November 29, 1905 - March 25, 1991
“I Have Handed on What I Have Received”
On The Biography of Marcel Lefebvre
by John Vennari
The year was 1969. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre was sixty-five and retired. He had survived the tumultuous battles of the Second Vatican Council. He had just resigned as Superior General of Holy Ghost Fathers. He had spent himself for over 40 years in the Lord’s vineyard. He assumed his work was over. Providence had other plans.
A handful of seminarians at the time were dissatisfied with the priestly formation they were receiving: a formation both liberal and lax. Only four years after the close of the Council, the seminaries were already permeated by the modernist spirit of Vatican II: weekly liturgical experiments, seminarians concocting their own liturgies, seminarians going out at night, bad theology courses, no rule of life, no cassocks, no Latin, no discipline, contempt for Tradition, total collapse.
The distraught seminarians were advised to seek counsel from Archbishop Lefebvre, now living quietly in Rome. The Archbishop counseled the young men to try a House of Studies at Fribourg, but this turned out to be as unsatisfactory as anything they already encountered. The Archbishop then looked into another House of Studies in Switzerland only to find more disorder, more aggiornamento, more “spirit of Vatican II”. The seminarians were orphaned. They had no place to go. They had suffered ridicule for their traditionalist stand while in the seminaries of the new springtime. What could be done for them?
It was then on June 4, 1969 when Professor Bernard Fay, Father Marie-Dominque, O.P., Dom Bernard Kaul, Father d’Hauterive and Professor Jean-Francois Braillard met with Archbishop Lefeb-vre on the dilemma. They took the aging prelate “by the scruff of the neck” and insisted “something must be done for these seminarians!” The “something” they had in mind was that Archbishop Lefebvre establish a seminary.
Archbishop Lefebvre agreed to do what he could, if he received a sign that it was the Will of Providence. Two days later, on June 6, 1969, with the approval of Bishop Charriere in Fri-bourg, Archbishop Lefebvre’s seminary was born. Originally called the Saint Pius X Association for Priestly Training, it welcomed its first eleven students in October of the same year.
One of these students was a young Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, who would subsequently work closely with Archbishop Lefebvre, witness first-hand the formative years of Society of Saint Pius X, be ordained in 1975, hold the post of Secretary General to the Society, be chosen by the Archbishop to receive Episcopal Consecration in 1988, and write the most authoritative biography of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre to date.
Start from the Beginning
The Biography of Marcel Lefebvre is divided into four sections:
Part I: The Heir (from boyhood to African Missionary);
Part II: The Missionary (Missionary, Bishop, Apostolic Delegate in Africa);
Part III: The Combatant (return to France, Vatican II, the Ottaviani Intervention);
Part IV: The Restorer (founding of Society of Saint Pius X to his death).
The reader’s first temptation when picking up the book is to open to the center — the section on Vatican II — and start from there. That is when the sparks really start to fly, and it is the part of the story that apparently pertains most to us.
The reader must resist this temptation and start at the book’s beginning.
There is no way one can truly understand Archbishop Lefebvre and the fight he braved for Tradition if one does not read his early years — his remarkable life before the Second Vatican Council and the events that made him who he was. Here we learn how the man was seemingly sculpted by Divine Providence to do the exact work of resistance he shouldered after the Council. Especially, we learn of his rigorous Thomistic formation which became the foundation for every priestly action.
His earlier life also contains valuable lessons: trust and submission to the designs of Providence even when it conflicts with one’s natural bent, the importance of solid theological formation, unswerving anti-liberalism, devotion to the Immaculate Heart, simplicity, hard work, and fidelity to Catholic Tradition come what may.
Marcel Lefebvre was born in 1905, the third of nine children. His was a pious household blessed with saintly, hard-working parents. Providence arranged that he be among the first to benefit from Pope Saint Pius X’s 1910 regulations that lowered the age of First Communion. A six-year-old Marcel received his First Communion on Christmas, 1911.
He was a man through whom the history of the last century could be studied. In one way or another, his life intersected with the major events of the 20th Century: the First World War (Ger-man armies invaded his town as a boy where he saw the young people rounded up and taken away), the rise of neo-modernism in the Church after Pope Pius X’s pontificate (the Father Le Floch episode), the Second World War (his father died in a concentration camp in Germany), the decolonization of Africa; Communism (a number of his Holy Ghost missionaries murdered by Communists), the Second Vatican Council, the new anti anti Modernism of the Conciliar hierarchy, and the post-Vatican II counter-revolution of which he was the central figure.
