Marcel Lefebvre

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Archbishop Lefebvre, founder of the Society of St Pius X.
Archbishop Lefebvre,
founder of the Society of St Pius X.

Marcel-François Lefebvre ( November 29, 1905– March 25, 1991), better known as Marcel Lefebvre, CSSp, was a Roman Catholic archbishop who took the lead in opposing the reforms within the Catholic Church associated with the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In particular, he condemned ecumenism, the principle of religious liberty, collegiality and the replacement of the Tridentine Mass. In 1970, he founded the Priestly Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), an organisation which continues in existence to this day.

In 1988, the Holy See (first the Congregation for Bishops, then Pope John Paul II, with his motu proprio Ecclesia Dei) declared Lefebvre automatically excommunicated for consecrating four bishops in violation of canon law and in spite of a warning from the Holy See and a personal appeal from the Pope. Some canon lawyers, many from the SSPX, have disputed the validity of this excommunication.

Early life and ministry

Marcel Lefebvre was born in Tourcoing, France, the second son and third child of factory-owner René Lefebvre, who died in 1944 in the Nazi concentration camp at Sonnenburg (in East Brandenburg, Germany), where he had been imprisoned by the Gestapo because of his work for the French Resistance and British Intelligence. Marcel's mother and René sr.'s wife was Gabrielle Wattin, who died in 1938.

His parents were devout Catholics who brought their children to daily Mass. His father was also an outspoken monarchist who ran a spy-ring for British Intelligence when Tourcoing was occupied by the Germans during World War I.

In 1923 Lefebvre began studies for the priesthood; at the insistence of his father he went to the French Seminary in Rome. He would later credit his conservative views to the rector, a Breton priest named Father Henri Le Floch. His studies were interrupted in 1926 and 1927 when he did his military service. On May 25, 1929 he was ordained deacon by Cardinal Basilio Pompilj in the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. On September 21, 1929 he was ordained priest by Bishop (soon to be Cardinal) Achille Liénart in Lille, the diocese in which he was incardinated. After ordination, he continued his studies in Rome, completing a doctorate in theology in July 1930.

In August 1930 Cardinal Liénart assigned Lefebvre to be assistant curate in a parish in Lomme, a suburb of Lille. Even before this, Lefebvre had already asked to be released for missionary duties as a member of the Holy Ghost Fathers. But the cardinal insisted that he consider this for a year while he engaged in parish work in the diocese of Lille. In July 1931 Liénart released Lefebvre from the diocese. In September Lefebvre entered the novitiate of the Holy Ghost Fathers at Orly. A year later on September 8, 1932 he took simple vows for a period of three years.

Lefebvre's first assignment as a Holy Ghost Father was as a professor at St. John's Seminary in Libreville, Gabon. In 1934 he was made rector of the seminary. On September 28, 1935 he made his perpetual vows. He served as superior of a number of missions of the Holy Ghost Fathers in Gabon. In October 1945 Lefebvre was ordered by the superior general to return to France and take up new duties as rector of the Holy Ghost Fathers seminary in Mortain.

Bishop in Africa

Lefebvre's return to France was not to last long. On June 12, 1947 Pope Pius XII appointed him Vicar Apostolic of Dakar in Senegal; he received the titular episcopal see of Anthedon (El Blakiyeh near Gaza in Palestine). On September 18, 1947 he was consecrated a bishop in his family parish church in Tourcoing by Cardinal Liénart (who had previously ordained him a priest); as co-consecrators acted the bishops Jean-Baptiste Fauret, C.S.Sp. and Alfred-Jean-Félix Ancel.

In his new position Lefebvre was responsible for an area with a population of three and a half million people, of whom only 50,000 were Catholics. Lefebvre was regarded as successful, increasing the number of priests, religious sisters, as well as the number of churches.

On September 22, 1948 Lefebvre, while continuing as Vicar Apostolic of Dakar, received additional responsibilities: Pope Pius XII appointed him Apostolic Delegate to French Africa. In this capacity he was the papal representative to the Church authorities in 46 dioceses "in continental and insular Africa subject to the French Government, with the addition of the Diocese of Reunion, the whole of the island of Madagascar and the other neighbouring islands under French rule, but excluding the dioceses of North Africa, namely those of Carthage, Constantine, Algiers and Oran." With this new responsibiity he was given the titular archepiscopal see of Arcadiopolis in Europa together with the title "Archbishop".

