This conference of Jean de Viguerie was originally published in Christendom (formerly of DICI), May-June 2006, #5.
Archbishop Lefebvre: the year of 1976
My purpose is to recount an event in the history of the contemporary Church: the refusal of Archbishop Lefebvre, former Archbishop of Dakar, Archbishop-Bishop of Tulle, to submit to the sanctions and the requirements of Pope Paul VI. This event occurred in 1976. The Second Vatican Council had ended 11 years earlier. The new rite of the Mass had been promulgated for 7 years. In France, Valery Giscard d’Estaing was President of the Republic, and Jacques Chirac was Prime Minister.
Since this is a narration, I will proceed in chronological order.
In the beginning of 1976 Archbishop Lefebvre was a man officially divested, canonically sanctioned in his work. He had been so for some months: on May 6, 1975, Bishop Mamie, the Bishop of Sion (the diocese of Econe),* with the authorization and at the instigation of the Holy See, had suppressed the Society of St. Pius X, authorized in 1970 by his predecessor, and consequently also the seminary of Econe.
*[He actually meant the diocese of Fribourg, Lusannne and Geneva where the establishment of the SSPX's first house of studies in Fribourg was approved by Bishop Francois Charriere (Bishop Mamie was his successor). About a year later the house moved to Econe in the diocese of Sion where the seminary was founded—Ed.]
I say: “officially” divested, because Archbishop Lefebvre did not recognize this suppression. The Society and the seminary continued as if nothing had changed. In spite of the fact that his appeals to the highest Roman authorities had been rejected, the prelate seemed to hope for an arrangement with Rome. This is why, according to one of the ordinands of that year, he postponed the date of the diaconal ordinations from February 2 to April 9.
Then, as nothing new had occurred, he ordained. And new ordinations were planned for June 29. They took place in Econe, on that date, according to schedule. Thirteen seminarians were ordained subdeacons and thirteen were ordained priests. And it was also on that day that Archbishop Lefebvre entered into disobedience. On June 27, two days earlier, Archbishop [a year later, Cardinal] Benelli, substitute Secretary of State, specially commissioned by the pope, had told him he was forbidden to proceed with the ordinations. Fr. Dhanis, former Rector of the Gregorian University, had given him the Roman document on the eve of the ordinations. [listen to Archbishop Lefebvre's ordination sermon]
Since he had disobeyed, he incurred two suspensions, the first, a collatione ordinum [forbidding the administration of the sacrament of holy orders] on July 6, the second, a divinis, on July 22. The first signified that he could no longer lawfully ordain, and the second that he no longer had the right to say Mass.
He was affected by these sanctions, but he did not recognize them as legitimate. He explained himself to the seminarians in a conference on September 18. Essentially, he told them this: my seminary has been abolished without any real judgment. There was a canonical visit, there was a convocation by a Commission of Cardinals, but (I quote) “I have never been before a court.” Consequently (I summarize here), my seminary is not abolished, consequently—it is a “chain” (the prelate used the word “chain” [i.e., these matters are inter-connected—Ed.])—my ordinations are lawful and the suspenses are invalid.
In July and August, on several occasions, the prelate had a chance to exalt the priesthood and publicly demonstrate his attachment to the traditional Mass. In the two preceding years he had already explained his rejection of the Council’s reform, and in particular of the new rite of the Mass, in several letters to the pope and especially in his Declaration of November 21, 1974. But these letters, and this Declaration, were unknown to the general public.
Now, during the summer, Archbishop Lefebvre made known and justified his position to large congregations of the faithful. He became a public figure. Such was not his intention, but he was present for the first Masses of some of the young priests he had just ordained (for instance, that of Fr. Groche Michaud, in Besancon, on September 6), and he had just said a Solemn Mass in Lille, on August 29, at the invitation of the Association of St. Pius V of Mr. Saclier de la Batie. That was enough. Moved by their devotion to the ancient rite, indignant at the suspense applied to the founder of Econe when so many sacrilegious innovators remained unpunished, the faithful flocked to the Masses he celebrated or honored with his presence, eager also to hear his sermons.
He was not present at the first Mass of Fr. d’Argenson in Lanvallay on August 15, but it was almost as if he had been there. Mass was celebrated in the open air before a large crowd of prayerful Catholics, as can be seen in a photo published in the September 1976 edition of Spectacle du Monde. In it we can see people of all ages; oddly enough, many women wore neither hats nor scarves. The press was present, and after Mass the priest was obliged to answer its questions. In Besancon, as I have said, on September 6, the prelate was actually present. Three thousand people attended the first Mass of Fr. Groche Michaud, the son of a baker on the rue de Dole. The Veni Creator was sung at the beginning, the Te Deum in the end, and after this last chant the crowd could no longer contain itself. It burst into applause, acclaiming Archbishop Lefebvre, who had given the sermon.
But it was the Mass celebrated by the prelate himself, on August 29, at the Palais des Sports de la Foire in Lille, before 6000 people, that most impressed public opinion and gave the greatest echo to the message of Archbishop Lefebvre. The ceremony was reported worldwide by the press and was front page news in many newspapers, such as France-Soir and Le Figaro. The bishop made his entry to the chant of Tu es Petrus. He was applauded. The seminarians were placed all around the foot of the altar. At the end of the ceremony people sung Parle, Commande, Regne at the top of their voices.