He lived through it all. He could tell personal stories from it all. Most important, he was on the side of the Angels at every intersecting point. This is be-cause he always aligned himself, his outlook and his actions with the consistent teachings of the Popes. He always thanked his beloved Father Le Floch, the Rector of the French Seminary in Rome, for this clear-headed world view.
Marcel Goes to Rome
In 1919, when Marcel announced his intention to become a priest, his father cautioned him against studying at his home diocese at Lille. Bishop Lienart, the local ordinary, displayed a progressivist frame of mind, and Marcel’s father was uneasy with the spirit of the diocesan seminary. So at the advice of the renowned Father Collins, Marcel followed his older brother Rene into the French Seminary in Rome. This was a decisive moment in the formation of Marcel Lefebvre for it was here that he came under the influence of Father Le Floch.
Father Henri Le Floch was a teacher whom one would give his eye-teeth to be formed under. Thoroughly Catholic, thoroughly committed to the scholasticism of Saint Thomas, thoroughly anti-liberal and anti-Modernist, thoroughly imbued with the Roman school of theology, and with the competence to convey these truths so they be central to one’s life, Father Le Floch trained his men. Archbishop Lefebvre readily admitted that were it not for the solid formation he received from Father Le Floch, he too might have succumbed to the creeping liberalism of the age.
The Archbishop said at his September 23, 1979 Jubilee sermon, “I will never thank God enough for allowing me to know that extraordinary man.” He said of Father Le Floch:
“He was the one who taught us what the popes were to the world and the Church, what they had taught for a century and a half against liberalism, modernism and Communism, the whole doctrine of the Church on these topics. He really made us understand and share in this battle of the Popes to preserve the world and the Church from these scourges which plague us today. That was a revelation to me.”
Archbishop Lefebvre continued:
“I listened to what the older students were talking about. I listened to their reactions and especially to what my professors and Superior had taught me. And I realized that in fact I had quite a few wrong ideas ... I was very pleased to learn the truth, happy to learn that I had been wrong, that I had to change my way of thinking about certain things, especially in studying the encyclicals of the Popes, which showed us all the modern errors, those magnificent encyclicals of the Popes up to St. Pius X and Pius XI.
“... For me it was a complete revelation. And that was how the desire was quietly born to conform our judgment to that of the Popes. We used to say to ourselves: how did the Popes judge these events, ideas, men and times? And Fr. Le Floch showed us clearly what the main ideas of the various Popes were: always the same thing, exactly the same in their encyclicals. That showed us ... how we should look at history ... And consequently it stayed with us.”
Elsewhere Archbishop said that thanks to Father Le Floch, “We were mobilized against this dreadful liberalism.”
“Think With the Church”
Father Le Floch inculcated into the students the key principle, “Sentire cum Ecclesia” — Think with the Church. Think as the Church thinks, judge as the Popes judged, in light of St. Thomas Aquinas, “leaving aside all personal ideas in order to embrace the mind of the Church.”
In this environment, Marcel cut his teeth on the magnificent teaching of the Popes from the 19th and early 20th Century, which condemned the Masonic modern world born from the French Revolution. He learned that evil principles, no matter how seductively dressed, are evil nonetheless. These principles cause the ruin of souls, the destruction of society, and rob Our Lord of His Rights as King and Redeemer.
Marcel was privileged to attend the seminary’s “St. Thomas Lectures”. They were designed to stimulate the philosophy and theology student’s tastes for studying contemporary questions (“judge as the Church judges”) in the light of Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Popes.
At one such lecture, in the presence of Archbishop Chollet of Cambrai, Father George Michel put the Masonic Declaration of the Rights of Man on trial. After this brilliant presentation, Archbishop Chollet summarized: “God alone is a pure right ... originally we have nothing but debts: we have rights precisely to help us pay our debts.” The Biography comments, “This beautifully expressed the objective nature of rights and reaffirmed the primacy of the common good — both of which were ideas ignored by the liberal individualism of the Revolution”.
The anti-revolutionary training of the seminarians did not escape the notice of European governments. A tragic conflict ensued that devastated young Marcel, and showed him at an early age the malice of the liberals.
