After a life of exemplary service in the Church, this retiring archbishop still had his greatest work ahead of him. His generous spirit and clear-sighted vision are still the beating heart of the SSPX today.
Marcel Lefebvre, founder of the Priestly Society of St. Pius X, was born November 29, 1905 in the northern French town of Tourcoing. The third of eight children, Marcel grew up under the supervision of his devout Catholic parents, Rene and Gabrielle, who owned a local textile factory.
Marcel, drawn to the priesthood from his youth, followed his father’s advice and entered the French Seminary in Rome at the age of 18. Six years later he was ordained priest; shortly thereafter he completed his doctorate in theology and began pastoral work within the diocese of Lille.
Fr. Lefebvre’s older brother, a missionary associated with the Holy Ghost Fathers, urged the new priest to join him in Gabon, Africa. Fr. Lefebvre eventually acquiesced and temporarily joined the Holy Ghost Fathers in 1932; he was immediately sent to Gabon, first as a seminary professor, but was soon promoted to rector. After three years of difficult missionary work, he nevertheless decided to commit himself permanently to missionary work: he made perpetual vows with the Holy Ghost Fathers.
Marcel Lefebvre, after these early years, was entrusted with increasingly important responsibilities. He was called back to France and made rector of a seminary in Mortain; later Pope Pius XII appointed him Vicar Apostolic of Dakar and he was thus consecrated a bishop; the following year, 1948, the pope further honored Bishop Lefebvre by naming him Apostolic Delegate to French Africa and granting him the title of archbishop.
Pope John XXIII, like his predecessor, believed that Archbishop Lefebvre’s theological expertise, missionary experience, and background in education were of an exceptionally rare quality; the pope thus appointed him to the Preparatory Committee of the Second Vatican Council, a body charged with setting the agenda of the upcoming and much anticipated ecumenical council. The Holy Ghost Fathers were also quite impressed with the archbishop’s work and at their General Chapter of 1962, elected him superior general.
Archbishop Lefebvre was now at the height of his career. Vatican II however, would prove for him a bitter disappointment. Most of the texts he helped prepare for the council were rejected outright and new, more liberal and modern versions were substituted in their place. In response, the archbishop along with other confused prelates formed a conservative, reactionary group called the Coetus Internationalis Patrum in which he served as chairman. This group primarily opposed the introduction of modernist tendencies into the council texts.
The Coetus was ultimately unsuccessful in countering these modernist reforms, and Archbishop Lefebvre left the council heartbroken. Additionally, the Holy Ghost Fathers, chaffing under the archbishop’s conservative leadership, essentially forced his resignation as their superior general at the General Chapter of 1968. Marcel Lefebvre was now 63 years old and, after a lifetime of service to the Church, planned to retire.
Here the archbishop’s life dovetails with that of the SSPX. Following the repeated requests of several young men seeking a traditional priestly formation, Archbishop Lefebvre opened a new seminary in Econe, Switzerland. The local ordinary, Bishop Francois Charriere, gave his blessing for this work, and on November 1, 1970 the Priestly Society of St. Pius X was born.
A brief account of the history of the SSPX can be read in this FAQ, so that information will not be here. One detail, however, should be added to that general account, as it pertains primarily to Archbishop Lefebvre’s involvement in the Coetus Internationalis Patrum. During the Second Vatican Council, an important friendship developed between Marcel Lefebvre and Antonio de Castro Mayer, bishop of Campos (Brazil). These two shared ideas at the various Coetus functions and kept in contact long after the close of the council. They both refused to implement the modernist teachings of Vatican II and in 1983 jointly authored an open letter to the pope lamenting the numerous errors which seemed to infect Rome. When Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated four new bishops in 1988, Bishop de Castro Mayer assisted as co-consecrator.
Archbishop Lefebvre, after guiding the SSPX for over 20 years, died on March 25, 1991. He is buried in a crypt beneath his beloved seminary at Econe where his remains can be visited today. On his tomb are marked the words of the apostle St. Paul: "Tradidi quod et accepi" (I have transmitted what I have received—I Cor. 15:3).