After Besancon and Lille, the third Mass, which caused a stir, although a little less than the previous Masses, took place at Fanjeaux in the Aude. It was celebrated by Archbishop Lefebvre on September 8, at the request of the Dominican Sisters of the Holy Name of Jesus, who went into dissidence the previous year (as Mother Anne-Marie Simoulin put it, “we preceded Archbishop Lefebvre”) in order to protest against the innovations and to continue faithfully in their religious life. They set up house around that time in the Clarte Dieu in the village of Fanjeaux.
Archbishop Lefebvre went down there. It was the jubilee of Mother Simoulin and the solemn profession of one of the sisters. The bishop celebrated Mass in the courtyard on a simple rostrum set up for the occasion, and gave the sermon. Six hundred persons, including the children of the sisters’ school, attended. At the beginning of the Mass there was a slight disruption: pamphlets fell from the skies. These tracts reprinted the most hostile commentaries of the press on the Mass in Lille.
We have the texts of the sermons on June 29, August 29 and September 8 in Fanjeaux. The first two were published in the review Intineraires, and the third is still unpublished to this day.
In these three texts, which can be brought together in order to obtain their essential substance, Archbishop Lefebvre said who he was and what he was doing, why he was protesting and what he was requesting from the pope.
He protested against the Council itself, and not only against the reforms made in the name of the Council, because the Council had done what the liberal Catholics had wanted for a century and a half, i.e., “marry the Church and the Revolution.” “And this marriage of the Church,” he adds:
is inscribed in the Council: take the Gaudium et Spes schema and you will find that it is necessary to marry the principles of the Church to the conceptions of modern man."
Of this marriage against nature, this “adulterous union”—such are the prelate’s own words—bastards were born:*
This adulterous union can only produce bastards... the rite of the Mass is a bastard rite, the sacraments are bastard sacraments."
*[NB: it should be noted that the French use of the word "bastard", which means illegitimate, does not have pejorative meaning commonly attributed in English—Ed.]
Archbishop Lefebvre protested against the persecutions. In Fanjeaux he very naturally gave the example of the persecution against the sisters at the Clarte Dieu.
These bishops, who should be here, are pouring their curses upon you, since they no longer consider you to be nuns. Alas! this is what the Bishop of Carcassonne said a few days ago...."
And the prelate became indignant:
this is truly in credible: those who remain faithful to their constitutions, faithful to the Catholic Church, faithful to the religious life, are considered no longer to be nuns, while those who, on the contrary, abandon the religious life and lead a worldly life... are still considered to be nuns."
He did not wish to judge the pope. It is Tradition, he said, which judges him; it is the catechism. He illustrated his comment with the parable of the catechism child. He told it on August 29 and again, in almost the same terms, on September 8:
a 5 year-old child, opening his catechism, can very well say to the priest, or perhaps the bishop, who is teaching him something contrary to the truth taught in the catechism of all times, that child can say: 'you are not telling the truth.' And the priest or the bishop cannot reply, 'you are judging your bishop, you are judging your priest.' 'No, I am judging neither my bishop nor my priest. My catechism is judging them.'"
He called for the reign of Christ on earth. “There will be peace on earth only in the reign of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” This brought him to speak of Argentina, where a military putsch had just restored order and peace. “Thanks to a government which has principles, which has authority... which prevents brigands from murdering people.” He returned to this in Fanjeaux. “It appears that we are meddling with politics... yes, we are meddling with politics by proclaiming the reign of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” He had already come back to this in Besancon with the reminder that the Council had not renewed the condemnation of communism, though many Fathers had requested it.
He wanted to emphasize that the question of the Mass was primordial. The real stakes of the battle now going on, he said in essence, are the Mass. The real cause for the persecution we are undergoing is our attachment to the Mass of St. Pius V. But I quote this capital passage from the June 29 sermon:
If, in all objectivity, we look for the true motivation of those who ask us not to ordain [we discover that] it is because we ordain these priests to celebrate the Mass of All Time... If we celebrated according to the new rite, everything would be smoothed out between us and Rome: the question of the Mass is the key to the whole drama between Econe and Rome....
Tomorrow our condemnation will be pronounced. I will be sentenced with a suspense. The young priests will incur irregularity. I appeal to St. Pius V, certain as I am that in saying this Mass, we profess our Faith."
The request of Fr. Dhanis, recounted by Bishop Tissier de Mallerais in his book, confirms the diagnosis. When he came to see Archbishop Lefebvre in Flavigny on June 28, Fr. Dhanis presented the prelate with a Paul VI missal and said to him, “Your Excellency, if you will just say this Mass with me today, all problems with Rome will be smoothed over.” Archbishop Lefebvre replied laconically, “I have already said my Mass.”
Finally, Archbishop Lefebvre asked the pope to give back to the faithful not only the “Mass of All Time” but also the Bible. “The true Bible, such as the Vulgate was,” and the true Catechism, “after the model of the Catechism of the Council of Trent.” He had already made this triple request in his letter to the pope on July 17. He expressed it again publicly in the homily of August 29.
Such was the essence—in any case, so it seems to me—of the discourse held publicly by Archbishop Lefebvre, from the sacred pulpit, during the Masses he celebrated. Permit me to emphasize two aspects which the commentaries did not always make clear at the time.