The Ax Falls on Father Le Floch
The French Seminary produced a formidable Catholic clergy who defied the liberal spirit of the age. Many of those trained in the French Seminary in Rome would become bishops. The last thing wanted by the Masonic government of France was an army of bishops and priests tearing the mask off their liberal pretensions. It could bring down their whole world. It could ruin everything. Something had to be done.
Already, France’s government was in uproar over the French Seminary where “political ideas which go against the laws of the Republic are flourishing.” On March 10, 1925, France’s Cardinals and Bishops issued a declaration on the injustice of the secular laws and the “steps to be taken against them.” Then in France’s Chamber of Deputies on March 20, the bishop’s declaration was denounced as coming “dir-ectly from the French Seminary in Rome.” With disgust, the French politicians quoted an extract from Father George Michel’s St. Thomas Lecture: “The State has the duty to recognize the Cath-olic religions as the sole true form of divine worship ... and to profess it publicly”, and to protect it, “if necessary with the armed forces.” This caused shrieks of horror from those present. A talk by Father Lucien Lefebvre was quoted with equal loathing: “The State has no rights over education.” The politicians were furious. “That is the respect they have for the secular laws”, one of them said.
Shortly after, the French government pressured Pope Pius XI to “tone down” the French seminary’s counter-revolutionary program. In one of his worst decisions — along with the suppression of Padre Pio and the decision that led to the slaughter of the Mexican Cristeros — Pius XI yielded and dismissed Father Le Floch: despite the fact that he was a model Rector since 1904; despite the fact that he was revered by students and former students who were now eminent Churchmen; des-pite the fact that an independent probe showed Father Le Floch to be faithful to Catholic doctrine without crease. This occurred around the same time Pius XI condemned Action Francais, an anti-liberalism organization ad-mired by Pope Saint Pius X that Pope Pius XII sought unsuccessfully to resurrect.
Marcel was not at the seminary for Father Le Floch’s tribulation. Away on mandatory military service, he learned the details through heartbreaking letters from fellow students. He returned to find the atmosphere of the French Seminary changed. Father Le Floch was gone. No longer were the seminarians trained for combat with the modern world, but more in a spirit of detente. It was Marcel’s first taste of opposition to Catholic principles from within the Church.
Nonetheless, Providence had arranged that Marcel study at the French Seminary just in time. He was trained during the final years of Father Le Floch’s regime. He received solid Catholic principles that would direct him for the rest of his life, and prepare him for future battles that, as a young seminarian, he would hardly dream possible.
“The Missions Didn’t Appeal to Me”
Before we get to these battles, the Biography takes us through Marcel’s ordination, his work as a parish Curate in 1930; his decision to become a Missionary (a move he had long resisted despite continual pleadings from his brother Rene to come to Africa); his entrance into the Holy Ghost Fathers; and his appointment to Africa in 1932.
To his surprise, and against his will, he was assigned as seminary professor as soon as he arrived in Gabon, Western Africa. Already Providence was shaping him into one who would spend his life forming priests. He was also busy in the field enduring the hardships and privations of a flourishing missionary apostolate. He taught the faith and combated paganism. He confronted tribes engaged in human sacrifice. He took a machete to a pagan fetish he found in the home of a catechumen.
The African years shows Marcel Lefebvre’s green thumb for growing Catholicism. A pious priest, zealous missionary, skilled organizer and efficient worker deeply loved by the people, his work during this period was one of constant growth for the Church.
After twelve years as an “African bushman,” Father Lefebvre was sent back to France in 1945 and appointed rector of the scholasticate of Mortain. He nourished the seminarians in solid doctrine and anti-liberalism, following the training he received from Father Le Floch. He had official Church teaching read in the seminary refectory including Leo XIII’s letter to Cardinal Gibbons on Americanism, Saint Pius X’s encyclical Pascendi against modernism, and Pius X’s letter on the Sillon condemning social modernism. He also gave them sound training in the spiritual life, always rooted in Saint Thomas Aquinas. The seminarians loved him as father.
Then came the surprise phone-call: “Hello Father ... steady yourself. You have just been named as the Vicar Apostolic of Dakar.”
Providence at Work
Father Lefebvre did not necessarily want to go to Dakar. Unlike Gabon, it was African territory he did know. Worse, it had a population of 9½ million, of which 9 million were Muslim. He submitted to duty nonetheless.
