Why Is the SSPX Necessary?
As history looks back on the accomplishments of the Archbishop, many are quick to judge. His decision to start a priestly society, which began to take form in the early 1960s, is often criticized as egotistical, unnecessary, and disobedient. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. His priestly society was founded with the support and approval of his local ordinary and the later episcopal ordinations, though questioned at the time, are now recognized as legitimate and free of any negative juridical effect as made clear by Benedict XVI through Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re in the decree “Remitting the Excommunication latae sententiae of the bishops of the Society of Saint Pius X.” While this decree lifted the excommunications but imposed no additional changes, belief, or action on the part of the Society, some still question the actions of the Archbishop. For even though Archbishop Lefebvre’s actions were just and right the more frequently asked question is why?
Motivations of the Archbishop
Why did he choose to act as he did at that specific time? Anyone who has read the works of the Archbishop will quickly understand that he did what he did to preserve the sacred priesthood and all that this holy office touches. Few realize that his actions were not the result of his own desires, but rather in response to the many requests he received from seminarians who were unable to find a traditional seminary that remained true to the teachings of Holy Mother Church. The 1960s were the culmination of changes that had been in motion for a long time and these changes attempted to alter what it meant to be a priest. In hindsight, we can now say these changes have resulted in the single most devastating reduction in the number of priests worldwide since the institution of the priesthood by Christ Himself. But if priests are so important, the seminaries that train them are equally so.
Priestly Seminaries in the 1960s
It may be hard for some of us to accurately imagine a young man seeking to live out his priestly vocation in the 1960s as tradition was still visible in most Churches and cities. The rot that has eroded doctrine in the minds of so many today had not yet completely spread to the world at large but it bloomed in the houses of priestly formation. Sadly, the French seminary of the Congregation of Holy Ghost Fathers in Rome was no exception to this blight and by the 1960s it appears to be all but complete. The rector of the French seminary in Rome recalls a rebuke of Archbishop Lefebvre which took place in the spring of 1962.
“He took me to task for having told the bishops who were staying at the seminary that I was determined to train students to work for them in their dioceses, according to their directives and in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. He reminded me that the Holy Ghost Fathers, not the French bishops, had founded and were responsible for the French seminary.”
This was not an isolated incident and in fact mirrored what was rapidly taking place around the world as ecclesiastical leaders fell to the allure of modernism already prevalent in society. The Gregorian University in Rome founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola in 1551 quickly altered its age-old requirement of teaching its courses in Latin. While many accepted the changes, a few voiced their concern:
“If the courses are no longer taught in Latin, the seminarians will not be able to understand their breviaries or the Church Fathers. They will no longer be able to read the commentators of St. Thomas, and the liturgy would not be able to remain in Latin. It would be a terrible impoverishment for the priests, who would be cut off definitely from the Church’s inheritance.”
Despite protests like this, the changes still took place and their implementation was rapid, incisive, and radical, but Providence had other plans.
The timing was providential to begin this work as the Holy Ghost Fathers in 1968 were in the process of bringing their constitutions into conformity with the Second Vatican Council, during which they immediately requested that the Archbishop take an extended leave of absence. This was done as a result of the opposition he had already voiced against the Council and, consequently, he tendered his resignation. It is interesting to note that if the Holy Ghost Fathers hadn’t rejected the Archbishop due to his adherence to the unchanging Catholic doctrine, he would not have been able to devote his later years to the creation and growth of a new Society whose sole purpose was to preserve that same doctrine. Also, if the liberal seminary rectors and professors allowed traditional seminarians to be ordained, there would have never been a reason for Society of Saint Pius X to exist, as those same seminarians would never have sought out the Archbishop. Both the Archbishop and seminarians found a new home on November 1, 1970 when the Bishop of Lausanne, Geneva, and Fribourg approved and confirmed the constitutions and proceeds to the canonical foundation of the International Priestly Society of Saint Pius X in his diocese. This is the context for the creation of the Society. Both seminarians and bishop were rejected along with the traditional teachings of the Church. The needs of the seminarians and the blessing and approval of the local ordinary made it clear to the archbishop what he needed to do.
