An Anecdotal Introduction
The second world war had finished, young Marcel was about fourteen years old. His older brother René, with his lively mind, was easily top of his school class. Marcel ‘usually a few places down the class ranking’11 stood out for his more practical intelligence. In his free time, he began study a ‘huge book on electricity’2 and decided that it was time to do away with the big oil lamps and install electricity. He and his friend Robert set to work first in Marcel’s home and then in Robert’s. We can be quite sure that it never crossed the mind of this adolescent that one day he would be classified as one of the most backward-thinking bishops of the Catholic Church!
His lively faith and practical mind would use all means—be they new or old—to bring the light of faith to all men. His deep faith in Jesus Christ yesterday, and to-day, and the same for ever (Heb 13:7) would drive him on to an absolute fidelity to the Mass of the Ages and to the only One Faith (Eph 4:5) that exists. Faith is a ‘conviction' that comes from God and God cannot deceive us nor can he produce different and contradicting convictions in different souls or in the same souls at different times. Faith is truly a participation of the baptised soul in the knowledge that God has of Himself and His plan for our salvation. Faith is one and unchangeable.
While the future Archbishop was a man of great initiatives, a close study of his life will reveal that he was practically ‘bullied' by young seminarians into founding the Society of St. Pius X. At 65 years of age, he was hoping for some form of quiet retirement. Little did he know that his greatest apostolate was only beginning.
1. The Society of St. Pius X: Well-known and yet little-known
The Society of St. Pius X has now been in existence for over 50 years and its founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, has been much spoken of during this time, both within the Catholic Church and by the secular media. Particular events concerning the Society received worldwide publicity. Many will remember the 1976 suspensio a divinis; more important still was the 1988 Consecration of four Bishops by the Archbishop. Discussion surrounding a possible ‘agreement’ or ‘regularisation’ of the Society has come to the fore on many occasions over the last twenty years.
This Traditional Catholic Society of priests has a presence in many countries throughout the world, with priestly priories, schools, chapels and Mass centres and affiliated Traditional religious communities working in tandem (Benedictines, Dominicans, Capuchins etc). Yet at the same time there can be many confused notions and misunderstandings about the work of the Society of St. Pius X, even misinformation!
It is the desire of this publication to communicate to and inform diocesan priests (and anyone who may be interested) of the work of the Society and why it came into existence. The intention is to set out clear information on a doctrinal level, the position of the SSPX regarding the liturgy of the Church, the Second Vatican Council and its effects, the Priesthood and any other significant Church events.
What the SSPX is, its work and its ordinary activities are not always well known. These occasional letters will try to remedy any confusion which may exist.
2. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, founder of the Society of St. Pius X
Marcel Lefebvre was born in Tourcoing, near Lille in northern France in 1905. His father, René Lefebvre passed away in 1944 as a result of ill treatment received in the prison camp at Sonnenburg, Germany, where he had been imprisoned for his resistance work during the Second World War. He had twice been condemned to death in Berlin, on 28 May 1942, for ‘consorting with the enemy and recruiting the young to bear arms against the Third Reich’. René Lefebvre was posthumously awarded the French Military Medal on 6 July 1953.
After studying at Sacred Heart College, Marcel Lefebvre entered the French Seminary in Rome in 1923, studying at the Gregorian Pontifical University. He was ordained priest by Cardinal Liénart on 21 September 1929.
After having been appointed as curate to a suburban working-class parish in Lille, he resolved upon joining his brother, Fr. René Lefebvre in the missions of Gabon. His brother was a missionary there for 45 years. The football stadium in Libreville, Gabon was for a long time named ‘Reverend Father Lefebvre Football Stadium’ because of Fr. René’s encouragement of football and the founding of the ‘Gabon football team’.3
3. The Missionary
Marcel Lefebvre entered the noviciate of the Holy Ghost Fathers at Orly, near Paris. After his religious profession on 8 September 1932, he left France to become a missionary in Gabon. Called back to France in 1945, he was appointed as prefect of studies at Mortain and then, two years later, was recommended to become Vicar Apostolic for Dakar. Before travelling to Africa for his second great mission, he was consecrated Bishop by Cardinal Liénart on 18 September 1947. He therefore became the bishop of the western-most point of mainland Africa.