He was consecrated bishop on September 18, 1947. During the ceremony, in the presence of the liberal Cardinal Lienart, the newly consecrated Archbishop Lefebvre publicly thanked Father Le Floch for the sturdy training he received. “I thank him from the bottom of my heart because he showed us the path to truth.” Cardinal Lienart was horrified at the mention of Father Le Floch, and ran immediately to tell the dirty business to the Apostolic Delegate of France — another progressivist who shuddered at Father Le Floch’s name — Cardinal Angelo Roncalli.
Already, Marcel Lefebvre was a marked man in the eyes of the progressivists gaining control of the Church in Europe.
He arrived at Dakar and set about his work as bishop. He was then appointed — again, against his will — as Apostolic Delegate to French-speaking Africa.
The chapters covering this period, entitled “Archbishop of Dakar”, “Apostolic Delegate” and “African Skirmish” are instructive and edifying. Once again, under Archbishop Lefebvre, Catholicism in his territory enjoyed remarkable growth. The number of Baptisms and catechumens steadily rose. He founded new parishes, new churches, new schools. His Pastoral Letters from this period breathe the purity of the Faith and staunch opposition to contemporary secularism. He convinced religious orders who had previously shown no interest in mission work to come to Africa. He established perhaps the first Carmelite foundation on African soil. The seminary was his pearl, and he was instrumental in setting up an indigenous clergy and hierarchy in the area. His duties of Apostolic Delegate included that of recommending bishops, for which he always insisted on men of “doctrinal rigor and solid virtue.”
The Vatican’s Cardinal Tisserant visiting Lefebvre’s diocese, said he was “amazed” by what he saw the Archbishop of Dakar do. But the best tribute came from the lips of Pope Pius XII: “Archbishop Lefebvre is certainly the most efficient and qualified of the Apostolic Delegates.”
What is most interesting about Archbishop Lefebvre’s steady rise to prominence is that he ascended the ranks by sheer merit. He did not run with the career ecclesiastics. He was not trained in their diplomatic schools. There is no hint that he ever calculated to advance his career, to set himself in the limelight, to play politics for promotion.
If anything, every advancement he received was against his will. When he was stationed in Gabon, he did not want to return to Europe. Once established as Rector in Mortain, he did not want to go to Dakar. Yet in the designs of Providence, each stage not only blessed the Church of his time, but also prepared him for his work in the future. He already knew how to train priests. As a bishop, he could now ordain them. His duties as Apostolic Delegate included traveling to Rome to visit the Pope and the Vatican discasteries. This gave him an intimate knowledge of the workings of the Roman Curia. Thus when it came time to challenge the disastrous reforms of the Council, Vatican corridors were not foreign territory. And though he was respectful, he was not intimidated by high offices. It appears that Providence had prepared everything.
A New Kind of Pope
Shortly after the 1958 election of Pope John XXIII — a new type of Pope whom the progressives believed to favor their cause — Archbishop Lefebvre was relieved of his position as Apostolic Delegate, though he retained his post as Archbishop of Dakar. In 1961, he was called back to France and given the small diocese of Tulle.
Why a small diocese? As one of the most successful and revered Archbishops of the time, a former Apostolic Delegate, he should have received a prestigious archdiocese. He should have been in line for a Cardinal’s hat.
But, as already noted, he was a marked man. The French bishops knew him to be fiercely anti-liberal. They knew of his support for Jean Ousset’s counter-revolutionary Cite Catholique. They knew the Arch-bishop did not compromise with the modern world. They knew he had no time for the modernist New Theology of the Congars, Rahners, de Lubacs and Ratzingers that was all the rage.
The French bishops would not allow him any position of power or influence in the French hierarchy. When they learned Archbishop Lefebvre was returning to France, they laid down conditions that John XXIII, to his dishonor, accepted. First, that Archbishop Lefebvre would not be a member of the Assembly of Cardinals and Archbishops. Second, that he would be given only a small diocese, not an archdiocese.
Archbishop Lefebvre harbored no bitterness. He knew their enmity was not directed ultimately at him, but at the perennial Catholic truth he embodied. No doubt, he remembered Father Le Floch, the most renowned proponent of Papal teaching, denounced and banished as “too anti-liberal”. The Archbishop had seen the malice of the liberals before and recognized it for what it was.
Unperturbed, he set about his business. For him, the care of souls came first. He said, “People see nothing but the career ladder: promotion after promotion. Those things are just human considerations. We are not worthy to have responsibility for a single soul. As St. Francis de Sales says, one soul alone is a whole diocese. I will have 220,000 souls. That’s a big diocese.”
