Ecce Sacerdos Magnus
Angelus Press interviewed several priests, Fathers du Chalard, Emily, Groche, as well as H.E. Bishop Bernard Fellay, who were close associates of Archbishop Lefebvre from the first pioneering years of Ecône.
The Angelus: Fr. Groche, you were among the first seminarians to join the fraternity, then established at Fribourg, before Ecône. What impressed you most about Archbishop Lefebvre?
Fr. Groche: I met Monsignor Lefebvre for the first time in 1969, and I entered the seminary at Fribourg the same year. At Fribourg, the Archbishop conducted himself with great simplicity. I served his Mass and we dined together. Everything was uncalculating, and I was immediately put at easy in the family atmosphere of the place. There was a climate of perfect trust; it was easy to open one’s heart. He had this simplicity, this humility, in everything he did, and with everyone. He was always himself, whether he was with important people or ordinary people. There was no pretense or superficiality.
Fr. Emily: I knocked on the door at the Fribourg house in September 1973. The community was at lunch, and it was the Archbishop himself, knowing that a seminarian was coming, who came and opened the door: an episcopal reception! The courtesy, fatherliness, kindness with which he received the young seminarian that I was—that was the attitude of Monseigneur towards everyone, our priests and friends. He was all things to all men, a father to all.
The Angelus: What was your impression of the seminary when you finally moved to Ecône?
Fr. Groche: I personally witnessed the opening of Ecône. It was all new to me, and I was so happy to have found a Catholic seminary. The seminary itself was still not known. When I arrived, all the work still had to be done. There was just the old house of the Canons of the Great St. Bernard and the barns where the Valaisians raised calves and chickens.
I remember the Archbishop’s talk the first year at Ecône in which he made the decision never to take the new Mass and to keep the old. We had all come for that reason, for training as priests and for the Latin Mass. When he finished speaking, we applauded! There were there, among others, the future Msgr. Tissier, and Fathers Cottard and Aulagnier, who lodged at Fribourg and had come for the occasion to Ecône.
The Angelus: What struck you most when you went to Ecône?
Fr. Emily: Leaving a world in the grip of chaos, the atmosphere at the seminary made a deep impression. It was just after the Council and the Revolution of 1968 in which everything had been called in question, challenged. And there you found, on the contrary, peace, order, references to immutable doctrine and a past brimming with the lessons of history, and a stability that imparted an atmosphere of peace to the seminary.
I think this atmosphere was striking because Ecône was not a normal seminary. I entered an institution in open conflict with the world and the hierarchy. And so I was expecting the sort of tension that exists in times of crisis and warfare, and it was not anything like that. And I realized that it came from the personality of Archbishop Lefebvre, who radiated filial piety toward the Church of all time and paternal strength in his relations with the seminarians and the faithful. Through his daily talks and his sermons we could not be unaware of the battle that was raging around us, in which we were actors behind him. But at the same time, he spread serenity and peace by his attachment to the immutable doctrine of the Church and his elevated spirituality, turned toward Jesus High Priest and the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was paradoxical.
The Angelus: You mention the acute crisis in the strained relations between Ecône and Rome. Did you see any change in the Archbishop’s attitude at these moments?
Fr. Emily: The Archbishop was there; we had a father. It was enough for him to return after a round of visits or after certain events like the Mass at Lille during the “Hot Summer.” He would give his conference; he would calmly, serenely explain things, and everyone understood. There was always a touch of humor, and with his little teasing laugh he reassured everybody. Here’s what he’d say basically: “The crisis continues and the Society is in the hands of the good God. Have confidence, hold fast to Tradition. You can’t be mistaken; all that the popes have taught for centuries cannot change, and so we have the Church with us. Be at peace, keep up the good work, all is well.”
Once I saw him praying in Our Lady of the Fields Chapel, and you could feel that he was intently making his thanksgiving after celebrating Mass. I came upon him unexpectedly while he was in the midst of his prayers, but that was the Archbishop, a man of God, praying always... It is difficult to convey such things.
The Angelus: What was the spirituality of the Archbishop and the seminaries?