So great was the confidence of Pope Pius XII in this young prelate that he was appointed as Apostolic Delegate for all of French-speaking Africa and Madagascar. His responsibility now reached from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. The year of 1955 saw his elevation to the position of Archbishop of Dakar. In 1960, he was appointed as Assistant to the Pontifical throne and member of the central preparatory commission for the Second Vatican Council.
He was transferred to the diocese of Tulle, France in 1962 and appointed as a consultant for the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. On 26 May of the same year, he was elected Superior General of the congregation of the Holy Ghost (at that time, consisting of 5,000 members). In 1968 when the congregation met for an extraordinary meeting of aggiornamento (renewal in the spirit of the post-Second-Vatican-Council era), he decided to resign from the post of superior and retire.
4. Founder of the Society of St. Pius X
In 1970, he founded the Society of St. Pius X, with the approval of the Bishop of Fribourg. But on 6 May 1975, this society was suppressed, a decision which Archbishop Lefebvre would always contest. On 22 July 1976, he received a suspensio a divinis because of the priestly ordinations which he continued to perform, despite being forbidden to do so by the Vatican. This period and the years to follow would be peppered with controversies, protracted contacts with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and papal audiences with Paul VI in 1976 and John Paul II in 1978.
In 1988, following an apostolic visit by Cardinal Gagnon to the Society, Archbishop Lefebvre signed a ‘protocol of agreement’ with the Vatican on 5 May, but the next day retracted his signature from the protocol, citing as his reason that, in fact, the protocol did not contain the right conditions for a sound agreement. Subsequently, on 30 June 1988 he, along with his co-consecrating Bishop de Castro Mayer, consecrated four bishops. All six bishops would be declared ipso facto excommunicated.
Archbishop Lefebvre passed away three years later on 25 March 1991 in Martigny, Switzerland.
5. The public man
Archbishop Lefebvre, who was a doctor of philosophy and theology honoris causa (University of Pittsburgh), was an Officer of the Legion of Honour, Commander of the Order of Christ (Portugal), Grand Officer of the National Order of Senegal and Officer of the Equatorial Star (Gabon).
6. Statutes and Spirit of the Society of St. Pius X
The statutes of a religious society aim, in particular, at defining the essence of this society. By analysing its Statutes, we will better understand the Society of St. Pius the X.
a) A Society of Apostolic life orientated to the Priesthood
The Society of St. Pius X is defined by the first article of its Statutes as ‘a priestly Society of common life without vows, similar to the example of the missionary orders’ (cf. c.673 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law). Within the context of the 1983 Code, it would best be defined as Society of Apostolic Life (cf. c.731).
It should be noted that the Statutes of the Society make no special reference to the current doctrinal or liturgical problems in the Catholic Church and make no particular criticism of any contemporary or practical problems. Each sentence of the Statutes is geared towards the sanctification of its members and consequently, towards a blossoming of their apostolate.
‘The final end of the Society is the priesthood and everything which concerns the priesthood,’ state the Statutes. They then go on to detail the different apostolic works which can be undertaken, but it is first and foremost 'any apostolic work towards the formation of the priesthood’. After this in order of importance is anything which can help priestly sanctification: retreats, recollections, priestly associations, and revues produced with priestly holiness in mind, etc. Great importance is attached to the formation of souls devoted to helping priests in their work, concerning the preparation of the liturgy, the teaching of catechism and any material help for the priests in their daily work. Equally, Catholic schools geared towards forming vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Moreover, ‘parish work and the peaching of parish missions which should be organised with the local Ordinary so that the Society can perform its apostolate according to its own particular charism. Finally, the Society can also willingly assist elderly and infirm priests and even support and encourage priests who have fallen away from their calling.’