He accepted his position at Tulle — where the faith had grown cold — and immediately began revitalizing the region. This makes the chapter entitled “The Tulle Interlude” one of the most fascinating in the book. His years in Africa trained him to build from nothing. He began to breathe life into a dying area. He visited the priests, many of whom had become discouraged, and gave them hope. But his time in Tulle was indeed an interlude. Six months later, he packed his bags and moved to Rome. He had been elected Superior General of the Holy Ghost Fathers.
“In the Turmoil of the Council”
Meanwhile, he had been appointed to the Central Preparatory Committee for the Second Vatican Council. The Biography details in a way never before recounted the determined fight of the International Group of Fathers, against the liberal Rhine group of theologians and bishops who hijacked the Council from day one. The International Fathers, despite great odds, strove to keep Vatican II from becoming the catastrophe that it was.
Archbishop Lefebvre was a key figure and organizer of this conservative group and the Biography recounts many behind-the-scenes events not known before. The Vatican II chapters are riveting, and deserve to be read more than once. The chapters, as with the rest of the book, do not merely tell the story of what happened, but gives the reader the Catholic principles of how to judge the events. In many ways, each chapter of the Biography not only tells history, but teaches theology.
Of special interest was Archbishop Lefebvre’s predicted consequences of the Council’s new teaching on Religious Liberty. He said, “Religious Liberty is the right to cause scandal” since it gives civil rights to spread religious error and its moral consequences. Among these consequences, Archbishop Lefebvre spotlighted the following:
• Immorality: “The liberty of all religious communities in society mentioned in No. 29, cannot be laid down, without at the same time granting moral liberty to these communities: morals and religion are very closely linked, for instance, polygamy and the religion of Islam”;
• The death of the Catholic States: “A civil society endowed with Cath-olic legislation shall not longer exist”;
• “Doctrinal Relativism and practical indifferentism”;
• “The disappearance in the Church of the missionary spirit for the conversion of souls.”
The Archbishop spoke prophetically, yet he did not rely on extraordinary mystical gifts. He simply incorporated the principles learned under Father Le Floch: “Think with the Church.” “Judge as the Popes judged.” And the Popes of the past, consistently, had judged and condemned the liberal principles enshrined in Dignitatis Humane.
The consequences that the Archbishop predicted, and worse, have come to pass due to the Council’s new Religious Liberty program. Cardinal Ottaviani likewise predicted that the Council’s Religious Liberty would result in South American overrun with Protestantism. He too is proven correct.
The most damning indictment of the Council’s Religious Liberty came from the synagogue of Satan itself. Archbishop Lefebvre noted:
“This very year , Yves Marsaudon, the Freemason, has published the book L’oecumenisme vu par un franc-macon de tradition (Ecumenism as Seen by a Traditional Freemason). In it the author expresses hope of Freemasons that our Council will solemnly proclaim religious liberty .... What more information do we need?”
The True School vs. the New School
Archbishop Lefebvre during the Council warned against the new ecumenism:
“There exists a spirit of non-Catholic or rationalist ecumenism that has become a battering ram for unknown hands to pervert doctrine.”
He denounced modern collegiality, the new doctrine of the dignity of the human person, and the Council’s new definition of the Church that claimed, contrary to Catholic truth and to the express teaching of Pope Pius XII, that the Church of Christ is somehow bigger than the Cath-olic Church. This new heretical teaching was championed by a modernist Vatican II peritus named Joseph Ratzinger.
Here it is instructive to contrast Archbishop Lefebvre’s comments on the original schemas of Vatican II with the comments of Father Ratzinger. Of the original schemas on Vatican II, Archbishop Lefebvre said:
“I was nominated a member of the Central Preparatory Commission by the Pope and I took an assiduous and enthusiastic part in its two years of work. The central Commission had the responsibility of checking and examining all the preparatory schemas which came from the specialist commissions ... This work was carried out very conscientiously and meticulously. I still possess the seventy-two preparatory schemas; in them the Church’s doctrine is absolutely orthodox. They were adapted in a certain manner to our times, but with great moderation and discretion. “Everything was ready for the date announced and on 11th October, 1962, the Fathers took their places in the nave of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. But then an occurrence took place which had not been foreseen by the Holy See. From the very first days, the Council was besieged by the progressive forces ... fifteen days after the opening sessions not one of the seventy-two schemas remained. All had been sent back, rejected, thrown into the waste-paper basket.”