The first aspect is the attack against the French Revolution, through his denunciation of liberal Catholicism. In the final analysis, Archbishop Lefebvre found the Revolution responsible for the disorder in the Church. In my opinion, he was not mistaken. One pope—Pius VI—saw how profoundly harmful the 1789 Declaration of Rights was to Catholicism, and he explicitly condemned it. Another pope—Pius IX—with the Syllabus, condemned the spirit of the Revolution.
But they were the only ones, along with St. Pius X, clearly to warn Catholics of the danger. And liberalism was able to insinuate itself. Already, in 1791, 29 French bishops protested against the condemnation of the Declaration of Rights by Pius VI. Archbishop Lefebvre renewed the attack of Pius VI and Pius IX. This is noteworthy, and it was unexpected. The press, at the time, contented itself with speaking of fascism and collusion with L’Action Francaise. It did not realize the importance of Archbishop Lefebvre’s comments.
The second aspect is the intensity of the reaction. The Council had ended eleven years earlier; the new rite dated from 1969. There had been numerous criticisms of the reforms, numerous criticisms of the new rite, numerous indignant protests. But Archbishop Lefebvre’s reaction surpassed all the preceding reactions in amplitude, in profundity and in energy. The innovators thought that everything was going well, that in the end their scheme was going to work. Then, suddenly, this bishop stood up and said “We refuse; we do not accept.” He responded to the violence, and he responded forcefully. It was a terrible blow for the innovators and the renegade bishops.
The bishop said no, and said it in front of the whole world: all the media (the word was not yet in use) went to Econe, Lille, Besancon, Fanjeaux—newspapers, radio, television. Archbishop Lefebvre was on the front page of the French and foreign newspapers. On the day of the Mass in Lille, all the radio stations were present, they reported and interviewed from morning to night. On his “douze quatorze” program, the French journalist Jean-Pierre Elkabbach confronted Andre Mandouze with Fr. Coache, Fr. Barbara and Msgr. Ducaud Bourget—all defenders of Archbishop Lefebvre. Millions of people followed the broadcast. I was one of them.
Archbishop Lefebvre was now, as we would say today, a media personality—in spite of himself. It was not that he did not like to speak in public, but he was grieved by the aggressive deployment of the media. He did not want to give a show, but the media, as it were, forced him. It was, he would say on September 18, “the press, radio, and television” which “made so much ado about the famous Mass in Lille.” Journalists would phone Econe every day: “So,” they would say, “is Archbishop Lefebvre going to Lille?” The poor sister in charge of answering the phone was exhausted. In Lille, the location was changed every week. Archbishop Lefebvre, exasperated, wound up saying, “I will not go.” Then he decided he would go—“seeing,” as he said, “that in any case I won’t manage to stop people from coming.”
And so he found himself a prey of the media. He proved, however to be a very resilient prey, who met the media with ease on their own ground. This ease of his was most striking. He did not wish to become a media personality, but he carried out the role very well.
People were impressed by his majestic bearing and they liked his gentle face and mischievous smile. We have a fine photo of him with the journalist Roland Gaucher in the September 7-14 edition of Minute. He looks younger than his age (71); he seems to be looking at you with calm and a kind smile. Most of all, his words went down very well. He was expected to be a gruff and excited old man with a thundering voice, in fact, he was just the opposite. He spoke gently, slowly but, at times, he could also exhort in a most winning manner. His speech was pleasant to listen to: he had no rigid plan, he spoke plainly in a colloquial style, with short sentences, and always a series of questions. For example, on August 29:
We see her (the Church) destroyed every day, under our very eyes; the seminaries empty—this beautiful seminary in Lille, which was filled with seminarians. Where are the seminarians? Who are these seminarians, now? Do they know they’re going to become priests? Do they know what they’re going to do when they become priests?"
He also very often used the question-answer form—for instance, in this passage on dialogue with the Freemasons:
Engage in a dialogue with people who want to kill Our Lord Jesus Christ again...? We cannot accept such a dialogue. We know what came out of the first dialogue between Eve and the devil. We were lost because of her... because she entered into a dialogue with the devil. You just don’t engage in a dialogue with the devil. You don’t engage in a dialogue with the Communists. There can’t be any dialogue with error."
Thus presented very simply but also with a half-incantatory fascination, Archbishop Lefebvre’s reaction, found a loud echo throughout the world.
I come to the second phase of this “hot” year. Pope Paul VI received Archbishop Lefebvre in Castelgandolfo, at 10:30 am on September 11. This is the central event of the second phase. Why did this audience take place? Why such a meeting? It is clear that Archbishop Lefebvre desired it. He said, in Besancon, “I am ready to kneel at the feet of the Holy Father.” He also said, “Not all of the bridges with Rome have been burned.” It is likewise certain that Paul VI could not make any gesture at all. The suspension a divinis had provoked very great indignation, and the Pope’s image had suffered from it.
But how could a meeting between the two men be arranged? The audience was a story in itself. We follow two sources here: Archbishop Lefebvre’s conference to his seminarians on September 18, and Gaucher’s article in the September 14 edition of Minute, after an interview with Archbishop Lefebvre.
