A Contested Superior
As member of the Coetus Internationalis Patrum, the group of conservative conciliar Fathers who tried to counteract the progressivist schemes and resist the imprecision and erroneous opinions expressed in the aula, Archbishop Lefebvre did not have the unanimous support of his congregation. Many were disappointed to see the Superior General of their congregation take sides against the innovators. Especially since he was not the only Spiritan bishop participating in the Council.
Forty-six Spiritan bishops participated in the sessions. Eleven of them, all French-speaking, expressed their growing unease as their superior’s position as a discordant voice became more and more pronounced. They drew up a document in which they mentioned the “disobliging remarks” from French bishops and cardinals in Rome, many of whom stayed at the French Seminary. On November 30, 1963, these eleven bishops presented their grievance to Archbishop Lefebvre, reproaching him for supporting Verbe, the journal of the Cité Catholique, for criticizing the newspaper La Croix, the press organ of the bishops of France, for his letter on wearing the cassock, that was not in keeping with the spirit of the times since it went against the dispositions of the French episcopate allowing clergyman suits, for Fr. Lecuyer’s departure from the Roman Seminary, and for his choice of the Canon Berto, who was not a Spiritan, as theological adviser to assist him at the Council. They also reproached him for taking a public stance at the Council (see Philippe Béguerie, Vers Ecône, Desclée de Brouwer, 2010, p. 255-257).
His calls to order on the priestly spirit, the necessity of prayer, the religious and apostolic life, and his warnings against Communism, secularism, and materialism were scarcely in keeping with the spirit of the conciliar aggiornamento either.
The time had come for a general reassessment of the methods of apostolate and the organization of missions. Besides the liturgical novelties and the unconditional openness to any and all experiments, the religious were quite taken with psychology and psychoanalysis. The magic word was seeking personal fulfillment, as Luc Perrin explains in his study (“Mgr Lefebvre, d’une élection à une demission”, in Histoire, monde et cultures religieuses, #10, June 2009, p. 165). The Spiritan province in Holland experienced an emblematic crisis: in a few years’ time, the scholasticates, novitiates and seminaries were emptied. The habit, the rules, the community prayers, the liturgy, the taking of and fidelity to the vows, everything was abandoned or transformed (see Côme de Prévigny, “Mgr Lefebvre: d’un chapitre à l’autre” in Fideliter, #244, p. 74).
A revolutionary wind had blown in.
For a True Aggiornamento
For the time being, after the promulgation of the decree Perfectae Caritatis on October 28, 1965, Archbishop Lefebvre loyally undertook to reform his Congregation. The letter he signed on January 6, 1966 ordered the local superiors to have their communities study the conciliar texts and collect the suggestions they inspired in preparation for an administrative General Chapter. To this end, he created four commissions to prepare the reforms of the legislation, the formation, the religious discipline and the apostolate. But he intended to conduct all these reforms in such a way as to bring about a “true aggiornamento of the congregation regarding the religious virtues.”
Amidst all the talk of “independent learning and independent training”, Archbishop Lefebvre spoke up forcefully against this “abdication of authority in what is its essential role,” and against “the lack of realism which ends up causing chaos and indiscipline, represents a bonus to those who are daring and strong-headed, and leads to good, humble, and submissive religious being scorned.”
“Let us have our aggiornamento not in the spirit of a destructive neo-Protestantism that ruins the sources of sanctity” but “driven by the holy desires that have inspired all saints who were involved in reform. They were reformers because they loved our Lord on the Cross, and practiced obedience, poverty, and chastity. There, they acquired the spirit of sacrifice, oblation, and prayer which made them into apostles.” (Bp. Tissier, p. 364).
Despite his efforts to limit the effects of the conciliar reforms, a general slackness was spreading in the congregation. The first thing to go was the discipline of the religious life, but there were also many departures and a lack of perseverance among the candidates, and the life of prayer and contemplation was depreciated, giving way to activism in the accomplishment of the congregation’s works. To remedy this situation, Archbishop Lefebvre drew up an ambitious project in the beginning of 1967, hoping to implement a better formation for members and a better preparation to the priesthood and the missionary religious life.
In the meantime, the preparations for the Chapter were well under way. He entrusted it to the prayers of Padre Pio, whom he visited on Easter Monday, 1967. The holy Capuchin took a very dim view of the changes that would soon lead his own religious family to write up new constitutions. On September 12, 1968, he would write to Pope Paul VI these revealing lines:
I pray to our Lord that the Capuchin order continue its traditions of serious religious austerity, evangelical poverty, and observance of the rule and constitutions, while renewing its vitality and interior spirit according to the directives of the Second Vatican Council.
One might as well try to make a circle square... This attitude reveals the torment so many Catholics experienced during those years.
Already published: The Story of Archbishop Lefebvre’s Resignation (1)