A Bishop for All Seasons
“In this Feast of All Saints, we contemplate those saints who teach us to remain in Tradition, to do that very thing they did to become saints. We are repeating the same rites, the same gestures; we recite the same prayers. We believe in the same perennial catechism which they believed in, and that is what made them get to Heaven”—Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, November 1, 1980
This sermon is hardly going to raise an eyebrow. Yet, this was pronounced by a man who had been ostracized as tearing the Church’s unity, and received the epithet of “rebel,” “disobedient” to the pope, and “another Luther” leading souls into schism and error.
The Iron Bishop
When Archbishop Lefebvre and his close friends realized that things were becoming heated at the Vatican II Council, he urged on to keep flying the flag of Tradition against the odds in the face of a powerful Modernist faction leading the Church astray. Some of the good bishops, like Bishop Adam of Sion (where Écône is located) were so disgusted at the turn of events that they refused to return to the next conciliar session. When later, the new Mass was being implemented, 6,000 Spanish priests begged the pope for the privilege of keeping the Mass of all times and were promptly silenced under the magic word “Obey!” Nothing was heard from them anymore. Few were those who resisted and kept business as usual regarding the Mass and catechism and preaching which they had always performed. Many priests and bishops lamented the wind of revolution and its deleterious effects, but most were too tired, too weak, or too frightened by their local bishops or superiors to oppose the new trends.
Not so with the Archbishop and his friends of the first hour. In the years of the Vatican II Council (1962-1965), he met Bishop de Castro Mayer, who would be present alongside him in 1988 for the consecrations of the four Society of Saint Pius X bishops, and other colleagues. They set up a small group of active bishops, pompously called the Coetus Internationalis Patrum, who endeavored to slow down the Modernist train which was going full speed by the time of the second session. He also was instrumental in getting the Ottaviani Intervention which gave a critical analysis of the Novus Ordo Missae and urged Pope Paul VI to abstain from implementing it, but to no avail. At the age of retirement, he was prompted by seminarians to guide them towards healthy universities, which ultimately led him to start his own seminary and priestly society.
It might be interesting to see through the man and pierce the secret of his resilience in the face of opposition. Many people have argued that “Lefebvre was a proud man and a rebel,” “hungry for publicity,” “a personal enemy of Pope Paul VI.” However, this caricature of the man does not stand scrutiny and whoever has ever met the Archbishop in ordinary settings can testify that he was the most affable and effaced person, welcoming, paternal, eager to listen, and in no way an exuberant zealot ready to contradict an opponent. Some of the early friends did not have his gentlemanly manners and were much more abrupt in their words and actions towards the legitimate authorities. They might have reacted firstly and fiercely, but the Archbishop, knowing the authoritative weight which he carried in conservative circles, moved more slowly and cautiously.
This prince of the Church who, in his early years, had wished to be a brother and felt unworthy of the grace of the priesthood, had spent his life in the service of the Church, filled with an immense love of the spirit of Rome—Romanitá—under whose auspices he spent his seminary years at the French seminary of Santa Chiara. He devoted much of his life to black Africa as a Holy Ghost missionary, whether at the seminary preparing priests, in the bush evangelizing souls and building missions, or in broad travels as the Apostolic Delegate and counselor of Pius XII in African matters. His life hardly complies with the profile of a renegade and rebel. It rather reflects one whose whole life was to carry to the ultimate the yoke of the religious vows, first of all, obedience to his superiors.
True, some of those who knew him as a missionary in Africa and, later on, Apostolic delegate in Africa, do mention that he was stubborn, yet amenably so. Perhaps this was his way of applying two important aspects of the Church of whom it was said that she was intransigent because she believed, and tolerant because she loved. And this seems to apply to the Archbishop. When it was a matter of principles, he was unbending under whatever conditions as the staunch Doctor of theology that he was. But, in matters which were not dealing with the faith or morals, he was humane and ready to forgive and forget. And one never had the impression that he was pulling his weight around his confreres or subordinates. He was not only affable, he was discreet and effaced, always giving his interlocutors the chance to express their views before making known his decision.
Another aspect of his personality is that he had his entries into the Roman Curia with trusted friends. For he had been broken into all the intricacies of the Roman diplomacy, which was a useful tool in the hands of one who would be the de facto Defender of Tradition. We saw how, through perseverance and his knowledge of the men, he was able to obtain the green light from Bishop Charrière of Fribourg and Bishop Adam of Sion for his foundations of Fribourg and Écône. We saw how eager he was to get support from authoritative friends in Rome as well as at the Fribourg university. He would seek advice from Bishop de Castro Mayer on the delicate question of attendance at the New Mass in case of necessity. So many various actions which indicate a consummate prudence on his part before making a difficult decision.
Neither Heretic nor Schismatic
The prelate of Écône was profoundly a man of the Church, who suffered from the unjust suppression of the Society and from the censorships and condemnations to which he was subjected: “I have to admit that these persecutions have been harsh, severe, and continuous, not only from those in Rome, but also from all the bishops who have adhered to the Council, who have adhered to the novelties and who consequently can no longer tolerate Tradition to be continued in their churches.”
Earlier on in 1974, as he set up his international seminary in Fribourg, and later in Écône, he soon faced pressure and rejection. The French episcopate called it “a wildcat seminary,” and pressured Roman authorities under Paul VI and Cardinal Villot, Secretary of State, to suppress this seminary which was becoming successful, and was casting umbrage over their progressive agenda and empty seminaries. Then came the accusation of schism and attack on the pope, then the official suppression of the Society of Saint Pius X in May 1975, the year of Reconciliation, and the suspension a divinis the following year.