The administrative rules of the SSPX and the organisation of its common life of apostolic work are very standard and do not greatly differ from the work of any other society of apostolic life.
b) A priesthood and spiritual life orientated towards the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass
The most remarkable dimension of the Statutes of the Society of St. Pius X is the bond or connection it establishes between the liturgy, the spiritual life of the priest and his apostolate. If there is a ‘specific spirituality' of the Fraternity, it is undoubtedly that of the Mass. Its essence is ‘to steer the whole life of the priest towards that which is the reason for his priesthood: the Holy Sacrifice, everything which it encompasses, everything which flows from it and everything which accompanies it.’ The statues emphasise by stating that the members of the Society ‘will have a true and continual devotion towards their Holy Mass, towards the liturgy which enshrines it and towards everything which contributes to make the liturgy more expressive of the Mystery accomplished in it’. 'A profound theological knowledge of the Sacrifice of the Mass will convince them ever more firmly that the whole Revelation, the Mystery of Faith, the completion of the Mysteries of the Incarnation and Redemption and the whole efficacy of the apostolate are accomplished in this sublime reality'. 'Nothing should be neglected to make sure that devotion and piety should be orientated towards and flow from the liturgy of the Holy Mass, which is at the centre of the Church’s theology and pastoral approach.
Another important element of the spirituality of the Society is set out in two short but significant sentences:
They will have a boundless devotion to the Kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in keeping with the infinity of His Kingship over persons, families and societies. If they must express a political preference, it will always be in accordance with the social Kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
7. History and expansion of the Society
As we write these lines the Society is ‘celebrating' the fifty-third anniversary of its existance in the Church.
a) First General Superior: Archbishop Lefebvre (1970–1982)
On 1 November 1970, Archbishop Lefebvre received the official approval of the Bishop of Fribourg to found the Society of St. Pius X, the statutes of which had been written by the Archbishop. At that time, given that the seminary at Ecône, situated in the Diocese of Sion, Switzerland, was the only Society place of studies, the seminarians were individually incardinated into different dioceses. The first houses of the Society were opened with the necessary authorisations of local ordinaries. One of the first of these was authorised by Archbishop Cyril Cowderoy of Southwark on 1 May 1971, exactly six months after the founding of the Society. On 18 February 1971, the Society received a letter of praise from Cardinal Wright of the Congregation for the Clergy. On 22 February 1974, the Bishop of Albano4 canonically erected a house of the Society within his diocese. It was here, in September of 1974, that the newly founded Sisters of the Society of St. Pius X would establish their first novitiate and home.
However, on the Feast of St. Martin, 11 November 1974, life was to take a strange turn in Ecône. The arrival of two apostolic visitors would cause grave scandal among the young seminarians. Msgr. Albert Descamps and Msgr. Guillaume Onclin made very strange remarks to both staff and student. ‘They thought the ordination of married men was normal and inevitable, they did not admit that truth is immutable, and they expressed doubts concerning the physical reality of Christ’s Resurrection.’5 They were never seen visiting the chapel. One can well imagine the reaction of the young me who wanted to give their lives to Christ. The words of St. Paul must have echoed in their souls: And if Christ is not risen again, your faith is vain, for you are yet in your sins (1 Cor 15:17). If truth can change, what does it mean that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life? It could mean something new every day.
A question must have loomed over the mind of all, a question which we would rather not dare formulate: do these two men, who have come as representatives of Pope Paul VI, really represent what the Vicar of Christ thinks and wants? This is a question that the good Archbishop could not answer, but he was obliged to take a stance. Within five days, he was in Rome and, six days later, on the Feast which commemorates the moment when St. Ann presented the Child Mary in the Temple, he wrote a text that would rock the Eternal City. This famous Declaration began with the words, 'We adhere, with our whole heart and our whole soul to Catholic Rome…' This text would be published sometime later and would unleash a series of events which would end by the decision being taken (by Rome or by the Bishop of Fribourg—by which, it was never made very clear) to 'suppress' the Society of St. Pius X.
On 6 May 1975, we could wonder whether or not Archbishop Lefebvre meditated on a little-known Feast of that day. In Rome it was the Feast of St. John before the Latin Gate. The Apostle had been bound and brought to Rome from Ephesus by the order of Domitian, was condemned by the Senate to be cast, near the said gate, into a vessel of boiling oil, from which he came out healthier and more vigorous than before!
6 May was the date on which Bishop Mamie of Sion communicated the ‘suppression’ of the Society. Archbishop Lefebvre always questioned both the legality of this suppression (of which the judgment broke various principles of canon law) and its morality (given that the sole motivation for this suppression was the attachment to the traditional liturgy and teachings of the Church). He decided that his work must continue. The Society was now in a cauldron of boiling oil, but it would one day emerge healthier and more vigorous than ever. It seems that time and common sense have proven the Archbishop correct.
