Lefebvre: the lonely Archbishop
Rome Econe is a nice place, clinging to the side of a Swiss mountain where the Rhone is still a turbulent stream and the vines, in the hot summer, are so pervasive that they have grown up to the windows of the tiny seminary parlour. It is a typical parlour, with a round table in the middle, chairs lacking both elegance and conifort, a bad religious painting on the wall and framed photographs of Pope Paul VI and of the local bishop, against both of whom the master of the house, Mgr Lefebvre, spends all day in battle. But this is a place in which authority is respebted.
A nun in a coif glides along the corridor which smells strongly of wax polish. On the walls, fans have inscribed 'Econe will conquer', 'Long live the Pope, down with Paul VI', 'Down with Comrade Montini', 'Down with Marty, murderer of the faith'. (Montini is the Pope's surname. Marty is the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris. whom Mgr Lefebvre accuses — wrongly — of having sung the 'Internationale' with the French Communist leader.) The Archbishop comes in. He is wearing a fine gold cross over his black cassock. His movements are broad and measured. A precious stone sparkles shamelessly on his finger at a time when most bishops dare not wear anything grander as a sign of their dignity than a gilded metal ring. He looks at me in a way that is attentive, questioning, benevolent and severe. His ear, tuned to the murmur of penitents, looks ready to receive the confessions of the sinner. Here is a priest who over decades has become inured to the confessional and to the hesitant confidences of his spiritual children. He has also been for thirty years a bishop, which has added a deportment full of reserve and dignity, the imponderable attitude of power, the taste for being obeyed, the pleasure of action.
We are in the old building which belonged to the canons of the great Saint Bernard, the ones who go out to rescuer mountaineers with their dogs. Next to it, in a modern building, the seminarists live and work. Outside the roughly built church is a little statue, gilded from top to toe, of the anti-modernist pope, Saint Pius X, who is the patron of the 'brotherhood' founded by Mgr Lefebvre. The young clerics wear cassocks and short hair, their cheeks are well shaven, their eyes are clear, and they laugh a great deal despite the austerity of their lives. The book of rules is as elaborate and detailed as it was when Mgr Lefebvre himself was studying theology. Students at a seminary based on the principles of the Vatican Council would find it absurd: 'Article Three: In a spirit of Christian austerity and of sacrifice generously offered to the seminary, one will give up television and radio and one will not smoke.
'Article Four: One shall not enter the bedrooms of other seminarists or receive anybody in one's own. For urgent, necessary communications, one may, however, talk briefly and in a low voice at the door of a bedroom without going inside. One must not prolong the conversation for more than two minutes. Furthermore, one must be sparing in the use of this facility for breaking the silence.'
At worship, the seminarists go forward in procession, humble and proud to be admitted to the service of God. Here one can once again hear plain-chant admirably sung, and see the solemn liturgy unfold without haste according to the ancient Latin rites which have been forgotten since the Council.
This was also the atmosphere of religious worship during Mgr Lefebvre's childhood in the north of France, where he was born seventy-two years ago. His father was a textile magnate; he was prosperous to begin with, but ruined in 1929. His family, as is normal in that part of France, was a large one: eight children, of whom five were 'given' to the Church —two priests and three nuns. From the age of eighteen, the father used to enlist each year as a stretcher-bearer to carry the sick to Lourdes. In 1941, he was arrested by the Germans and, thinking he was going to die, wrote to his children from prison: 'You know that I die as a French Catholic and Monarchist. For me, it is through the establishment of Christian monarchies that Europe and the world may again find stability and true peace.'
The fomentors of disorder, according to the Lefebvres, father and son, come from. the Devil and take various disguises:. freemasons, socialists, communists, the French Revolution. The poison common to all these evils is the same spirit of rebellion against order, religion, the fatherland, authority — it is called 'liberalise. The Catholic Church herself — a citadel besieged by the devil — has been touched. Liberalism has infiltrated her.
In Lille, Mgr Lefebvre declares: 'Now the theses and principles of liberal Catholicism are officially accepted ... What have liberal Catholics wanted for a century and half if not to marry the Church to revolution? This is why every Sovereign Pontiff for a century and a half has condemned liberal Catholicism 'They have forbidden marriage to those who have adored the goddess reason, those who have made priests mount the scaffold, those who have persecuted and murdered nuns. . . remember the faithful priests who were huddled aboard boats at Nantes and drowned: That is what the Revolution did. Well, I tell you, my dear brothers, that what the Revolution did is nothing compared with what the Second Vatican Council has done in espousing liberalism . . . It would have been better if the thirty or forty thousand priests throughout the world who have abandoned the cloth, revoked the oath they made before God, were made martyrs 'and sent to the scaffold: they would, at least, gain their souls. Now they risk losing them. The union of the Church and the Revolution is an adulterous union. And from this union there can only come bastards! and what are these bastard's? They are our rites ... the rite of the Mass is a bastard rite!
'It was thus that the "conciliar" church was born, by proclaiming unacceptable 'ideas. Religious liberty, for example: how can it be permitted when there is only one truth, that of Jesus Christ, when the Church has always said that there is no salvation outside of it?'
Lefebvre describes ecumenism as an open door to every sort of compromise. 'One calls heretics "brothers" and protestants "separated brothers". So this is brotherhood ... it is brotherhood with the Communists.'
As for the Council's doctrine of 'collegiality', by which the bishops share with the Pope the government of the Church, it is 'the destruction of personal authority, it is democracy; it is the destruction of the authority of God, of the authority of the Pope, of the authority of the bishops. Collegiality corresponds to the Equality of the 1789 Revolution.'
Thus, for Mgr Lefebvre, the three diabolic concepts of the French Revolution —Liberty, Equality, Fraternity — have been revived in the Conciliar Church.
