The SSPX founder changed the Church, but in ways he could never have imagined
It is exactly 30 years since a gaunt French archbishop stood in front of thousands of worshippers and – in a speech punctuated by bursts of applause – explained why he was about to take a step that would lead to his excommunication.
[…] On June 30, 1988, followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre gathered in a huge white tent pitched outside his seminary at Écône in Switzerland. They were there to watch him consecrate four new bishops in defiance of Pope John Paul II, who had been desperately seeking to reconcile Lefebvre’s Society of St Pius X (SSPX) with Rome.
The 82-year-old prelate – formerly the Archbishop of Dakar, Senegal – had brushed aside the Pope’s overtures. As he told the congregation, reintegration on John Paul’s terms would have been “Operation Suicide”. His society was being offered the freedom to continue celebrating the Tridentine Mass. But the price – quiet acceptance of Vatican II, with its (as he saw it) repulsive gestures to non-Christians, and the “Protestant” Order of Mass it created – was spiritual death.
The archbishop surveyed the bowed heads of his seminarians. “When God calls me, no doubt before long, from whom would these seminarians receive the sacrament of Holy Orders? I cannot, in good conscience leave them orphaned.”
And so Lefebvre, his gold chasuble illuminated by the white panels of the tent, entered the sanctuary to raise four men to the episcopacy: Fathers Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson and Alfonso de Galarreta.
This was a step that Lefebvre had once insisted he would never take. It would turn him into Martin Luther, he reportedly said in 1974, “and I would lose the Holy Ghost”.
But that was before an intensely bitter meeting with Blessed Paul VI, in which the saintly but thin-skinned pontiff accused him of acting like an “antipope” and refused Lefebvre’s request that bishops provide chapels where traditionalists could “pray like before the council”.
After that encounter, whose details were published only this year, Archbishop Lefebvre’s attitude to Rome darkened. (Was he aware that Paul VI’s outlook was also slowly darkening? That the pontiff who gave his name to the Missal of Paul VI was appalled by the inadequacies of its prayers when he came to celebrate it for the first time?)
Lefebvre’s anger did not subside when Blessed Paul was succeeded by the more conservative St John Paul II. He could see no good in Rome and even disparaged Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was doing everything in his power to avert a rupture. He now believed that only the SSPX was untainted by apostasy. He referred to the Écône consecrations as “Operation Survival”.
To critics, it seemed obvious that Lefebvre’s Operation Survival was actually Operation Suicide. John Paul had thrown him a lifeline; the old man was too arrogant to seize it and, as a result, was excommunicated along with his new bishops.
For some SSPX priests, the consecrations were a step too far. They were already dismayed by the way Lefebvre’s criticism of the Vatican had turned into vituperative caricature. Some of them joined the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter (FSSP), founded by Rome immediately after the ceremony at Écône. This was modelled closely on the SSPX. Many Lefebvre loyalists regarded its members as traitors.
Yet, for these departing priests, losing the archbishop was agony. They regarded him – still regard him – as a saint, albeit one whose judgment was clouded, for which they blame Paul VI. “He was a heroic, tragic figure,” says one. “His face radiated holiness, and after meeting him I understood why artists portrayed saints with a halo.”
But this priest still left. After 1988, the whiff of schism hung over the SSPX, even though the society – which has always recognised the reigning pontiff – wasn’t technically schismatic.
Damian Thompson is editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald and associate editor of The Spectator. This article first appeared in the June 22 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here