Rorate Caeli

20 years on: Reliving the Events of 1988
Part II: The Protocol is signed

By the end of March 1988, the rumors regarding a possible reconciliation of the movement led by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and Pope John Paul II reached feverish levels in Rome and around the world.

In early April, after nine months of talks, the Pope publicly charged the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, to negotiate the terms of reconciliation. As The New York Times reported on April 9:

Pope John Paul II today personally stepped into a dispute with one of his severest critics, urging Vatican officials to heal a rift with the ultraconservative Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre of France.

Six months after the Vatican began negotiations aimed at reinstating the rebel Archbishop, John Paul issued an unusual public statement voicing ''my desire that these efforts should continue.'' The statement was in the form of a letter to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who is in charge of the talks.

The letter displayed the public will of the Pope to reach an agreement with Archbishop Lefebvre:

The necessity to distinguish that which authentically "edifies" the Church from what destroys it becomes, in this period [after the Council] a particular need of our service regarding the whole community of the faithful.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has, in the field of this ministry, a key role, as the documents on matters of faith and morals which your Dicastery has published in the last few years have been showing. Among the themes of which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has had to deal in recent times are included the problems related to the "Fraternité of Pius X", founded and guided by Archbishop M. Lefebvre.

Your Eminence is very aware of how many efforts the Apostolic See has made, from the beginning of the existence of the "Fraternité", to ensure ecclesial unity in relation to its activity. The last of such efforts was the canonical visit made by Cardinal E. Gagnon. You, Lord Cardinal, have occupied yourself with this affair in a particular way, as also your Predecessor of venerable memory, Cardinal F. Šeper. All that which the Apostolic See, which is in constant contact with the interested Bishops and Conference, does aims at the same end: that also in this case the words pronounced by the Lord in the priestly prayer, for the unity of all His disciples and followers, may be fulfilled. ...

For all this, I wish to confirm to you, Lord Cardinal, my desire that such efforts may proceed: we do not cease to wait that - under the protection of the Mother of the Church - they may wield fruits for the glory of God and for the salvation of men.

In fraternal charity.

From the Vatican, April 8, in the year 1988, tenth of the Pontificate


A letter from Cardinal Ratzinger to Archbishop Lefebvre had also been sent on March 18, asking for the appointment of two experts by the Archbishop which could meet in Rome in early April.

Three days after the Papal letter was made public, the informal commission met in Rome: Fathers Patrice Laroche and Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, chosen by Lefebvre, and Fathers Tarcisio Bertone, SDB, and Fernando Ocariz (Opus Dei), chosen by the Cardinal, with Father Benoît Duroux, OP, as moderator and under the chairmanship of Ratzinger himself.

As Lefebvre's biographer and member of the commission, future Bishop Tissier de Mallerais, recalls:

"The meeting, held on April 12 and 13 near the Holy Office, led to a declaration in five points. After adding a few corrections on May 4, Archbishop Lefebvre would decide that he could sign it, since it allowed him to speak about 'certain points of the Council and the reform of the liturgy and Canon Law that seem to him difficult to reconcile with Tradition'."
This text was the famous Protocol of May 5, 1988 (full text), of which two points were particularly important.

First, the "Roman Commission":

"A commission to coordinate relations with the different Dicasteries and diocesan bishops, as well as to resolve eventual problems and disputes, will be constituted through the care of the Holy See, and will be empowered with the necessary faculties to deal with the questions indicated above (for example, implantation of a place of worship, at the request of the faithful, where there is no house of the Society, ad mentem can. 683, par. 2)"
Secondly, the very important matter of the consecration of a bishop, chosen by the Pope from members of the society presented by Archbishop Lefebvre:

"But, for practical and psychological reasons, the consecration of a member of the Society as a bishop seems useful. This is why, in the context of the doctrinal and canonical solution of reconciliation, we suggest to the Holy Father that he name a bishop chosen from among the members of the Society, presented by Archbishop Lefebvre"
The "grave matter of Archbishop M. Lefebvre" seemed to be approaching a new phase as the skies over Rome darkened on the evening of May 5, 1988.

To be continued.


  1. Anonymous11:07 PM

    RE: SSPX and Rome

    It has been my experience that in the open forum most often, if not always, the view and position of Rome, Canon Law and experts representing the Church are made visible and audible. But in the same OPEN FORUM the SSPX position, or represantation is not visible nor audible side by side. I would find it only charitable and just if this lop sided situation and approach were resolved. To this end may I ask to air, bring to the open forum the facts, history, position and thought of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, whose biography in English was already in print in 2004 in English. To make conversations more realistic and fair, the facts need to be faced from both sides, noting that the Archbishop's position, thought or deed did not generate for its own reason, but constitute a response necessitated by a MALAISE that was not governed nor dealt with. Read the facts, and present the reasons for them from both sides of the divide. After visiting the FSSP Seminary in Denton, Nebraska for 7 months and observing their life, position and learing their history, AND then in spending 18 months at the Seminary of the SSPX at Winona, Minnesote obersving and learning of their position and history, I discovered that there are two hermetically isolated Universes in place. I may add that the SSPX had managed to preserve the faith and praxis of the Church as of before 1962, which was the only purpuse, aim and motivatgion of the late Archbishop. It's time for all of us to know the identity and present position of both sides in charity. - Fr. Stephen, o.f.m.

