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.