Archbishop Lefebvre’s narrative, confirmed by Gaucher, is as follows: on September 6, while the prelate was in Besancon, an Italian priest, Fr. Domenico La Bellarte, coming on behalf of the Archbishop of Chieti, told Archbishop Lefebvre that the Pope wanted to see him. The prelate first refused, then said: “I will go after I’ve been to Fanjeaux”. So he went to Fanjeaux, and from there he was driven to Albano, near Rome, where he arrived on September 9 and took his quarters. On the 10th he met Fr. Domenico again, who asked him to write a very short note to the Pope. Archbishop Lefebvre wrote the note in haste, saying that he was sorry to have distressed the sovereign Pontiff and soliciting an audience. Fr. Domenico put the note in his pocket, and the two of them left for the nearby village of Castelgandolfo.
Archbishop Lefebvre waited at the cafe opposite the palace while Fr. Domenico went to look for Msgr. Macchi, the pope’s private secretary—but this latter was strolling in the gardens with Paul VI. What happened next? Archbishop Lefebvre’s note was probably handed to the secretary. In any case, Fr. Domenico returned to the cafe and said to Archbishop Lefebvre, “They will phone us in the evening.” And indeed, that very evening, Msgr. Macchi made it known that the pope would receive Archbishop Lefebvre the next day, at 10:30 am.
Is this explanation complete? According to certain newspapers (for example, Nice Matin on September 14), and according to Michel de St. Pierre, questioned by Thierry Boutet in the October 3 edition of L’Homme nouveau, two other persons may also have intervened, Countess Albertini de Butafoco, a 38-year old lawyer in Frasne, in the Doubs, 60 kilometers from Besancon. This lady may have received Fr. Domenico in her home, and Fr. Domenico may have left from her home to meet Archbishop Lefebvre.
The second person was Michel de St. Pierre himself. According to him, the Corsican countess phoned him on September 4. Fr. Domenico was standing beside her, he took up the phone and asked the writer to be his intermediary with Archbishop Lefebvre. “So I arranged things,” Michel de St. Pierre told Thierry Boutet, “to have Archbishop Lefebvre receive Fr. Domenico and the countess the very next morning, a Sunday, after Mass.”
There is still another version: Jean Madiran’s. I mention it for the record. In Versailles, on November 20, 1972, answering the questions of several university professors, Madiran referred to what he called “Fr. La Bellarte’s artfulness.” Madiran continued:
This person may have used a classic little trick well known to people who get signatures for petitions. You get Dupont to sign by telling him that Durand has already signed. In this case, he told Archbishop Lefebvre that the pope was waiting for him, and told the pope that Archbishop Lefebvre was outside at the door, full of the spirit of reconciliation.... And that was it!"
Whatever the truth may be, these are strange manners and bizarre procedures.
The setting and the circumstances of the audience were no less strange. In the Palace of Castelgandolfo, where he arrived at 10:15 am with Fr. La Bellarte, with the exception of two Swiss Guards, a Canadian monsignor who let him in, and the elevator operator who took them to the second floor—in a place the prelate had often visited and where he had always seen bustling activity—they met no one. The palace was deserted. Likewise on the second floor, they went through seven or eight rooms in order to get to the pope’s office. There wasn’t a living soul around. “Really,” Archbishop Lefebvre would say later to his seminarians, “I think the holy angels had driven away all the employees of the Vatican.”
They entered the pope’s office: a monk’s cell. There was only a small table with a typewriter. The pope was seated behind the table. Archbishop Benelli, the substitute, stood at his side. The audience began. They spoke French. Archbishop Benelli was its silent witness; he only took notes.
For the content of the audience, we use the same two sources—the September 18 conference and Roland Gaucher’s article. They are, for all essentials, in perfect agreement. The pope, as is normal, spoke first. And his words were strong. “Somewhat violent,” said Archbishop Lefebvre. Roland Gaucher has Archbishop Lefebvre say, “The pope’s anger then broke out. He gave me a dark and feverish look.” We may wonder here whether the journalist isn’t getting a little carried away.
In any case—on this the two versions agree—Paul VI began the interview with reproaches. He accused Archbishop Lefebvre of condemning him. “You condemn me... I am a modernist... I am a Protestant... You are creating a scandal in the Church.” And since Archbishop Lefebvre remained silent, he continued in the same tone: “you claim that I am, at one and the same time, both a modernist and a traditionalist.” Saying that, reported Archbishop Lefebvre, he lifted his hand to his face as if “to split this face into two halves—a modern half and a traditionalist half.” But Archbishop Lefebvre still remained silent. Then the pope apostrophized him in these words: “Well! Speak now. Speak! What do you have to say?”
Here begins the second part. Archbishop Lefebvre spoke for seven or eight minutes. He gave a sort of defense—it was a very skillful defense and at the same time it was like a rolling fire of defense.
It was skillful because it was modest. “I am not,” said Archbishop Lefebvre, “the ‘Head of the Traditionalists.’ I am only a Catholic among millions of other Catholics.” It was a rolling fire of defense because with very few words he gave a complete picture of the situation of these millions of Catholics distressed by the reforms:
They were torn apart. “What should we do?” asked Archbishop Lefebvre. “Follow you and abandon your predecessors?”
They “have made their choice for Tradition.... They will no longer change, because the choice is made.” Here the bishop cited to the Pope the example of Dominicans of Fanjeaux, “Good sisters who want to preserve their religious life.”