In concrete terms, in order to fight against the destruction of the Church, it was necessary to create a priesthood faithful to tradition.. Hence the foundation of the 'Priestly Brotherhood of St. Pius X' and of the international seminary of Econe in 1969.
• At the time when he founded Econe, Mgr Lefebvre had already had a long past and a turbulent church career. He was first a curate near Lille and then a missionary (like his brother) in Gabon. When he was ohly forty-two, he was made Archbishop of Dakar. There, he increased the number of parishes and missions and founded schools. At the same time, he combated the rivalry of Protestant missionaries and fought a bitter battle against the proselytism of Islam. The Vatican increased his responsibilities throughout the whole of French-speaking Africa by appointing him Apostolic Delegate. In Dakar, President Senghor who was concerned to please his Muslim population, became more and more worried by the Archbishop's militant and aggressive behaviour towards them. Furthermore, the trend was, in favour of native bishops. Lefebvre was asked to resign.
Nobody was clear what to do with him'', since his attitudes during the preparations for the Vatican Council had made him a marked man. The French bishops, most of them active reformers, didn't want him. Nevertheless, Pope John XXIII sent him to one of the most remote and modest dioceses of France, to Tulle. But he only stayed there a few months. His missionary order The Fathers of the Holy Spirit', elected him to be their Superior-General. His six years in the job (from 1962 to 1968) were years of drama and misunderstanding. The Council had caused a profound crisis in the mentality of missionaries. The young Fathers of the Holy Spirit, animated by the Council's teachings, were infected, according to Lefebvre, by 'the virus of collegiality'. They were demanding 'team leadership', 'commissions', 'debates', and 'votes'. During a meeting of the Chapter in Rome, Lefebvre decided on dramatic action. He resigned in the hope that he would be begged to remain. But the assembly hastened to accept his resignation. Decidedly, times had changed.
It was then, at the age of sixty-five, that he left for Switzerland with some young 'traditionalist' priests and embarked on his new battle. Soon he was to find himself ranged alone against the Pope and the whole Catholic hierarchy.
The few quotations I have given show just how far this man, whose good faith cannot be questioned, is the prisoner of a conception of the world. He lives surrounded by chimeras —`plots', 'freemasons', 'liberalism'. The picture he paints of the Church today is a caricature, but he doesn't know it. He is congenitally incapable of understanding the slow rnaiuring of the notion of the Church — in which the Vatican Council was one step — a notion which is perfectly orthodox and faithful to tradition. Of this living tradition, fundamental for every Catholic, for every Christian, Lefebvre is no longer aware.
He retains some dried-up scraps of this tradition, some outmoded formulae. This man, outwardly so attentive, so affable, has a perhaps pathological incap,acity for dialogue. Sometimes he listens to you, but he doesn't hear you. He talks a great deal, but it is only to repeat relentlessly the same absurd statements — whether at a press conference, at a private meeting with cardinals, or at an audience with the Pope. His will is obstinate, deaf and blind. This congenital obstinacy is a constant feature of his character. But this inability to hear anyone else, to escape from the prison of his preconceived ideas, does not rule out — far from it — quick reflexes in argument, strategic cunning and a taste for disputation and casuistry.
So here today we have a disappointed missionary, a superior-general who has resigned, a Council Father crushed by a hostile majority, who, alone against the Pope and the Church, is busy proclaiming the 'truth'. Here he is at the head of a movement which recognises him as its leader in many countries. Two other seminaries beside Econe are effectively following his lead, 'priories' are being formed in Europe and America to accommodate little groups of 'his' priests. Catholics tired of priests who are too 'political' or too 'modern' come to them to hear the traditional teaching and the Mass in Latin.
This response by many Catholics is one of the factors which have given the Econe movement its importance. However orthodox the achievements of the Vatican Council, its reforms have been implemented in the most maladroit fashion and have resulted in serious abuses. (This is one of the faults of the present pontificate.) Many Catholics have been shocked and, while ignoring the theories of Mgr Lefebvre, they have recognised him at their spokesman.
They have understood that, whatever he may say, he is a good educator of priests. So he is supported, for the time being, by a part of Catholic opinion. Unfortunately, he also benefits from the burdensome assistance of extreme rightwing political movements who contribute to his budget and use him as a political tool.
Another thing which has helped to blow up the Lefebvre affair has been the incompetent manner in which he has for a long time been treated by the Roman authorities. They could probably have adopted Lefebvre's work at Econe. He asked the Pope `to let him try the experience' of training priests by traditional means, just as the Vatican tolerates the extremist experiences of the 'progressives'.
Would it not have been wiser to have taken him at his word and to have accepted these young priests into the church which so badly needs them? Would it not have been more sensible to have been less serious and tragic about his theological ramblings? Those who made prudence impossible were Mgr Lefebvre's adversaries among the French bishops. Enmities within the Church are unyielding. Bit by bit, the increasingly aggressive and personal attacks by Lefebvre and the rancour of his fellow bishops defeated the effect both of appeals to reconciliation (four personal letters from the Pope) and of sanctions. This rebellious bishop would never have gone to Canossa. Furthermore, every sanction against him added to the aura of martyrdom and attracted new supporters.
Last year, after illegally ordaining priests, he was 'suspended'. That is, he was deprived of the right to carry out his episcopal duties. Taking no notice, he repeated the offence this year. So now he will be subjected to an even graver sanction, the details of which are now being worked out. It will proclaim that he is now 'outside the communion of the Church'. After many hesitations, the Pope now appears to have grasped the nettle. He dreads the prospect of a permanpnt dissidence, the stain upon his pontificate of an open schism.