This is an edited version of an article first published in the Catholic Herald on July 7, 1989
Having only got within ring-kissing distance of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre the day before, I was totally unaware, upon being ushered into a darkened audience chamber at his headquarters at Écône, Switzerland, of what my promised half-hour interview with the now famous traditionalist prelate held in store.
The day before I had attended the ordinations of eight new priests to the SSPX in the presence of the 83-year-old archbishop, excommunicated exactly one year previously for consecrating bishops without the Pope’s authority. I had but one impression of my own from the day before to take into the interview: the archbishop smiled a lot. In fact, just as the short-lived John Paul I was called “the smiling Pope”, so should Mgr Lefebvre be dubbed “the smiling traditionalist”.
His easy manner, urbane charm and winning smile, communicated through humorous though appraising eyes, immediately put me at ease. Can this be the same man, I asked myself, who has initiated schism in the Catholic Church by his defiance of the Pope and the spirit of the second Vatican Council? Can this be the same man who regards Protestants as heretical, who sees ecumenism as the work of the Devil, and who is willing to die excommunicate rather than be reconciled to a “modernist” Church? It would seem so, judging from his opening remarks on the possibility of a reconciliation with the Vatican.
“At the moment there is no contact whatsoever with Rome,” he said with a sigh that might be mistaken for regret. “We don’t envisage reconciliation until Rome gives us a sign that it is ready to change. You see, reconciliation would not just involve disciplinary measures, but theological and doctrinal ones as well. We are categorically against the idea of religious liberty and its consequences, especially ecumenism, which I find personally unacceptable.”
It is crystal clear that the roots of disagreement between Mgr Lefebvre and Rome go far deeper than the mere restoration of the Tridentine Mass, as is usually suggested: “It wouldn’t be enough to give us back our Mass but retain the errors of ecumenism. The latter negates the former,” said Mgr Lefebvre testily.
But what about those who were unable to bear the prospect of following Mgr Lefebvre into schism, those monastic congregations and countless individuals who have opted to remain with Rome, and who have shunned further involvement with the Society?
Has this exodus of his supporters led to a weakening of resolve within the archbishop’s movement, and even a numerical decrease in vocations and lay adherents? Mgr Lefebvre was adamant: “The Society has developed remarkably since I consecrated four bishops. They have been ordaining, confirming and blessing chapels all year. The faithful have gained much strength from the consecrations and there is no doubt that the Society has increased in numbers by between 10 and 20 per cent.”
But if the Society is doing so well, if it is so intent on propagating its message through the actions of an excommunicated episcopate, why does it persist with the seeming illusion that it is not in schism?
Why, for instance, do Lefebvrists still pray for the Pope as a valid occupant of the See of St Peter? “I wish to continue serving the Church,” said Mgr Lefebvre. “I feel I am a good Catholic and we of the society are neither schismatic nor excommunicate. To be schismatic you have to separate yourself from the Church, literally set up another Church. If, however, you distance yourself from the Pope, not as another Pope, but insofar as you are reacting against his errors, you are not schismatic.
“Anyway, it is Rome who is schismatic, not us. It is Rome that advocates errors, Rome that distances itself from tradition. We are simply continuing in the path of the last 250 popes.”