They were persecuted. These sisters were “excommunicated.” Good, faithful priests had been “turned into the street.” The expression occurs in the two versions. Archbishop Lefebvre certainly used it. “Personally,” he continued, “I am trying to make priests, good priests.... And I am suspended a divinis.”
At this precise moment, the pope, highly irritated, interrupted this plea. “It isn’t true,” said he; “you do not make good priests because you make them swear an oath against the pope.” This was a very grave accusation, and Archbishop Lefebvre protested strongly. Not only had he never caused such an oath to be sworn, but he was even having his seminarians pray for the pope. He asked, “Can you give me a copy” of this oath?
Paul VI then began to speak again, but this time his tone was ironic and bitter. As Archbishop Lefebvre would later say, he gave the impression of being personally hurt. He asked, “What should I do? Resign and then you can take my place?”
Archbishop Lefebvre’s response was his request, and his request made up the last part of the interview. Archbishop Lefebvre asked the pope to see that the bishops give a charitable welcome to the traditionalist groups, and provide them with places of worship. “The solution of the problem,” he said, “lies in your hands. You have only to say one word to the bishops.”
The pope said neither yes nor no. He said only, “It cannot be done that way. It is necessary to consult with the Curia.”
Such was the interview, according to our two sources. It seems, however—according to other descriptions given by Archbishop Lefebvre—that other, less important, questions were touched upon. Archbishop Lefebvre, in order to illustrate the current liturgical disorder, may have spoken of 23 Eucharistic Prayers in use in France, and the pope may have raised his arms, exclaiming, “Far more, Your Excellency, far more.” At another point, Archbishop Lefebvre having affirmed that his conscience was not troubled, the pope may have replied, “Then you’ve got no conscience.” This gives an idea of the tone.
But at the end of the interview, which lasted 35 minutes (or a little more), the pope said, “Let us pray together.” He then recited the Pater, the Veni Sancte Spiritus and the Ave Maria with the two prelates. A medal was given to Fr. La Bellarte, who had been waiting in the antechamber, and the Pope accompanied Archbishop Lefebvre very courteously, “in a very friendly way,” Archbishop Lefebvre would say to his seminarians in his September 18 conference.
That was the audience. I now return to the two words I used when reporting the interview: “defense” and “request.” On September 11, 1976, Archbishop Lefebvre presented to Pope Paul VI a defense and a request. A defense of Catholics faithful to the Tradition of the Church. A request that these Catholics may have right of citizenship within the Church. In a word, the action of the prelate during this interview was an appeal to mercy and to justice.
This appeal was not listened to, and would not be.
It was possible to suspect as much from the first days after the audience. The communique of Fr. Panciroli, the Director of the Vatican Press Room, dated September 17 and published on the 18th in L’Osservatore Romano, shows great malevolence and contains a gross lie. In his press conference in Econe, on September 15, Archbishop Lefebvre had told the story of the pope’s accusation that there existed an oath against him, and again denied the existence of such an oath. But according to Fr. Panciroli’s communique, the pope would never have made such an accusation. “Never,” reads the communique, “did the Pope say anything of the sort.” Archbishop Lefebvre responded immediately: “It is incredible that this director could affirm such outright lies.”
Fr. Panciroli was not the only one to show his hostility and to falsify the truth. Even before the audience, Fr. Virgilio Levi, Assistant Director of L’Osservatore Romano, had called Archbishop Lefebvre an “arch-excommunicated” bishop.
Nonetheless, a great many faithful Catholics, a great many admirers of Archbishop Lefebvre held on to hope. Michel de St. Pierre, the founder of Credo, was one of them. In the interview he gave on October 2 to Thierry Boutet, in L’Homme nouveau, he described the meeting of September 14 as a rather friendly conversation, saying that the “two interlocutors” were “both very pleased.” He subsequently considered the future with deliberate optimism: “In my heart of hearts,” he said, “I think that henceforth nothing essential stands between the reconciliation which all of us so ardently hope for.” Finally, he praised the “gesture of the Holy Father, overwhelming in its indulgence and humility, who stretched out his arms to Archbishop Lefebvre.”
A gentleman himself, Michel de St. Pierre imagined the pope to be as generous as he was. He was quickly disabused. The letter from Paul VI to Archbishop Lefebvre, dated October 11, must have been a terrible blow to him. Indeed, this letter left no room for hope. Not only did the Pope not grant to Archbishop Lefebvre what he had requested, he did not even respond to his request, acting as if it had never been made.
Worse, he accused the prelate of fomenting against him an “unbearable rebellion,” by refusing to “recognize the authority of the Vatican II Council in everything and that of the pope.” He called upon him to “retract,” to “adhere to the Council,” to accept what he calls “the renewed liturgy,” and finally to turn over to the pope the responsibility for his works and the houses founded. As Jean Madiran wrote immediately afterwards, the pope “closed the doors.”
I think that Archbishop Lefebvre himself had no false hopes. What was he going to do? As he would repeat many times, henceforth he would “continue, and pray.” On the last Sunday of October, on the Feast of Christ the King, he ordained several deacons. One of my close relatives was present at the ceremony. I had asked her to tell me about it, and I have found her letter in my records. I will give you an extract—it’s all written spontaneously; I recognize the typical style of my correspondent; she wrote:
There was a dense crowd, extraordinarily recollected, though it was a rather trying three-hour ceremony, especially because the chant and the prayers were extremely soft—of course they are not yet very sure of their Gregorian... The archbishop doesn’t have a very strong voice either.... [He] is supposed to have said recently, in Normandy, that the last [sic] letter from the pope left him 'no hope,' but of course that would not cause him to change and, how could he ever abandon all these young men... to those horrible bishops."