As Apostolic Delegate, Lefebvre's chief duty was the building up of the ecclesiastical structure in French Africa. Pope Pius XII wanted to move quickly towards a proper hierarchy (dioceses with bishops, instead of vicariates and apostolic prefectures). Lefebvre was responsible for selecting these new bishops. On September 14, 1955 Lefebvre was promoted to be the first Archbishop of Dakar.

In 1958 Pope Pius XII died and was succeeded by Pope John XXIII. Lefebvre was appointed by the latter to the Central Preparatory Commission for the Second Vatican Council. In 1959 he was replaced as Apostolic Delegate to French Africa, although he continued as Archbishop of Dakar until January 23, 1962, when he was transferred to the diocese of Tulle in France, retaining his personal title of archbishop.

Superior General of the Holy Ghost Fathers

On July 26, 1962 the Chapter General of the Holy Ghost Fathers elected Lefebvre Superior General. Lefebvre was widely respected for his experience in the mission field. On the other hand, certain progressive members of his congregation, particularly in France, considered his administrative style authoritarian and desired radical reforms. On August 7, 1962 Lefebvre was given the titular archiepiscopal see of Synnada in Phrygia.

Lefebvre was increasingly criticized by influential members of his large religious congregation who considered him was out-of-step with modern Church leaders and the demand of bishops' conferences, particularly in France, for modernization. A general chapter of the Holy Ghost Fathers was convened in Rome in September 1968 to debate the direction of the congregation after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The first action of the chapter was to name several moderators to lead the chapter's sessions instead of Lefebvre. Lefebvre then handed in his resignation as Superior General to Pope Paul VI. He would later say that it had become impossible for him to remain Superior of an Order which no longer wanted or listened to him.

Second Vatican Council

As a member of the Central Preparatory Commission for the Second Vatican Council, Lefebvre took part in the discussions about the draft documents (schema) submitted to the bishops for consideration at the Council. During the first session of the Council (October to December 1962), he became concerned about the direction the Council's deliberations were taking.

Lefebvre took a leading part in a study group of bishops at the Council which organized eventually became known as the Coetus Internationalis Patrum (International Group of Fathers).

A major area of concern at the Council was the debate about the principle of religious liberty. During the Council's third session (September to November 1964) Pope Paul VI appointed Lefebvre to a special commission to discuss the draft document on the topic, this met with protests from a number of more liberal cardinals, and then responsibility for amending the document was moved to the more liberal Christian Unity office. Lefebvre and Cardinal Ottaviani had proposed instead a constitution that would proclaim the principle of religious tolerance, but not of absolute freedom of religion in the public sphere, which they deemed relativistic. The Coetus Internationalis Patrum did, however, manage to get the preliminary vote (with suggestions for modifications) on the document put off until the fourth session of the Council, but were unable to prevent the adoption, on 7 December 1965, of the final text of the declaration Dignitatis humanae by the overwhelming majority of the Council. The claim by some that this overwhelming majority was due to intense lobbying by the reformist wing of Council Fathers among those prelates who initially had reservations or even objections however is not accepted by all. Lefebvre was one of those who voted against the declaration, but he was one of those who added their signature to the document, after that of the Pope, though not all present did sign. Lefebvre later declared that the sheet of paper that he signed and that was "passed from hand to hand among the Fathers of the Council and upon which everyone placed his signature, had no meaning of a vote for or against, but signified simply our presence at the meeting to vote for four documents." However, the paper on which his signature appears, and which was not "the relatively unimportant attendance sheet which Lefebvre recalled in his interview", bears "the title Declaratio de Libertate Religiosa (along with the titles of three other documents) at the top," and "(t)he fathers were informed that if they wished to sign one or more documents, but not all of them, they could make a marginal annotation beside their name, specifying which documents they did or did not wish to sign. No such annotation is found beside the names of either Lefebvre or de Castro Mayer, which proves that they were prepared to share in the official promulgation of that Declaration on Religious Liberty which they later publicly rejected."

The Society of Saint Pius X

After retiring from the post of Superior General of the Holy Ghost Fathers, Lefebvre was approached by traditionalists from the French Seminary in Rome who had been refused the tonsure because of their traditional views asking for a conservative seminary to complete their studies. After directing them to the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, Lefebvre was urged to teach these seminarians personally. In 1969, he received permission from the local bishop to establish a seminary in Fribourg which opened with nine students, moving to Ecône in 1971.