What Archbishop Lefebvre laments, Father Ratzinger celebrates. In his 1966 book Theological Highlights of Vatican II, Father Ratzinger sneers against the original Vatican II schema on Divine Revelation:
“The text was, if one may use the label, utterly the product of the 'anti-Modernist' mentality that had taken shape about the turn of the century. The text was written in a spirit of condemnation and negation, which ... had a frigid and even offensive tone to many of the Fathers. And this despite the fact that the content of the text was new to no one. It was exactly like dozens of text-books familiar to the bishops from their seminary days: and in some cases, their former professors were actually responsible for the texts now presented to them.”
Father Ratzinger, an adherent of the New Theology to this day, is appalled at the prospect that the Council would actually reiterate the consistent teaching of the Church of all time; appalled that the Council would have an anti-Modernist tone. This could not be more contrary to the spirit of Father Le Floch and to the spirit of the Popes throughout the centuries, particularly that of Pope Saint Pius X who issued the Oath Against Modernism. Ratzinger continues:
“... The real question behind the discussion can be put this way: Was the intellectual position of ‘anti-Modernism’ — the old policy of exclusiveness, condemnation and defense leading to an almost neurotic denial of all that was new — to be continued? Or would the Church, after it had taken all the necessary precautions to defend the Faith, turn over a new leaf and move on into a new and positive encounter with its own origins, with its brothers and with the world today?”
Ratzinger goes on to say that the majority opted for the second alternative — a kind of anti-anti-Modernist approach, and rejoiced that this was a “new beginning”. Archbishop Lefebvre’s 1964 assessment of the Council, recounted in the Biography, was far more accurate, far more Catholic:
“In an inconceivable fashion, the Council promoted the spreading of liberal errors. The Faith, morality, and ecclesiastical discipline are shaken to their foundations as the Popes have predicted. The destruction of the Church is advancing rapidly.”
The Council closed, chaos ensued, and this chaos ripped through Religious Orders. Archbishop Lefebvre’s Holy Ghost Fathers were no exception. The diabolic disorientation of aggiornamento took hold, and Paul VI’s Vatican would not support the traditional superiors who tried to restore order.
On October 4, 1968, Archbishop Lefebvre met with Bishop Antonio Mauro from the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for Religious. Archbishop Lefebvre explained that his Order was in revolution, that he had virtually no authority, even though he was Superior General.
The answer was not reassuring. “You understand, after the Council, you have to understand ...” stammered Msgr. Mauro, “I am going to give you some advice that I have just given to another Superior General who came to see me about the same thing. ‘Go on,’I said to him, ‘take a little trip to the United States. It will do you good.’ As for the chapter and even for the congregation’s present business, leave it to your assistants!”
This vapid response told Archbishop Lefebvre there would be no help from the Congregation for Religious. After one last attempt to correct his wayward Order, he resigned as Superior General on October 28, 1968. The Holy Ghost Fathers, the Biography recounts, became even more chaotic after the Archbishop departed. This is an example of how the great Missionary Orders fell.
New Mass, Orphaned Seminarians, SSPX
The Biography recounts the creation of Bugnini’s Novus Ordo, and the central role played by Arch-bishop Lefebvre in The Ottaviani Intervention, the “Critical Study” against the New Mass. It is at this time that we meet the orphaned seminarians and Arch-bishop Lefebvre’s counseling of them, which led to the creation of the Society of Saint Pius X. As Archbishop Lefebvre’s work in Africa trained him to start from nothing, thus he began again. And what he now started sent shockwaves throughout the European hierarchy.
The Society was founded with full ecclesiastical approval, but was unlawfully suppressed because of its no-compromise adherence to Tradition. The chapter entitled “I Adhere to Eternal Rome”, is one of the most riveting sections of the book. It recounts the mid-1970s showdown between Archbishop Lefebvre and Pope Paul VI’s Vatican. We meet again all the old players including Cardinal Jean Villot and Archbishop Giovanni Benelli who were determined to crush the stronghold of Tradition in Econe.
This, in fact, is where the real battle for the Society of Saint Pius X was fought. Everything that followed, including the 1988 Consecrations, was the logical follow-through of the impasse between Archbishop Lefebvre and Papa Montini. Paul VI perceived Econe as a threat to his Vatican II reform, even though the reform was an obvious disaster.