On 29 June 1976, contrary to the will of Pope Paul VI, he ordained thirteen new priests. This action, in its turn, incurred upon the Archbishop and the thirteen newly ordained priests a suspension a divinis. Technically he was deprived of the right to confect any of the sacraments.
Let us now flash forward eleven years. Cardinal Edouard Gagnon came to Ecône on behalf of Pope John Paul II. This Cardinal was sympathetic and wanted to carry back to Rome a satisfactory report. Let us now quote verbatim from the biography of our Archbishop:
The visit ended on December 8 at Ecône where the Cardinal did not hesitate to assist publicly at a Pontifical Mass of the suspended archbishop and witness young men making their engagement is a suppressed Society.6
While one tries to be as respectful and as polished as possible when writing of matters ecclesiastical, one is tempted to say, this is absolutely hilarious, the archbishop is, in the eyes of Rome, committing a public mortal sin by saying Mass and, worse still, a Pontifical Mass and a Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church assists!
We must ask, were Roman consciences at peace with their decisions?
b) Second General Superior: Fr. Franz Schmidberger (1982–1994)
In accordance with the statutes of the Society, at the end of his twelve-year period of being General Superior of the Society, the Archbishop stepped down. At that time, there were about one hundred priests in the Society, located in about fifty houses around the world. Fr. Franz Schmidberger, a German priest of the Society, was elected General Superior. During his mandate as superior, the Archbishop consecrated four new bishops. As a result, many priests, who could not accept these consecrations, decided to leave the Society in order to found the Society of St. Peter. In 1994, at the end of Fr. Schmidberger’s mandate as superior, there were about 300 priests in the Society in around 120 houses worldwide.
c) Third General Superior: Bishop Bernard Fellay (1994–2018)
Bishop Fellay, of Swiss origin, was elected general superior in 1994. He directed the Society, not because he was a bishop, but simply because he was elected by the General Chapter of the Society. In 2017, coming towards the end of the government of Bishop Fellay, the Society of St. Pius X comprised of 610 priests in 175 houses spread throughout 33 countries, although in reality the priests travelled to about 60 countries to minister to souls. As well as the priests, there were 115 Religious Brothers and 80 Oblate Sisters. An associate group of Religious Sisters of the Society of St. Pius X, who work in and around the main houses of the Society, were about 195 in number. If the number of seminarians was added (about 200), we can say that the Society totalled around 1,200 active members.
Needless to say, the most significant news of this period was the 'lifting of the excommunication’ of the four bishops by a Decree from the Congregation of Bishops dated 21 January 2009. This particular topic deserves a study unto itself as we in the Society believe that neither the Archbishop, nor the co-consecrator, Brazilian Bishop Castro Meyer, nor the four were truly excommunicated from the Catholic Church. We repeat, this demands a very close study not only of Canon Law but also of the situation in which the consecrations took place.
On 21 November 2016, the Holy See publish the Apostolic Letter Misericordia et Misera of Pope Francis making it clear that the priests of the SSPX have faculties to hear confessions:
For the Jubilee Year I had also granted that those faithful who, for various reasons, attend churches officiated by the priests of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X, can validly and licitly receive the sacramental absolution of their sins… For the pastoral benefit of these faithful, and trusting in the good will of their priests to strive with God’s help for the recovery of full communion with the Catholic Church, I have personally decided to extend this faculty beyond the Jubilee Year, until further provisions are made, lest anyone ever be deprived of the sacramental sign of reconciliation through the Church’s pardon.
This Letter was dated 20 November but published on 21 November, forty-two years to the day of the famous Declaration of the Archbishop, which included the following words:
‘With God’s grace, the help of the Virgin Mary, of St. Joseph, and of St. Pius X, we are convinced that we shall remain faithful to the Roman Catholic Church, to all the successors of Peter, and shall be the fideles dispensatores mysteriorum Domini Nostri Jesu Christi in Spiritu Sancto ["faithful dispensers of the mysteries of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy Ghost"].’ Providence has its way of pointing to the prudence of our Founder.
