that of the popes. We used to say to ourselves: but how did the popes judge these events, ideas, men, things, and times? And Father Le Floch showed us clearly what the main ideas of these various popes were: always the same thing, exactly the same in their encyclicals. That showed us...how we should look at history...and consequently it stayed with us.’”1
Of course, Pope Pius X had a large part in these guiding ideas through his encyclical Pascendi, against the modernists, and Notre Charge Apostolique on the liberalism of the “Sillon” movement of Marc Sangnier. But he also was influential through his decisions: the condemnation of the separation of Church and State in France (the encyclical Vehementer, 1906) and the exclusion of modernist masters from teaching in seminaries and Catholic universities (the motu proprio Sacrorum Antistitum and the Anti-modernist Oath, 1910).
The future Archbishop Lefebvre learned to love not only the sound, combative doctrine of a holy pope, but also his practical decisions for uprooting the modernist and liberal ideas that had penetrated the Church and the young clergy. According to Archbishop Lefebvre:
“Father Le Floch made us enter into and live the history of the Church, this fight that the perverse powers take to our Lord. We were mobilized against this dreadful liberalism, against the Revolution and the forces of evil which were trying to overcome the Church, the reign of our Lord, the Catholic States, and the whole of Christianity.”2
But, the Archbishop explained to the seminarians, this combat is essentially supernatural, and this is how these popes understood it, especially St. Pius X:
“It is a spiritual, supernatural combat, a wrestling, as St. Paul says, against the devil and the powers of darkness in the high places (Eph. 6:12). It is a gigantic struggle, not a mere war of words, of theoretical discussions, of intellectual jousting. It is much more serious than that. You need to realize this right now by meditating on the lives of the saints. You are entering the history of the Church. It is a warfare situated on a supernatural plane and thus in the domain of grace. It cannot consist primarily of anti-liberal, counterrevolutionary action. To drive out the spirits of darkness, you have to be light, and this can only happen by the grace of God. The saints worked conversions more by their example, by their prayer, by their mortification, than by their words. Of course, knowledge is necessary, preaching is necessary, discussion is necessary. You have to be able to convince; but if the saints converted by their preaching, it was because they were saints.”3
Archbishop Lefebvre liked to quote to his seminarians and priests the Apostolic Exhortation Haerent Animo of St. Pius X (To the Catholic Clergy on Priestly Sanctity, August 4, 1902) which can be summed up in five words—The priest must be holy:
“There is, indeed, only one thing that unites man to God, one thing that makes him pleasing to God and a not unworthy dispenser of His mercy; and that one thing is holiness of life and conduct. If this holiness, which is the true super-eminent knowledge of Jesus Christ [Eph. 3:19], is wanting in the priest, then everything is wanting....On the other hand, there is abundant evidence from every age that even the humblest priest, provided his life has the adornment of overflowing sanctity, can undertake and accomplish marvelous works for the spiritual welfare of the people of God...”4
Archbishop Lefebvre, like St. Pius X in this exhortation, would warn against the harm suffered by priests who give up daily meditation under the pretext of greater devotion to exterior works. It is just the opposite, unanimously teach the holy Pope and the Archbishop. What is the apostolate if not the overflow of the life of union with God?—a channeled overflow, nevertheless.
By Way of Conclusion
In order to underscore what Monsignor Lefebvre loved most about St. Pius X and why especially he chose the holy Pope for the heavenly patron of his priestly society, I would say that both the Pope and the Archbishop strove to put into practice the counsels of Dom Chautard in the book that became a classic in seminaries and rectories, The Soul of the Apostolate. Here is what St. Pius X in 1908 said during an audience with Msgr. Cloutier, Bishop of Three Rivers, Canada, who was laying before His Holiness his many projects for the good of his diocese: “And now, my dear Son, if you desire that God should bless your apostolate and make it fruitful, undertake everything for His glory; saturate yourself and your devoted fellow-workers with the spirit of Jesus Christ, animating yourself and them with an intense interior life. To this end I can offer you no better guide than The Soul of the Apostolate, by Dom Chautard, Cistercian Abbot. I warmly recommend this book to you as I value it very highly, and have myself made it my bedside book.”5
1 Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Marcel Lefebvre: The Biography, tr. Brian Sudlow (Kansas City: Angelus Press, 2004), p. 36.
2 Ibid., pp. 36-7.
3 Spiritual Conferences at Ecône, February 23, 1976.
4 English version online at papalencyclicals.net.
5 Quoted in the biographical note of The Soul of the Apostolate, tr. A Monk of Our Lady of Gethsemani (Trappist, Kentucky: Abbey of Gethsemani, 1946), xii.