Though it is not contained in the Biography, the case of Father Linus Popian is instructive, and sheds light on the diabolic disorientation of Paul VI’s Vatican. Linus Popian and another seminarian in Communist Romania, who were members of the Romanian Orthodox Church, had become convinced that the Roman Catholic Church was the one true Church. If they converted to Catholicism in Romania they would have been persecuted and perhaps sent to Siberia. They thus risked their lives to escape Communist Romania and made their perilous way to the Vatican.
The two seminarians told Cardinal Villot and Cardinal Philippe they wanted to convert to Catholicism. The Cardinals were horrified. These prelates had pledged first allegiance to the ecumenism and Ostpolitik of Vatican II. They told Linus Popian and his colleague that they should not flee communism. The Cardinals also told them not to convert to Catholicism, but to remain in the schismatic Romanian church. The seminarians converted to Catholicism anyway, but Cardinal Villot, acting through Archbishop Casaroli, blocked their ordinations. Casaroli said that the ordinations of these two young men would damage the Vatican’s relationship with the Com-munist government of Romania, and would cause difficulties in ecumenical dialogue with the Rom-anian Orthodox. The seminarians were not ordained until after the death of Paul VI, in the interim of sedevacante before the election of John Paul II. This episode reveals the thinking at the highest level of the Vatican at the time when it har-assed Archbishop Lefebvre and waged war against Econe.
Archbishop Lefebvre continued his work, despite the unlawful sanctions hurled at him. In doctrine, in liturgy, in the Catholic principles of the Social Kingship of Jesus Christ, he remained faithful to the Popes of all time; whereas Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, and now Pope Benedict XVI chose to embrace the house built on sand, the modernist “new beginning” of Vatican II of which Father Ratzinger spoke so glibly.
The Biography covers the post-Vatican II Archbishop Lefebvre in keen detail. It chronicles the growth of the Society of Saint Pius X; the extraordinary endowment of the House at Econe, the SSPX foundations in America; the Archbishop’s reaction to the 1986 Assisi scandal; the 1988 consecrations; and much more.
The section on the 1988 negotiations between the Archbishop and Cardinal Ratzinger deserve special reading in light of Ratz-inger’s elevation to the Papacy. Even today, when Rome appears to extend an olive branch, the concerned Catholic must never forget Cardinal Ratzinger’s published scorn for Traditionalists. In The Principles of Catholic Theology, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote:
Was the Council a wrong road that we must now retrace if we are to save the Church? The voices of those who say that it is are becoming louder and their followers more numerous. Among the more obvious phenomena of the last years must be counted the increasing number of integralist [traditionalist] groups in which the desire for piety, for the sense of the mystery, is finding satisfaction. We must be on our guard against minimizing these movements. With-out a doubt, they represent a sectarian zealotry that is the antithesis of Catholicity. We can not resist them too firmly.”
In 1988, Cardinal Ratzinger said likewise:
“It is inadmissible; one cannot accept that there be in the Church groups of Catholics who do not follow the general way of thinking of the bishops of the world.”
Indeed, let the negotiator beware!
Those Who Knew Him
The Biography is of unique value as the author has drawn upon a large reservoir of primary sources from Europe, which means there is much in the book that English-speaking readers encounter for the first time.
Of particular charm is the closing chapter that displays the Archbishop’s kindness and good nature. There are stories from families and friends, and a section entitled “As His Drivers Saw Him”. One anecdote stands out:
The book gives the reader a comprehensive overview of the contemporary crisis of Faith. It explains the roots of the crises and the means of legitimate resistance. This is all presented within the context of a story, the life and work of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, a remarkable man who stood virtually alone as an embodiment of immutable Catholic truth; who refused to budge in the face of an all-pervasive Modernism. The valuable lessons contained in the book are innumerable. The copious footnotes and complete Index make the book a superb reference tool. It deserves to be in every library and in every home.
The Genuine Coin
Years ago, I had dealings with a United States Secret Service agent who apprehended printers who counterfeited money. I asked him, “How do you spot a counterfeit?” He replied, “We get to know the real thing thoroughly. Once you really know the genuine dollar, you can easily spot a fake.”
