September 2016 Print

"Our Dear Rector"

by Fr. Dominique Bourmaud, SSPX

It was in 1853 that the French Seminary in Rome opened, both to elevate the intellectual and spiritual level of the clergy and to promote the ultramontane movement of attachment to Rome. It was Pope Pius IX who approved it in 1859, and entrusted it perpetually to the Congregation of the Holy Ghost. The Roman orientation and Papal favor were crowned in 1902 by its erection as of Pontifical Right.

Fr. Henri Le Floch (1862-1950) was its Rector from 1904 until 1927. Born in 1862, of the diocese of Quimper, he was formed by the Holy Ghost Fathers from 1878, and ordained a priest in 1886. He was at first a Seminary professor, then Director of the college of Beauvais in 1895, then Superior of the Scholasticate of Chevilly in 1900 and Rector of the French Seminary in Rome in September 1904. He was known to have no political involvement, but was strongly opposed to the offensive laicism taking place in France at the time.

During his 23 years as Rector, he built up the Seminary, previously demoralized by lack of leadership, increasing the enrolment from 100 seminarians to 209. He enlarged the buildings, appointed new staff, and embraced the anti-modernist stance of St. Pius X. A friend of other anti-modernist figures, over time he acquired a position of considerable importance in Rome as the Consultor of several Roman congregations, including the Holy Office, which gave him considerable influence over the choice of the French bishops.

Archbishop Lefebvre met him for the first time in October 1923 as he entered the Roman seminary. The Father Superior gathered the seminarians together to give them their first spiritual talk of the year. At sixty-one, Fr. Henri Le Floch was on the downward slope as regards his age but not as regards his intellectual faculties. He was a Breton oak in all the magnificence of full maturity. He was quite tall and exuded confidence. He had a ruddy complexion and a broad face in which his prominent eyebrows contrasted with his fine nose and lips. He carried himself with noble dignity, and his blue-grey eyes had a look of firmness although his natural seriousness was lightened by an air of goodness and a smile which was discreet but readily displayed.

He made his mark without any affectation—he was dignity and affability itself. Besides that, there was a mixture of extreme self-assurance and total self-forgetfulness: he was a servant of the Church, a man of truth and Catholic doctrine. Obviously a theologian, but intuitive and impatient, his spirit reached great heights without having to go through all the levels of theological argument. It was not that he looked down on theology as a rational science, but ultimately he hardly ever used it in that way. His firmness in the Faith was matched by his profound grasp of the most fruitful theological concepts.

“I suffered from not seeing the reign of God established where it ought to have been.” The reign of God, says St. Gregory, is often in sacred language understood as “the Church of the present time.” Fr. Le Floch admitted that he suffered for it, and it followed him his entire life. But while he was able to act, while he was able to combat, he did not just suffer; he acted, fought for this cause, the only one worthy of having all his efforts consecrated to it, without holding anything back, for the reign of the Church.

The Church is the only means of salvation. Let us not understand this concerning eternal salvation only. Fr. Le Floch understood it also of temporal salvation. The Church is the only authorized organ of divine Revelation. It has the deposit of the truths that the Father has made known to us in speaking through his Son.

“The only man is a Christian...” Man, being made to be Christian, who is not a Christian, has not attained his human plenitude. This is because human values themselves, ever since original sin, are only fully accessible to all without admixture of error within Christian values, and with the internal modification which these last values make human values undergo. This is not all dogma, but it is certain, vigorous and invincible theology. From this it follows that one wonders how liberalism can continue for a moment in the mind of the Christian, who must hold nothing as precious as the glory of the Church. The error of liberalism consists in thinking that in the present human order, we can abandon the reality of the sovereignty of the Church, provided that one maintains it just as an unrealistic ideal.

Young seminarian Marcel Lefebvre wrote: “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?”

For Archbishop Lefebvre, “Fr. 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. I think that our whole life as priests—or as bishops—has been marked by this fight against liberalism. This liberalism was practiced by liberal Catholics, two-faced people who called themselves Catholics but who couldn’t bear hearing the whole truth and who didn’t want to condemn error or the Church’s enemies, or who could not bear to live with being always on crusade.”

As Fr. Le Floch was a man of the truth and a man of doctrine, he was, in the strength and integrity of his vocation, a man of the Church. Which were the interior convictions which put forward all his activity? As a man of the Church, he was in the unique service of the Church, for that profit only that is directly sought after by the Church. He held it as a determined preference to maintain the reserve that the Church, with rare exceptions, imposes on clerics. He maintained throughout his whole life only one kind of polemics, and this was the defense of the Holy See, of which he was, according to the testimony of the Cardinal Secretary of State, “the French pen.” Outside this one circumstance, he worked in silence, being unable to prevent an increasing renown from attaching itself to him, being unable either to prevent himself from being importuned in his own heart by this disdain for worldly glory...

He was reserve itself. His tendency was towards the least showy, towards the most effaced. Men of his calibre are not preoccupied with appearing to be that which they are not. They know well that that which they are is worth much more than the person that they would make of themselves. But Fr. Le Floch was not even preoccupied with appearing as he was.

“One could be deceived, and we were at first deceived,” said Fr. Berto, future theologian of Archbishop Lefebvre at Vatican II. “During my whole first year at the Seminary, the question came to me to know how they could have placed in such an elevated position a man who although he had a noble presence about him, seemed to give so little exercise to his authority. Fr. Berto, future theologian of Archbishop Lefebvre at Vatican II, shared this opinion with a fellow seminarian who, hearing this silliness, exclaimed with astonishment: ‘What are you saying, my friend? Nothing is done here but by the will and according to the will of the Father Superior. Only, you do not see it.’ It was so hidden, in fact, that one could have thought that the institution stayed its course all by itself. It was in fact entirely the contrary. The direction was held by a hand so firm and sure, with an attention so vigilant, without ever failing to pay attention or make a false move, that the action of the pilot was all the more imperceptible as it was more powerful and better ordered.”

By nature and by grace, by intuition and by study, Fr. Le Floch placed order above everything else, and disorder underneath everything else. He was in all things a man of order for, inasmuch as he was upright and inflexible in communicating his thoughts, so much was all desire and all need to communicate himself foreign to him.

Under Fr. Le Floch, the French Seminary remained perfectly faithful to the Papacy, under St. Pius X, Benedict XV and then Pope Pius XI, and in particular to the latter’s condemnation of social modernism in 1922. Fr. Le Floch made it very clear that he accepted the condemnation of Action Française in December 1926, although he personally felt that the Church had no place involving itself in such politics. However, his resignation in March 1927 was brought on by the personal opposition of Pope Pius XI based upon a supposed connection with Action Française, followed up by attacks from four of the Seminary professors and ten of the students. He lived the remaining 23 years of his life in active retirement.

An Italian priest, Mgr. Pucci, who had inside knowledge of the circumstances of his removal, would soon write: “Pius XI had decided that Fr. Le Floch, having served for twenty years under a different political dispensation, was not apt to serve under his or to teach its implementation.” As if an implementation of this kind had anything to do with studies at seminary! From time to time still, some seminarians had to pack their bags because the Roman climate didn’t suit them. They were called “Pro Action Française” whereas in fact they were unable to put up with the departure of Fr. Le Floch and the new atmosphere. Marcel Lefebvre stayed at Santa Chiara, not without some nostalgia about the loss of a great leader, whom he would always recall with emotion “our dear Rector.”