The Year of All Dangers
On March 7, 1968, the weekly Rivarol published an article by Archbishop Lefebvre entitled: “Some Light on the Present Crisis in the Church.” This public stance caused quite a stir among the members of the Congregation of the Holy Ghost. The Superior General denounced the “doctrines that question the truths considered until now to be the immutable foundations of the Catholic Faith” and expressed his dismay at seeing them spread inside the Church by the action of her ministers. He recalled the divine foundation of the institution of the Church and the assistance of the Holy Ghost, promised to the Magisterium in order to reject error and heresy. He lashed out at the “joint efforts of the Communists and Freemasons to modify both the Magisterium and the hierarchical structure of the Church.” In their eyes, collegiality and the spirit of democracy are the perfect means to “ruin the Faith by corrupting the Magisterium of the Church, to stifle personal authority by making it depend upon multiple organisms that it is far easier to infiltrate and influence.”
Archbishop Lefebvre recalled how Christ asked persons, the Apostles, and not a collective group, to feed his flock. The Magisterium can never be made subject to a majority. In both teaching and governing, collegiality paralyzes authority and makes the salt of the Gospel lose its savor:
Only in our times has there begun to be talk of the Church in a permanent state of Council, of the Church in continuous collegiality. The results have not taken long to appear. Everything is upside down: the Faith, morals, discipline.” The consequences could already be seen: “The Church’s power of resistance to Communism, heresy and immorality has considerably diminished.
Lucid and clearsighted as it was, the article was bitterly discussed in the congregation and earned its author and the Provincial of France several letters of protest. At the seminary of Chevilly, the director, professors and students voiced their unease and their refusal. Fr. Hirtz, General Councilor, wrote to Fr. Morvan, the Provincial of France, on April 12 to tell him just how well he understood and shared the various reactions. He believed that the Superior General’s declarations, publicly expressed in a “classified” journal, “cause a serious prejudice, sow division and disarray among the members of the Congregation and, alas, compromise the success of our upcoming General Chapter” (Béguerie, p. 405).
The Opening of the Chapter
This was the atmosphere when the General Chapter began in Rome on Sunday, September 8, 1968.
In his report, Archbishop Lefebvre proposed several reforms, such as entrusting the General Assistants and Councilors with more responsibilities, reorganizing the provinces, postponing the date of religious professions, accepting non-religious missionary candidates, etc. He also presented the resignation of the General Council, but this did not mean that the congregation was without a head.
In fact, the Chapter was supposed to be purely administrative, since the superiors had been elected in 1962 for a twelve-year term. Archbishop Lefebvre intended to go to the end of his term, but in 1967, he began to consider resigning. After an interview with Cardinal Antoniutti, prefect of the Congregation for Religious, on March 14, 1968, he wrote to tell him on May 7 of his decision to resign from his charge. Indeed, it would have been difficult for him to remain, as his Assistants had announced to him their intention of resigning as soon as the Chapter opened, “no matter what” (Perrin, p. 167).
During the first work session, on Monday, September 9, the chapter members neutralized the powers of the Superior General in the direction of the Chapter. In order to do so, they abolished the two-thirds majority rule prescribed in the Constitutions. A simple majority was then enough to adopt the following motion to relegate the Superior General to the role of an honorary president and hand the direction over to an elected central committee. Archbishop Lefebvre protested, asking that the Superior General be president by right of this Committee in charge of directing the Chapter’s work. In the end, his request was refused by a vote of 63 to 40 on Wednesday, September 11. What a humiliation!
The chapter members did, however, accept the presence of the Secretary General with a vote of 54 to 52. Whatever denials were later made, it is clear that the Chapter was organized democratically in order to “make a profound reform by returning to the Gospels, to the founders, and by adequately adapting to today’s world” (Fr. Morvan’s report on the departure of Archbishop Lefebvre).
At 11:30 a.m., the First Assistant announced that he would preside over the session, and Archbishop Lefebvre left the Chapter. The work continued in a peculiar atmosphere. The rules in effect were suspended, the secrecy on the deliberations was abolished, the novitiate was replaced by periods of spiritual formation and internships, obedience gave way to co-responsibility, dialogue, team work, and group dynamics, and the missions became a “dialogue of salvation” in the ecumenical spirit of the times. Some students and young fathers appealed to the Chapter as “experts on the mentality of young people” and this appeal was voted in (Béguerie, p. 442).
On September 30, at the 4:00 p.m. general assembly, Archbishop Lefebvre reappeared and read a text he had prepared during his stay in Assisi, where he had gone to reflect and pray. He exhorted his brethren to remain faithful to the spirit of Fr. Libermann and to strive for holiness, which is essentially apostolic. The means to do so are “the religious life and community life which bring about the life of self-denial, the life of prayer, and the life of fraternal charity...”. He lamented the state of mind that was spreading and leading to the rejection of these means:
Their individualism, their selfishness, and their thirst for freedom and independence have prevailed against the religious life, community life, the life of obedience, and prudence with respect to the world, the life of real detachment from the goods and comforts of this world. They have prevailed against the realities of life in community which is our mortification and compels us to practice charity and live the life of prayer.
On October 4, the freshly resigned Superior General went to the Sacred Congregation for Religious. In the absence of the prefect, Cardinal Antoniutti, he was received by Archbishop Mauro the new secretary. Archbishop Lefebvre explained to him that he was no longer a member of any committee and that he was no more than a simple spectator of the revolution in progress. The secretary responded:
You understand, after the Council, you have to understand...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! (Bishop Tissier, p. 373).
The authority of the Superior General collapsed because it was not supported. There was nothing left but to throw in the towel. The final word had been spoken!
For the Honor of Archbishop Lefebvre
During the Chapter, very few defended Archbishop Lefebvre and the authority of the Superior General. Luc Perrin quotes the beautiful declaration of the Brazilian Fr. Cristovao Arnaud Freire on September 20:
The goal of the Chapter is to adapt, not to destroy... It is surprising to hear criticism of the Pope, the bishops and the Superiors from priests who are among us but who are really enemies of the Church and who let their passions lead them. From the very beginning, the Chapter has been dominated by a pressure group moved by personal grievances against Archbishop Lefebvre and incapable of distinguishing between his person and the Superior General... This Chapter is really a confabulation. That is why he has decided to withdraw from it and to return to the bush, contenting himself with praying to Our Lady of Fatima for the authors of all this evil.
Archbishop Lefebvre continued to take care of the day-to-day business and strived to maintain cordial relations with all. He even made suggestions to the Chapter as to the nature and end of the institute. In the end, Fr. Joseph Lecuyer was elected Superior General on October 28. On November 1, Archbishop Lefebvre left the General House and took refuge at the Institute of the Holy Ghost, on Via Machiavelli. Thus ended his mandate as superior, reduced to naught by the conciliar torment.
The last public act of Archbishop Lefebvre was to appear at an audience granted by Pope Paul VI to the members of the Chapter on November 11, 1968. After that, he withdrew for good. Providence had its plans. One day, he had confided to Fr. Michael O’Carroll: “If ever I have to leave the congregation, I will found a traditional seminary and in three years I will have 150 seminarians” (Bishop Tissier, p. 375).
A new chapter was about to begin. It would be written in Ecône.
-- Fr. Christian Thouvenot