Archbishop Lefebvre would therefore not change, and he demonstrated it already on that very day, by ordaining several deacons. In this, he showed admirable resolution. But he was supported. And I would now like to say that, if he was very much alone among the bishops, and very much attacked, he was also comforted by all kinds of support.
He was certainly very much alone among the bishops.
In his letter of October 11, Paul VI emphasized that Archbishop Lefebvre was alone, and insisted on the incapacity which, according to him, resulted therefrom; said the pope:
A single bishop without canonical mission, does not have in actu expedito ad agendum [without a specific mission], the capacity of establishing in general what the rules of the Faith are, or of determining what Tradition is."
“A single bishop,” said the pope, and indeed Archbishop Lefebvre was the only one to rise up as he did, to react in such an open manner by refusing to accept the sanctions meted out to him.
And not only was he alone but he had all the bishops against him. Not only did no bishop request that justice be granted to him, but they all unleashed their hatred against him. For example:
- Lallier (Besancon): his “obstinacy is not reasonable”;
- Pailler (Rouen): “I am in complete disagreement with Archbishop Lefebvre”;
- Boussard (Vannes): “Archbishop Lefebvre knows that he is putting himself in a state of excommunication by committing a public act.”
Others insisted on his solitude:
- Barbu (Quimper): “He is a bishop on his own”;
- Pourchet (St Flour): "Archbishop Lefebvre is alone against 2000 of his peers;”
- Lheureux (Perpignan): “One bishop against all the others doesn’t mean much.”
As for Cardinal Marty, he merely enunciated the following precept: “The Council,” he declared, “is an obligation for all Catholics.”
Archbishop Lefebvre was also the object of attacks from many newspapers and radio stations in France and abroad. In France, the two main dailies, Le Monde and Le Figaro, were outright hostile. So was the widely read weekly magazine Paris-Match. In Le Monde, the two journalists Alain Woodrow and H. Fesquet were particularly venomous. Woodrow, for instance, wrote that already, when he was Archbishop of Dakar, Archbishop Lefebvre had “based all of his action on [the] principles of the fundamentalists and the maurassiens.” [i.e., disciples of Charles Maurras] Le Figaro misconstrued the Lille sermon and gave its readers to believe that Archbishop Lefebvre had identified the new regime of General Videla with the reign of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
I don’t have enough time to go through a complete foreign press review, but I would nonetheless like to emphasize the aggressive tone of the Italian newspapers. On August 31, after the Mass in Lille, Il Giornale ran the headline “Un Lutero a Lilla” (“A Luther in Lille”). The same day, the Corriere della Sera spoke of the “schism” of Archbishop Lefebvre, and Il Paese della Sera, also on the same day, announced on the front page that Archbishop Lefebvre had “celebrated the Mass of the Schism in the Sports Stadium of Lille,” This newspaper is communist. But Izvestia, an organ of the Soviet Communist Party, would do even better on September 13, calling Archbishop Lefebvre a “member of the former OAS” [Organisation Armee Secrete—a French paramilitary group of the Algerian War] and the “pastor of the European neo-fascists.”
There were, however, exceptions. Archbishop Lefebvre was not attacked by everyone.
It is possible that certain cardinals in the Curia expressed their sympathy. Cardinal Thiandoum, ordained a priest by Archbishop Lefebvre and also consecrated bishop by him, is one instance. The cardinal came to Econe at the height of the crisis, just after the pontifical audience. This was no doubt done in order to find some means of reconciliation. But he did not account for his visit.
In the media, there were not only attacks. Certain television broadcasts sometimes almost struck a kindly note. On August 5, on TF1, the documentary of Jacqueline Collins was remarkable for its accuracy and impartiality. On the same channel, on August 8, Jean-Claude Bourret announced that an open letter to Paul VI, signed by several well-known writers, had just been published. It seems to me that today, in 2005, in this kind of news program and with regard to a personality like Archbishop Lefebvre, hostility would be unanimous. Such was not the case in 1976.
We should also note the outright sympathy, or at least the absence of antipathy, on the part of certain major Catholic editorialists. The most favorable was Fr. Bruckberger, the brilliant and surprising Dominican whose religious chronicles in L’Aurore were what is called “a hit” each week. In his editorial of September 9, he chose to emphasize the contrast between Archbishop Lefebvre considered as a “recourse,” and an incapable French episcopate. “In France,” he wrote, “no bishop seems capable or even desirous of putting things in order in the House of God.”
Jean Guitton was not unfavorable, and this is worth noting since he was known to be on friendly terms with Pope Paul VI. On September 5, in the Depeche du Midi, he tried to understand Archbishop Lefebvre, without however approving of him. “The Bishop of Tulle is caricatured,” he wrote, “by being presented as a backward devotee of the past.” The least favorable no doubt was Marcel Clement in his September 5 article in L’Homme Nouveau. He confirmed his complete submission to the Council. “We believe, with Paul VI,” he declared, “that the Council comes from the Holy Spirit.” And yet the general tone of the article was not one of hostility to Archbishop Lefebvre, whose faith and apostolic merit were emphasized. And the author ended by asking the Holy Father “to examine under what conditions the traditional Mass could coexist with the New Rite.”