On 27 March 2017, Cardinal Müller wrote to the bishops of the world authorising them to grant faculties to Priests of the Society to receive marriage vows. It should be noticed that while the position of the Society has not changed over a period of fifty years, it seems that Rome is slowly but surely recognising Ecône.
d) Fourth General Superior: Father Davide Pagliarani (2018–present)
On 11 July 2018, the Italian Fr. Davide Pagliarani was elected Superior General, for a mandate of 12 years. He had served as a priest in Italy, Singapore, and Argentina. By 2022, the Society had some 707 priests, 268 seminarians and 128 candidates. The number of Sisters is now above 200. We hope and pray that there is not only a growth in quantity but also in quality, that is, in the wisdom and holiness of the family founded by the French Archbishop.
As we write these words the Church is embroiled in endless discussions on synodality. One might ask, why is the Society not more vocal on synodality? The response is twofold:
The priests of the Society are simply trying to do what good Catholic priests should always do: save and sanctify soul for the glory of God. Sorry, but we have enough on our plate.
Secondly, the Society has already said what it needed to say: unless we restore the Traditional Liturgy and recognise and preach that the only Religion on the face of the earth that has the right to exist is the Holy, Roman, Catholic and Apostolic Church, there are no limits to where Liturgical and Religious Liberty will lead us.
8. He who is faithful is that which is least, is faithful also in that which is greater (Lk 16:10)
Many dream of some magical solution to the crises in the Church. We can hope for miracles of grace, but we must above all be faithful in the small things. For this reason, there exists a daily regime in life of every good Catholic and every group which is truly Catholic. The daily regime of a priest, religious brother or sister follows the same basic timetable throughout all Society houses. The community chants the office of Prime together in the chapel at approximately 6:30am; this is followed by a period of meditation or mental prayer, which in turn is followed by the Angelus together with the faithful who have begun arriving for Public Mass at about 7:15am.7 Of course, it often happens that one of the priests with need to offer Holy Mass for the faithful at a chapel, located away from the priory, perhaps late morning or early evening.
After breakfast, the priest will attend to his priestly activities: some of which are spiritual—daily Scripture reading, spiritual reading, recitation of the Breviary; some of which will be somewhat mundane—sacristy work, administration and accounts, overseeing maintenance of buildings etc.; and some of which may be more in the domain of practical and pastoral—confessions, marriages, conferences, catechism, etc.
At 12:15pm, the community comes together to chant the office of Sext. This is followed by the communal midday meal. The day continues with similar priestly activities until 6pm or 7pm, the Rosary being recited in common before evening meal. Compline is sung together at approximately 8:30pm.
This timetable is the skeleton framework of the life of a priest in the Society of St. Pius X. However, the Society is also subject to a number of factors which can make his life quite different to that of a diocesan priest. An emergency call for the sacrament of extreme unction could come from somebody located a few hours’ drive away. The Sunday apostolate can begin with a journey on the Saturday, or even on the Friday if the priest is looking after a chapel or groups of faithful at a great distance. Add to this the maintenance of distant chapels etc., there can be a lot of travelling involved, particularly in bigger countries such as the United States or Australia. Such is the life of the priests and Bishops of the Society of St. Pius X.
We ask you for your prayers and we ask you to pray that many young men and women will follow God’s call to be Priests, Brothers and Sisters in the spiritual family founded by our French Father, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.
- Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, The Biography of Marcel Lefebvre, Angelus Press, St. Marys, Kansas, 2004, p. 24.
- Ibid., p. 23.
- Cf. 'Équipe du Gabon de football', fr.wikipedia.org; and http://spiritains.forums.free.fr/defunts/lefebvrem.htm
- The Suburbicarian Diocese of Albano is within the Provence of Rome.
- De Mallerais, p. 478.
- De Mallerais, p. 551.
- Quite obviously, this varies somewhat depending on the conditions of the local house.
- 1. Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, The Biography of Marcel Lefebvre (Angelus Press, St. Marys, Kansas, 2004) p. 24.
- 2. Ibid., p. 23.
- 3. Cf. 'Équipe du Gabon de football', fr.wikipedia.org; and http://spiritains.forums.free.fr/defunts/lefebvrem.htm
- 4. The Suburbicarian Diocese of Albano is within the Provence of Rome.
- 5. De Mallerais, p. 478.
- 6. De Mallerais, p. 551.
- 7. Quite obviously, this varies somewhat depending on the conditions of the local house.