Testimony of Seminarians over the Years
As seminaries around the world continued to worsen, the little Society began to see its first growth. One seminarian recalls the early years and his own impression of the Archbishop at that time.
“I joined the seminary during the hot summer of 1976, just when the Archbishop had been suspended by Pope Paul VI and had given his polemical sermon of Lille in late July. It was clear there was a war between two opposing positions, and that the Archbishop, for all his combative statements and attacks against the progressives, made total sense, whereas his detractors were simply snarling at his position and failing to refute his arguments against the new Mass, the new Catechism, etc. It was clear that the rug was being pulled out from under the Church and many of the younger priests were leaving their sacred duties to go back into the world—sorry times indeed.”
The sentiments echoed in this eyewitness account illustrates how a tiny organization was successful precisely because it was dedicated to the preservation of the Catholic priesthood in its entirety without compromise. A recently ordained priest of the Society of Saint Pius X had this to say when asked this question.
“Why did you choose to join the Society of Saint Pius X?”:
“A couple years after I entered the seminary, I was asked that same question by a couple of diocesan seminarians who approached me at a Beethoven concert. They figured I was too young to be a priest and was wondering how I was wearing a cassock when they weren’t allowed to. They asked me almost immediately, ‘Why the SSPX?’ I answered, ‘Look, I can go into questions of doctrine and liturgy if you want, but quite frankly I entered the SSPX seminary because I want truth. Full and entire. The truths of the Faith, the truths of the priesthood, without any mixing or doubt, and to the best of my judgment the only place I can get that is in the Society.’ They simply nodded and said, ‘Makes sense.’ ”
“And why did the Archbishop found the Society of Saint Pius X?”
His reply is crystal clear:
“The Archbishop founded the SSPX for the continuation and preservation of the Catholic priesthood and everything that pertains to it. This answer is significant because I am often asked why the Society still exists, as it does, since we can say the old Mass now without restriction. What people need to understand is that it’s a much deeper problem that is far from being resolved.”
The Importance of Priestly Vocations
There are many things that can be said about the Archbishop and his actions but his intentions are clear and the results of his efforts are undeniable. He worked tirelessly to pass on what he had received and to preserve the eternal Catholic priesthood. He did this clearly because so much is contingent on the existence of priests. They are the lifeblood of the Church and should young men cease to pursue their God-given vocations, or be unable to fulfill them, we, the faithful, would be cut off from every sacramental resource meant to aid us on our path to Heaven—to say nothing of the worship due to God, which the alter Christus alone is capable of offering. The priest is a prism through which the grace of God is refracted into every corner of our lives. He is there at our birth to welcome us into the Church as we join the ranks of the Church Militant and he is there at our death as we join the ranks of the Church Suffering, the Church Triumphant, or the damned. It is abundantly obvious that the existence of priests is vital to our survival as Catholics and the continuity of Holy Mother Church.
What the Society of Saint Pius X Means to Catholics
Very few of us lived in a country where the priests were rounded up and the church doors were locked. But the fruits of Vatican II have been much the same as any socialist takeover. While it wasn’t done in the name of Socialism but that of Aggiornamento, a very real consequence of Vatican II is that fewer and fewer people have access to a priest, sacraments, and the Mass. Last Sunday, we could have gone to our Church and found it locked. No confession, no holy water, no real presence in the tabernacle, and no Mass. What we have is a privilege and the privilege we now enjoy is a testimony to how the fidelity of one archbishop can change the course of history and affect the salvation of countless souls. This year is the 50th anniversary of the Society of Saint Pius X, what else can be said but, “God bless Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.” His undaunted courage lives on in the members of the Society he founded as its priestly members continue to carry the torch of Catholicism to the four corners of the globe.