Fr. du Chalard: To speak of Archbishop Lefebvre or the priesthood is one and the same thing. Not only was the Archbishop the perfect example of the plenitude of the priesthood as bishop, but he was also, as has been said, a doctor or master in matters pertaining to it. How many sermons, lectures, and retreats did he give!
He had a genuine love of the priesthood, esteeming it as a great gift of our Lord. He would often say: “There is no Mass without a priest, and there is no priest without the Mass.” The holy sacrifice of the Mass and the beautiful liturgy are essentially missionary. The holy Mass is the greatest treasure of the Church. Everything began to fall apart in the Church when a sense of what the Mass is was lost, and this is what happened over the course of the liturgical reform.
Fr. Emily: Archbishop Lefebvre made us understand what the priesthood is by his devotion to the mystery of the Incarnation. The High Priest was formed in the womb of the Virgin Mary. I understood the priesthood thanks to Archbishop Lefebvre and his continual effort to develop the mystery of our Lord’s ordination by the anointing of the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb. And if he died on the anniversary of the Incarnation, I think it’s because God wanted to confirm the message the Archbishop gave the Church and handed on to the upcoming generation, the understanding of what the priesthood is.
The Angelus: How did the Archbishop live his Mass?
Fr. Emily: We had before our eyes the exemplary piety with which he officiated and presided over the ceremonies; it captivated the eyes and soul of the young seminarian. For me it was a revelation to learn the liturgy and the life of prayer simply by watching Monseigneur at the altar and during the offices, as well as at ordinations. Everything was reflected in the gravity and recollection of his face. The serenity and peace that emanated from him was something beautiful to see and which one rarely sees to such a degree in priestly functions. He was a living application of the spirituality of the Church that he taught us in his lectures.
The Angelus: A bishop is an exceptional individual. Was the Archbishop distant, or did he have friends he confided in?
Fr. Emily: If the Archbishop was perhaps distant, even so he often asked the superiors for advice; I’m thinking in particular of Fathers Aulagnier and Schmidberger. You might speak of a close friend in the person of the venerable Father Barrielle, for there was definitely a bond between them, but we can only conjecture. He had ties with the group of men who liked to call themselves the Archbishop’s “chauffeurs”: Judge Lovey, Messrs. Pedroni, Borgeat...
While reading the life of Fr. Henry La Praz, Todo Nada, I thought I detected a deep friendship between Archbishop Lefebvre and him. It is out of the question that he could speak the way he does of the Archbishop when he comes out of a coma without there being a spiritual intimacy with Monseigneur. I believe that the Archbishop understood the soul of Father La Praz, who offered himself as a victim in holocaust for the Society. The Archbishop had understood this, and before Father La Praz died, he expressed his gratitude to him. But that is the mystery of friendships of this caliber, which pertains to the secret of God, surely!
The Angelus: How would the Archbishop react when a seminarian or a priest left?
Fr. Emily: Here the distinction has to be made between seminarians and priests. The archbishop, especially at the beginning, was very respectful of seminarians who decided to leave us, who had not understood the crisis, and he invited them to leave in all peace and serenity. But recently I was listening to a conference about priests who had betrayed the promises of their ordination, their promise to serve the Society. Since the only reason to leave was a concern for independence and rebellion against authority, well then, the Archbishop was very severe in condemning this attitude of the vagabond priest.
The Angelus: Msgr. Fellay, how would you describe your relations with the Archbishop at Rickenbach?
Bishop Fellay: Ordained in 1982, I went straightaway to take up my first post as bursar general at Rickenbach, where Msgr. Lefebvre lived. Once I asked him if he had a way to stay united with the good Lord during his activities. The answer he gave me left me hungry for more. For him, it was the simplest thing in the world, as if it were absolutely normal. I thought I had received the key to heaven and then... nothing.
It was in daily contact that the profound goodness of his character became apparent. I heard him say several times, “The cross is my daily bread.” There were dear confreres who abandoned him. He was sad at heart.
These were challenging times. Indeed, the Fraternity was really growing: priories opening everywhere, a lot of seminarians entering at Ecône. So Monseigneur had to travel everywhere and give talks. And nonetheless he had a great solicitude for the sanctification of the priests.