One phenomenon was of great import: the current of sympathy in public opinion. If certain medias and certain editorialists were rather favorable, it was because of this current. It is an essential fact—as it is also astonishing for us who look back upon it forty years later. There would be no such equivalent today—not, at least, to the same degree.
Indeed, in the month of August, more than a quarter of French Catholics—28%, to be precise—approved of Archbishop Lefebvre. That was the principal result of an IFOP poll published in the Progres de Lyon on August 13 and reproduced in Paris-Match on September 5: 28% of Catholics, 26% of regularly practicing Catholics and—it is also most remarkable—25% of all the French. Certainly, more than 50% are indifferent or have no opinion, but in the end the French and the French Catholics who approve of Archbishop Lefebvre are more numerous than those who disapprove. This is the principal fact, which impressed journalists of good faith and which historians will need to remember.
There was then, in the seventies, profound anxiety concerning the evolution of the Church, and this anxiety was shared by a great many Catholics—by millions of Catholics. Where have these worried Catholics gone? Certainly, many of them have left this world, but we are obliged to admit that many of those still living have become used to the situation. Do they even remember their past anxiety? But let us return to the year 1976, and come to the true supporters.
Archbishop Lefebvre, in his resistance and in his battle, received strong support—support from associations, from groups, from individuals.
He was first of all supported, of course, by those who were nearest to him and who had fought the same fight for several years already; I will mention especially the Association of St. Pius V, Fr. Coache, the review Itineraires and the compagnons of Itineraires of Jean Madiran. The review Itineraires followed very closely this affair, which it called “the savage condemnation” of Archbishop Lefebvre, published all the texts concerning this affair and reported to its readers.
The Association Credo, then recently founded by Michel de St. Pierre, was not, properly speaking, Lefebvrist, but its support was nonetheless firm and open. On August 9, it published a "Petition to the Pope" signed by the following eight people: Michel de St. Pierre, Michel Droit, Jean Dutourd, Colonel Remy, Louis Salleron, Henri Sauquet, Michel Siry and Gustave Thibon. This text calls for a brief examination.
The French, says the Petition, “are worried about the evolution of their religion.” The Council has not produced what was expected of it. What have we seen? A disaster. The faithful “have the impression they are watching the sack of Rome.” Archbishop Lefebvre, who is a loyal servant of the Church, is being treated unjustly. “How can such a bishop, who has rendered signal service to the Church all his life, be suddenly treated as a stranger?” It is therefore necessary to reconsider the proceedings against him.
On August 27, another petition was made public; it came from diocesan priests. Two names were given—only two, from fear of reprisal: that of Fr. Chauvin, and that of a lay person, Mr. Lefort. This text is fuller than that of Credo. The question of the law is introduced. Canonical procedure, the authors remarked, has not been respected: “The report of the visit of the seminary in Econe in November 1974 has never been submitted to its superior,” and no “account was taken of it in the decision made in May 1976 to suppress the Society of St. Pius X.”
The authors then denounced what they called the “abuses” and the “excesses” of the “assassins of the Faith,” borrowing here an expression of Fr. Danielou. They emphasized the striking decline in religious practice, giving the statistic provided by Cardinal Marty himself: between 1962 and 1975, 51% of Paris Catholics stopped practicing their religion. They asked for the revision of the Lefebvre proceedings and “recognition of the right to the old Roman Rite within the Catholic Church.” In conclusion, they deemed it necessary to reaffirm their “full confidence” in the pope’s goodwill.
The Declaration of Thirty Catholic University Professors must not be forgotten. Bishop Tissier de Mallerais does it the honor of quoting it on page 515 of his book. As it is very brief (that was necessary for publication in the press), I quote it in full:
We, the undersigned Catholic university professors, wish publicly to express our personal convictions and to speak of the communion of thought which unites us to Archbishop Lefebvre. Like him, we adhere not to ‘one’ tradition among many, but to the Catholic Tradition, for the truth of which so many martyrs have suffered and still suffer today.
We profoundly regret the fact that many priests and most bishops no longer teach to Christians what is necessary for salvation. We deplore the decadence of ecclesiastical studies and the ignorance of Christian philosophy, the history of the Church and the ways of spiritual perfection in which future priests are left."
We are indignant when we see the contempt so many clerics feel for Greco-Latin culture, because this culture is not a mere outer garment: the Church is incarnate in it.
We hope for a renaissance in the Church in which priority will be given to holiness and intelligence; the cult of the Holy Sacrament of the Altar will be restored; the reign of Jesus Christ over all nations will be proclaimed.
In the strength of our faith and inspired with this hope, firmly attached to the unity of the Church, we salute the courageous bishop who dared to rise up, to break the conspiracy of silence, and to ask the Pope to do full justice to a faithful people."