Archbishop Lefebvre is hated because he is the genuine coin. His life, his work, his teaching is that of a genuine Catholic bishop. Without even trying to do so, he reveals those of the post-Conciliar hierarchy as counterfeit in what they teach and how they govern. When compared to Archbishop Lefebvre, even the most “conservative” Novus Ordo bishop exudes the stench of liberalism.
During the Arian crisis of the 4th Century, when most of the hierarchy fell into this heresy, Arian bishops went to Constantinople to ask Saint Basil the Great to join them in their cause. They were perplexed that he was among the only bishops in the world not to side with them. Saint Basil responded, “Perhaps you have never met a Catholic bishop before.”
In The Biography of Marcel Lefebvre, Tissier de Malarais introduces us to a true Catholic bishop. We get to know him intimately. Once we do, we realize that Archbishop Lefebvre’s no-compromise stand for Tradition and for the restoration of the Tridentine Mass is, apart from Our Lady of Fatima, the main light of hope given by Providence in the post-Conciliar tempest.
The Biography of Marcel Lefebvre by Bishop Tissier de Mallerais is available from Angelus Press
1. From The Biography of Marcel Lefebvre (hereafter referred to as BML) by Bernard Tissier de Mallerais (Kansas City: Angelus Press, 2004) p. 411.
2. BML, p. 36.
3. Ibid. p. 39.
4. Apparently no relation to Marcel Lefebvre.
5. The details, including the subversive maneuvers against Father Floch, are in BML, pp. 47-54. Archbishop Lefebvre respectfully lamented of Pope Pius XI: “Pope Pius XI was a very intelligent man who had a great faith, and wrote wonderful encyclicals. Unfortunately, however, in the actual practice of government, he was weak — very weak — and rather tempted to become somewhat allied with the world. He not only deposed Father Le Floch, but also Cardinal Billot who was an eminent and extraordinary professor of the Gregorian University.” The Little Story of My Long Life, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre [Brownville: Sisters of the Society of Saint Pius X, 2002], p. 30.
6. Pope Saint Pius X was urged to condemn Action Francais because, though conter-revolutinary, they were a secular, not a Catholic, organization. Pius X refused to condemn them. “They are doing too much good”, said Pius X, “they defend the principle of authority. They defend order.” BML, p. 48.
7. Archbishop Lefebvre said, “Action Francais `85 was not a strictly Catholic movement [but] was a movement against the disorders which Free-masonry was bringing into France. It advocated a sound, definitive reaction, a return to order, to discipline, to a moral code, to Christian morals. So the government, displeased with this movement, insisted that Pope Pius XI condemn it. Action Francais was made up of the best Catholics who were trying to put France back on track again. And yet Pope Pius XI condemned it. The best proof that his judgment was unsound is that when he died, his Secretary of State, Pope Pius XII, who succeeded him, lifted the condemnation of the movement. It was too late! The evil had been done. Action Francais had been ruined. It was frightening and had enormous consequences.” The Little Story of My Long Life, p. 32.
8. This is in contrast to Pope Pius XII. In a 1948 audience, Pius XII asked Archbishop Lefebvre about his training in Rome. Upon learning, Pius XII said warmly, “Oh, dear Father Le Floch”. BML, p. 163.
9. BML, p. 231.
10. Freemasonry and the Vatican, Vicomte Leon de Poncins, p. 14.
11. BML, p. 254.
12. Ibid., p.329.
13. Ibid., p.328.
14. Ibid., p. 330.
15. Ibid., p. 323.
16. Open Letter to Confused Catholics, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, [Kansas City: Angelus, 1992], p. 102. Emphasis added.
17. Theological Highlights of Vatican II, Father Joseph Ratzinger [New York: Paulist Press, 1966], p. 20.
18. Ibid., p. 22.
19. BML, p. 335.
20. Ibid., p. 373.
21. See “Vatican Says, ‘You Must Not Become Catholic’,” John Vennari, Catholic Family News, December, 2001. [Reprint #657 available from CFN for $2.00 post-paid]
22. Principles of Catholic Theology, Joseph Ratzinger, [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987] p. 389. Emphasis added.
23. Archbishop Lefebvre and the Vatican, Father Francois Laisney [Kansas City: Angelus Press, 1999], p. 222. Emphasis added.
24. BML, p. 597.
25. I was looking to purchase one of the printing presses he had confiscated — it still had green ink on it.
- review originally published in 2005 in both The Angelus and in Catholic Family News