He was radical about obedience. Father Schmidberger told him that he had a problem with priests that smoked and would not listen to him. Monseigneur told him: “Out with them!” It was not the question of smoking, but of obedience. For him, the priest must have the mark of sanctification, and obedience is at the center of that. One may say that it is the distinctive sign of the priest, what binds the priest to the institution, the vital application through which the efficacy of the priesthood passes. Whence, moreover, the importance he attached to incardination.
The Angelus: You speak of obedience. The Archbishop, being the superior general and having difficulties with Rome over matters of faith, whom did he obey?
Bishop Fellay: Divine Providence. You see it in the foundation of the Society. He goes to see the bishop, Msgr. Charrière, and his agreement will be the sign of Providence. How many times did he respect the dispositions of Providence. You also see it in his famous dream in the Dakar cathedral before the sixties. The Fraternity was founded ten years later. He sees what has to be done just before the Council; he sees the decline of the priesthood. As a bishop, he could have founded a society at Dakar to save the priesthood, since he has a premonition of the remedy, but all the elements are not yet in place. He does not say: “I have to do this.” And when the seminarians of Rome ask him for help, he says, “No, I’m too old!” He finally follows Providence as if by force, impelled, reluctantly. This phenomenon is absolutely remarkable in the Archbishop’s actions.
The Angelus: Let’s go back to the vision of Dakar anticipating the foundation of the Society. Have the fruits corresponded to this vision?
Bishop Fellay: Basically, yes; let’s say primus in intentione. The application remains: ultimus in executione. One cannot say that it has already been achieved, for it can always be perfected. He was satisfied, but always with the idea of doing better. During the eighties, Monseigneur attempted to bridge the wall of separation between the study of philosophy and theology. He saw the danger of going off into the cerebral, the abstract, angelism. Monseigneur feared that pure philosophy disconnects the future priest from the reality of souls. The application of doctrine demands patience and suppleness to bear the fruits of charity. Too dry a knowledge could lead to conduct too harsh and demanding toward souls.
It is interesting to see the reformer in the Archbishop. He is not afraid to invent. That is the effect of charity. He sees an obstacle and asks himself what is to be done. In Africa, he saw that there were not enough priests, so he had the idea to entrust certain tasks to the Brothers. He was not afraid to train a native clergy; he wasn’t fearful.
As regards the Society, he had the idea that the Brothers ought to receive minor orders. (The grace of our Brothers is a grace of union with the priesthood.) The idea did not receive a warm reception among the priests; and that is where the matter stood. At stake was the spirituality of our Brothers, their participation in the grace of the Society through the sacrament of order, but only so far. Obviously, this suggestion goes against the relevant teaching of the Council of Trent, and finally the Archbishop had to yield. But I attribute that to charity and not to a revolutionary spirit. He was ready to think beyond the conventional, and that is a trait of genius guided by charity.
The Angelus: Did you feel that the Archbishop was a father to his priests?
Bishop Fellay: He had a very high regard for the priesthood; he was especially concerned lest it lose its contemplative aspect, lest the priests be pulled in too many directions by the activities of their ministry, lest they not be sufficiently anchored by prayer. For him this was paramount. For him, this was the essential thing, the grace he wished to bequeath to the Fraternity. In this regard, here’s an anecdote in which I was the victim. I was in Belgium at Quiévrain, and I had to get to Brussels. I tell him that I’m planning to arrive at 2100 hours. He scolds me: “That is not a Christian hour to arrive at a priory!” Why should it be sooner? Because arriving then would disturb the great silence of the community after Compline, and so, if possible, travel arrangements should be made for an earlier arrival. In that example comes across the concern he had for the regular functioning of the communities he visited.
The Angelus: Could you offer us a last word to capture the Archbishop’s life?
Fr. Groche: I interviewed Bishop Ndong, a Gabonese bishop, and asked him why he had insisted that Archbishop Lefebvre be his consecrating bishop. He answered: “I always saw in Archbishop Lefebvre a model priest.”
At Donguila, a little old man who had known Father Marcel fifty years before told us: “When Father Marcel left us after two years here, it was as if the good God had left us.”
Holiness was an integral part of the Archbishop’s personality. We who lived with him for years have a hard time talking about it because he lived it seemingly without thinking about it, it was so natural to him.