Yet, what is remarkable is that, although he felt betrayed, the Archbishop never turned bitter against the hierarchy. He had anticipated the difficulties, when he took his stand for the Mass of all times and the serious seminary formation. He was going counter to what everyone else had been doing ever since the Council. They would never pardon him his overt opposition to Vatican II nor his loyalty to Tradition, with a capital “T.”
And so, while weathering the storm, he always had his suitcase ready to go to Rome, to appeal in favor of all the conservative priests and lay folks, whose voice he was at the Curia. He did not need to use a polished or sophisticated language. He simply brought out the latest facts and betrayals of the progressist faction, along with the all too obvious loss of faith and vocations. And, by contrast, he plainly presented the good fruits of those who preserve the discipline, the catechism and the Mass of all times. As the gentleman he was, he kept always the serene and respectful tone he was wont to use before his superiors, knowing full well that, if the problems came from the Roman authorities, Rome alone could solve the latest Church crisis, and he, a poor retired Archbishop, did not have the solution. In these ongoing skirmishes and disputes, he never forgot that his Society was a branch of the Church, a part of a whole.
A Paradoxical Bishop
He was also a magnanimous and inventive soul, prompt to propose solutions so long as it was for the good of Tradition and favored the return of Rome to the treasure Providence willed to entrust to her. In 1978, he begged John Paul II to say but a word, a single word, as Successor of Peter, as Pastor of the universal Church, to the bishops of the entire world: “Let them be; We authorize the free exercise of what century-old Tradition has used for the sanctification of souls.”
What difficulty would such an attitude present? None. The bishops would be astounded to recover within a few years’ time a surge of devotion and sanctification that they thought lost forever. He sought to obtain a form of exemption along the lines either of a prelature or of an ordinariate. As early as April 1979, in a letter to John Paul II, he wrote: “Would it not be possible to grant us the status that already exists for the nullius prelatures such as the Canons of St. Maurice in Switzerland, who have a bishop at their head, or the Mission of France, whose Superior is also a bishop?”
In the face of the conciliar revolution, Archbishop Lefebvre laid down a categorical refusal to all that could represent a danger for the Catholic Faith, the Catholic cult, and Catholic life. He pursued through thick and thin the work of restoration that Providence had entrusted to him: founding seminaries, opening priories, schools, supporting families and encouraging many religious congregations. It would be hard to say that he was not up to the task when he was brought forward to the TV, the radio, and the world media. He was simply the same man of simple manner, never departing from his plain way of expressing his message of fidelity to Tradition, explaining how it seemed paradoxical to be condemned for doing what all great churchmen and saints had always done, and after being blessed under Pius XII, being now treated as a leper. Could we not think that it was his profound prayer life, and his intimate conviction of being a Catholic witness of the truth? Did not this allow him to remain himself and keep in composure while being confronted with the most powerful Church authority and in the face of the modern media?
Archbishop Lefebvre was no absent-minded university teacher lost in the clouds. He was never so much at ease as when drawing plans and checking properties, engaging recruits and meeting people. In this, he certainly gave the full measure of his exceptional talents of wise administrator. People who knew the mettle of great men said that he had the caliber of CEO of an international Company like Nestlé. Organizing, foreseeing apostolic labor where it was needed, judging his men and intricate situations, he was the leader who trusted his collaborators, but who expected also their mutual trust and transparency. And as his little foundation quickly spread worldwide, he had to navigate through the countless administrative difficulties. Yet he was never so happy as when he returned to Écône surrounded by his cherished priests and seminarians, the flower of his Society.
In the Wake of the Founder
The founder of Écône passed away on March 25, 1991, 28 years ago. Despite the prediction that Tradition would quickly disappear, the Society has pursued its activities and expanded steadily and organically. Meanwhile, his disciples have pulled up their sleeves and gone on with the priestly business of teaching young and old, especially in school settings, providing the sacraments to the living and burying the dead—nothing to glory about as such, but nothing lasting is glamorous or glorious. But the disciples were also going to be a sign of contradiction as they were simply doing Church business as usual in a revolutionary setting which, by then, had gnawed at the heart of the Church.
No doubt, the various generations of priests and Superior Generals lacked the aura of sanctity, of wisdom and experience of the Archbishop…how could they? But, all in all, their humble speech as well as their foremost wish to work for the benefit of the Church as a whole, was seen by the rank and file as keeping the founder’s goal. They too only wished “to enthrone again Tradition as Queen in Rome,” to quote the third Superior General, Bishop Bernard Fellay.
On the other hand, the world at large and much of the main Church hierarchy saw with a suspicious eye what was running counter to the mainstream effort of going on with the business of Vatican II’s aggiornamento. Clashes were inevitable at that junction and this went on for many decades. It seems as if our little Society has known a respite from the Roman Pontiffs in the last decade with the removal of the episcopal excommunications and the legalized liberation of the Mass of all times. Moreover, with the erratic present Pontificate, many bishops, surreptitiously no doubt, have become aware of the present decomposition of the Church. Some are finally looking deeper into the causes of all this, causes which Archbishop Lefebvre had denounced ever since the close of the Council: religious liberty, ecumenism, and collegiality.
All in all, we are not going to relive the past: the feeling of horror before traitors, the urgency and impetus of the first bastions of Tradition in the 60s and 70s will not be resurrected again. But what we Traditionalists need to be aware of is of the intensity of the evil within the Church walls. We need to flee like the plague the pervading indifference, cowardice before the repeated attacks from all sides, the mutism of dogs turned chameleons ready to placate their audience rather than defend Christ’s reign and the Church’s rights.