The following persons signed:
- Jean de Viguerie (Angers);
- Guy Auge (Paris XI);
- Yvonne Bongert (Paris II);
- Philippe Bonnichon (Sorbonne);
- E. Borione;
- JeanPierre Brancourt (Paris II);
- Jean Barbey (Paris II);
- Marguerite Boulet-Sautel (Paris II);
- Thierry Buron (Nantes);
- G. Carbascia (Paris II);
- A. Dauphin-Meunier, Dean of the Catholic Faculty of Paris;
- Marcel De Corte, Honorary Professor of the Faculty of Letters of Liege;
- J. Debut (Paris X);
- G. Fourquin (Lille III);
- Geoffroy de Gislain (Paris II);
- Hubert Guillotel (Paris II);
- Fr. Jaffard, Ph. D.;
- M. de Kergariou (Faculte Libre de Paris);
- M. Luca zeau (Sorbonne); Roland Mousnier (Sorbonne);
- F. Natter, Dean of the Faculte libre de Paris
- Ph. Payen (Paris II);
- P. Pillorget (University of Picardie);
- S. Pillorget (Sorbonne);
- Claude Rousseau (Sorbonne);
- G. Soutou (Angers);
- Jacques Vier;
- R. Cheyre (Paris II);
- J.-L. Harouel (Paris II);
- J. Hani (University of Picardie).
Being the author of the text, I signed it first. I am the author, but the original idea was not mine. It came from Fr. Lourdelet, then prior of Opus Sacerdotale, who suggested it to me. I would most readily sign this text again today. The only thing I regret is not having mentioned the Mass.
About half the signatories were of my generation. They were then only modest assistants or young professors. Nonetheless some of the names were those of well-known Parisian or provincial professors. I am thinking especially of Roland Mousnier, professor at Paris IV, of Mesdames Bongert and Boulet-Sautel, professors at Paris II, and of Jacques Vier, professor at Rennes. The Dean of the Faculty of Letters of Liege, Marcel De Corte, also signed. A second list of names could have been published. Among the thirteen new signatures were to be found Canon Louis Guery, Professor of Greek at the Catholic University of l’Ouest.
Letters accompanied the signatures. I have selected three of them. Canon Guery wrote to me: “I am entirely with you in supporting traditional truth, as it is proclaimed by Archbishop Lefebvre.” Roland Mousnier suggested an addition: “I suggest,” he wrote to me, “the following insertion: the Mass will again become, without ambiguity, the Holy Sacrifice, the mystical renewal of the unique sacrifice of Our Lord upon the Cross.” Finally, a legal historian, professor at Paris II, was a bit worried, and (although she nonetheless signed) suggested prudence: “It will serve no purpose,” she wrote, “to see Archbishop Lefebvre and ourselves banished from the Church. Prudence is necessary.” (These last words were underlined twice.)
Before sending my Declaration of the Thirty to the press, I wanted to obtain Archbishop Lefebvre’s agreement. I therefore wrote to him, and attached the text. He answered me through Fr. Denis Roch, at that time Bursar General of the Society. The letter expressed his agreement and bore testimony to his satisfaction.
The Declaration was published in full, with the complete list of signatories, first in the December 17 edition of Le Monde, then in L’Aurore on December 31. An extract was published, without the name of the signatories, in Le Figaro on December 2. It was also published in a few magazines and, of course, in Itineraires and La Revue universelle. It may also have been reported on France Culture on December 2, and I received a very friendly and encouraging letter from Jean Dutourd, who at that time was writing for France-Soir. He hoped that the newspapers’ editors would give “an excellent welcome” to my Declaration. There was only one negative response—from the director of a Catholic bi-monthly. “We appear only twice a month,” said the Director, “and for that reason we are forced to leave news to the daily press.”
I will not prolong my comments on the support Archbishop Lefebvre received during this difficult year. We may be allowed to think that the support from faithful Catholics could have been more massive. It could have been reinforced by the support of associations like Pierre Debray’s Silencieux de l’Eglise, or Jean Ousset’s Cite catholique. This reinforcement was not forthcoming, although certain members of these associations expressed their individual sympathy. Nonetheless, overall, and given the decline of Catholicism in France which had already begun, Archbishop Lefebvre received good and fine support, and was not abandoned by his own.
Is a conclusion necessary? I will limit myself to two comments.
Here is the first. I said at the beginning that I would deal with an important event in the history of the Church. I have tried to do so. Permit me now to add that it is an unprecedented event. Archbishop Lefebvre is an unprecedented personality. Certainly, there was Athanasius, but the Arianism which Athanasius opposed was a declared and recognizable heresy. The neo-modernism and liberalism which Archbishop Lefebvre faced are masked errors. They deceive a great many people. Archbishop Lefebvre denounced them. His merit is all the greater.
My second comment concerns the true nature of this year 1976. In every moment of history there is that which we see, that which we think is important, and that which we do not see so well, and yet is the most important. In Archbishop Lefebvre’s 1976, the commentators of the moment mostly saw the persecution against the prelate, the “savage condemnation” (Madiran). But that year was also, for this prelate who resisted, an opportunity—I say it again—to manifest publicly his attachment to the priesthood and to the Mass. 1976 was therefore a year of honor for the Mass, and honor for the priesthood. We perceived that less, but it was the most important thing.
Today we are witnessing the return of the traditional Mass—a slow return, certainly, desperately slow, but progressive and real. This is a consolation for those of us who have seen that Mass banned and scorned. Now, there is no doubt about this—even those historians who are most hostile to Archbishop Lefebvre will have to admit it—his year 1976 was the origin of this return: the prime source of our present consolation.