  2. New Catholic

    I support your need to keep moderation on. Anti-semitism is just not Catholic and cannot be tolerated. However, just criticism is and should be permitted.

    "...the problems related to the "Fraternité of Pius X", founded and guided by Archbishop M. Lefebvre."

    On the contrary, the problems existed at the level of post-conciliar double-speak: religious liberty for all except traditional Catholics; un-Catholic ecumenical policies that represent a sellout to false religions and persecute those faithful to orthodoxy; a collegial subversion of customary Roman Catholic principles of governance permitting doctrinal and liturgical devastation at diocesan level and the replacement of sound disciplinary procedures for sexually and doctrinally perverted clerics and hierarchs who persistently undermine the faith of those in the parishes with un-Catholic behaviours and values which are tantamount to disobedience against the consistent teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

    There ladies and gentlemen reside the problems - they do not lie, nor have they ever, with the SSPX.

    Empty NO churches, empty NO seminaries and empty NO convents - the illusion of the "springtime of Vatican II" and the overwhelming crisis, finally admitted to, in the church of the late second and early third millenia. Small wonder, therefore, that Rome seeks to legitimate essentially un-Catholic movements such as the Neo-Cats, the "charismatics" and Focolare, among others. How else can the rapidly dwindling fortunes of the NO be restored?

    The real answer to this crisis is actually to restore tradition but this would necessitate some humility and obedience on the part of those who falsely accuse the traditionalists of same. This would be to admit that essentially the post-conciliar pastoral experience is a complete and utter failure. This would be to admit that such Roman Catholics as SSPX and independent traditional Catholics are correct to hold fast to the traditions as handed down to us by the Apostles and the early church fathers.

  3. Anonymous3:07 AM

    Excellent post, Leong!

  4. Anonymous4:12 AM

    Thank you for this post. It is very informative.

  5. Yes, LeonG, very clear post.

  6. Anonymous12:50 PM

    I'm actually struggling with much of this.

    Do I think Marcel the Great (if JP II can be great, then Marcel certainly is) was correct in his original stance? Absolutely. Do I think he was right not to sign the document in 1988? I'm not sure. I pray he was.

    What's even more unclear now is whether Fellay should hold out. With Summorum Pontificum, we are no doubt a little better off. But the SSPX has set up expectations that will not be met in the near future -- to be able to be left alone completely, to be able to criticize certain teachings of Vatican II AND to be completely in the fold.

    So, in an odd moment of humility for me, I don't know what the right thing would be. While I remain confused, however, I secretly am relieved that someone else is waging this battle and putting their souls POSSIBLY at risk and not mine.

    I know that's selfish, and may be completely misguided, but I'm glad someone at least is taking this risk and fighting for tradition and the true Mass and Faith.

  7. Anonymous3:08 PM

    Very informative - looking forward to Part 3!

  8. Anonymous9:37 PM

    I always remember that I am now privileged to attend the Tridentine Latin Mass due to the courage and sacrifices of the SSPX. Thank you from me and my family here in Texas. You are in our prayers.

  9. Anonymous12:34 AM

    Looking at the proposals from the present, one striking thing is that there is no acknowledgement of the now admitted fact that the celebration of the old mass is licit and was never forbidden. This certainly raises a big question mark over the feasibility of any agreement - an essential principle at stake was not accepted by the Roman authorities.

  10. Anonymous4:36 AM

    While I am disappointed about SSPX decision not to reach an agreement with Rome, it must be noted that there is still NO Bishop as promised by the Protocol. As the Fraternity of St. Peter is that portion of SSPX who accepted the Protocol, where is the (1) One Bishop? This would be a sign of good faith from Rome.

  11. "While I am disappointed about SSPX decision not to reach an agreement with Rome, it must be noted that there is still NO Bishop as promised by the Protocol. As the Fraternity of St. Peter is that portion of SSPX who accepted the Protocol, where is the (1) One Bishop? This would be a sign of good faith from Rome."

    What do you call Bishop Rifan? He may not be FSSP but he certainly belongs to the worldwide TLM community in clear and visible communion with Rome.

  12. As the Fraternity of St. Peter is that portion of SSPX who accepted the Protocol...

    Could have fooled me. Was it not the PCED that tried to level the Fraternity in 1999 into the ground, and try forcing them to say the New Mass?

  13. Ottaviani - this is the fundamental agenda of The Vatican - in order to have a traditional Mass you have to accept the NO service. Even the SP makes this quite plain. This is in effect, Pope St Pius V's papal bull plus a liturgically modernistic appendix. This is impossible. This is unacceptable. To conform to this is phenomenological. The NO service paves the way for the abandonment of The Roman Catholic Faith. Were it not so then there would have been no crisis. It is the liturgy which is at the centre of the apostasy.


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