Lefebvre proposed to his seminarians the establishment of a society of priests without vows. In November 1970, Bishop François Charrière of Fribourg established, on a provisional (ad experimentum) basis for six years, the International Priestly Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) as a "pious union".

The French bishops treated the Ecône seminary with suspicion and referred to it as a wildcat seminary. They indicated that they would incardinate none of the seminarians.

In November 1974, two Belgian priests carried out a rigorous inspection on the instructions of a commission of cardinals, producing, it was said, a favourable report. However, while at Ecône, they expressed a number of theological opinions that the seminarians and staff judged to be scandalous. In what he later described as a mood of "doubtlessly excessive indignation", the Archbishop wrote a "Declaration" in which he strongly attacked the liberal trends that he saw as apparent in the contemporary Church.

Clash with the Vatican

In January 1975 the incumbent Bishop of Fribourg stated his wish to withdraw the SSPX's pious union status.. Though Lefebvre then had two meetings with the commission of Cardinals, the Bishop put his intention into effect on 6 May 1975, thereby officially dissolving the Society. Lefebvre continued his work regardless.

In the consistory of 24 May 1976, Pope Paul VI criticized Archbishop Lefebvre by name and appealed to him and his followers to change their minds.

On June 29, 1976, Lefebvre went ahead with planned ordinations despite receiving letters from Rome forbidding them. As a result Lefebvre was suspended a collatione ordinum, i.e., forbidden to ordain any priests. A week later, the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops informed him that, to have his situation regularized, he needed to ask the Pope's pardon. Lefebvre responded with a letter claiming that the modernisation of the Church was a "compromise with the ideas of modern man" originating in a secret agreement between high dignitaries in the Church and senior Freemasons prior to the Council. Lefebvre was then notified that, since he had not apologised to the Pope, he was suspended a divinis, i.e., he could no longer legally administer any of the sacraments. Lefebvre said that he had been forbidden from celebrating the new rite of Mass, as if, Pope Paul VI remarked, "he thought he dodged the penalty by administering the sacraments using the previous formulas."

Lefebvre was received in audience by Paul VI on 11 September 1976, and one month later the Pope wrote to him, repeating the appeal he had made to him at the audience. In 1978, sixty days after his election, Pope John Paul II received Lefebvre in audience, again without concrete results for either side.

Ecône Consecrations

In a 1987 sermon Lefebvre, now aged 81, announced his intention to consecrate a bishop to carry on his work after his death. This was controversial as under Catholic canon law, the consecration of a bishop requires the permission of the Pope.

Although, on 5 May 1988, Lefebvre signed an agreement with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, by which, as part of an arrangement by which the situation of the Society of St Pius X would be regularized, one bishop would be consecrated for it Lefebvre came to the view that he was obliged both to reject that arrangement and to ordain a successor, if necessary without papal approval. The Pope appealed to him not to proceed in "a schismatic act", warning of "theological and canonical consequences".

Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated four SSPX priests; Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson, Alfonso de Galarreta and Bernard Fellay; with Bishop Emeritus Antônio de Castro Mayer of Campos, Brazil, as co-consecrator.

On 2 July Pope John Paul II condemned the consecration in the apostolic letter Ecclesia Dei, in which he stated that the consecration "constitute[d] a schismatic act", and that, by virtue of canon 1382 of the Code, all the bishops involved were automatically excommunicated.

Lefebvre declared that he had not withdrawn his submission to the Pope and that the crisis in the Church justified the consecrations, although in the apostolic letter Ecclesia Dei the Holy See rejected this argument as Lefebvre had been served with express canonical warnings.


Archbishop Lefebvre died in 1991 at the age of 85 from cancer in Martigny, Switzerland and is buried in the vault at the society's international seminary in Ecône, Switzerland.

Episcopal Succession

Episcopal Lineage
Consecrated by: Achille Cardinal Lienart
Date of consecration: September 18, 1947
Consecrator of
Bishop Date of consecration
Georges-Henri Guibert February 19, 1950
Emile-Elie Verhille December 21, 1951
Gordon Anthony Pantin March 19, 1968
Bernard Tissier de Mallerais June 30, 1988
Richard Williamson June 30, 1988
Alfonso de Galarreta June 30, 1988
Bernard Fellay June 30, 1988
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