Rorate Caeli

Lefebvre and the 1988 Consecrations 30 years on: Reliving the Events of 1988
Part I

The agitation in the Vatican halls had begun in early July, 1987, as reports arrived of the clear words of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in his sermon in the Mass of priestly ordinations celebrated in Ecône on July 29, 1987. The first reference was to the Assisi meeting of religious leaders a few months earlier - a historical event which to this day still mesmerizes Traditional Catholics. Lefebvre declared:

Never has history seen the Pope turning himself into some kind of guardian of the pantheon of all religions, as I have brought it to mind, making himself the pontiff of liberalism.

Let anyone tell me whether such a situation has ever existed in the Church. What should we do in the face of such a reality? Weep, without a doubt. Oh, we mourn and our heart is broken and sorrowful. We would give our life, our blood, for the situation to change. But the situation is such, the work which the Good Lord has put into our hands is such, that in face of this darkness of Rome, this stubbornness of the Roman authorities in their error, this refusal to return to the Truth and to Tradition, it seems to me that the Good Lord is asking that the Church continue. This is why it is likely that I should, before rendering an account of my life to the Good Lord, perform some episcopal consecrations.

Secret negotiations ensued. The October 18, 1987 edition of the New York Times included the great piece of Vatican news of the previous day:

The Vatican announced plans today to restore legal standing to a rebel French Archbishop and his outlawed following of traditionalist priests, in a move to mend fences with one of its most vociferous critics. The French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who rejects the changes of the Second Vatican Council and who has accused Pope John Paul II of ''blasphemy,'' spent an hour this morning with the Pope's primary exponent of orthodoxy, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Afterwards the Vatican issued a statement saying John Paul would appoint a personal representative to investigate the Archbishop's priestly order and establish new regulations for it.
A senior Vatican official said: ''I do not think that anyone is going to ask the Archbishop to sign a piece of paper saying he accepts all the documents of the Vatican Council, but if things proceed, it is because he is not out there saying what he has been saying until now.''
Before full acceptance and a new legal status can be granted to the Archbishop's priests, the Vatican must determine whether they fully understand and accept church teachings as defined in Rome, the official said. This in turn may depend on the Archbishop's willingness to call on his flock to obey the Vatican, an institution he has described as dominated by a ''liberal-Masonic mafia.''

The personal representative chosen by Pope John Paul was Cardinal Édouard Gagnon. This Apostolic Visitation to the houses of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X ( FSSPX/SSPX ) started on November 11, 1987, and lasted a whole month. The SSPX reported at the time:

The visit started on November 11, at Ecône, and lasted for a whole month. Then Msgr. Perl went to our school in Eguelshardt, our priory in Saarbrucken, the Carmel in Quiévrain. On Saturday, November 21, he came to St. Nicolas du Chardonnet in Paris, and the Cardinal arrived the next day, though intentionally after the Mass; then together they visited the French Youth Group, (MJCF), our University (Institut Universitaire Saint Pie X), and met a large group of traditional priests of the region in Paris. On November 24, they arrived at our school in St. Michel of Niherne, then the Mother House of our Sisters at St. Michel en Brenne, and the nearby Carmel at Ruffec, the Fraternity of the Transfiguration of Fr. Lecareux. At Poitiers, he took part in a meeting with many traditional priests of the area, including Fr. Reynaud (the first chaplain of the MJCF), Fr. André (of the Association Noël Pinot), Fr. Coache, the Dominican foundation of Avrillé, the Benedictine foundation of nuns at Le Rafflay, the Little Sisters of St. Francis, etc. After this, they visited our retreat house at Le Pointet, our priory and school at Unieux, the Benedictine Monastery of Le Barroux, the Dominican school at St. Pré (Brignoles), and the other Dominican novitiate and school at Fanjeaux, our school at St. Joseph des Carmes, our church at Marseilles, our priory at Lyons and our main European publishing house (Fideliter). Then another priestly meeting at Dijon, the Dominican school of Pouilly, the seminary of the Holy Curé of Ars, and returned to Ecône for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, 1987, as the visit drew to a close, Cardinal Gagnon could relate his positive impressions to the then-Superior General, Father Schmidberger:

...I want to say that we have been struck everywhere by and keep a great admiration for the piety of the persons, for the relevance and importance of the works, especially with regards to catechesis, education, and the administration of the sacraments. We certainly have in hand all that is necessary to make a very positive report.

Father Schmidberger addressed the entire Society with a letter filled with hope signed on that day:

According to his [Cardinal Gagnon's] own words, he has gathered an excellent impression of the seminaries, schools, priories, and friendly religious communities, as well as of the faithful who gather themselves around all these houses. We must now, in the weeks and months to come, accompany his efforts with our fervent prayers.

Rome did not respond officially for months. Exactly 20 years ago, in January 1988, Pope John Paul received Gagnon's report. Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, one of the priests who would be consecrated in June, recalls the rapid succession of events in his biography of Marcel Lefebvre:

By January 5, 1988, his Eminence's report was on the desk of the Pope, who read it immediately. (...) [Lefebvre] had already indicated to Cardinal Gagnon his three "demands": to guarantee independence from the diocesan bishops, the Society should have the Superior General as its Ordinary; there should be a Roman commission chaired by a Cardinal but all its members, including the Archbishop-Secretary General, must be nominated by the Superior General; finally, there should be three bishops including the Superior General himself [Proposal for regularization, annex to a letter to Cardinal Gagnon, dated Nov. 21, 1987.]

After one month of official Roman silence, on February 2, 1988, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre would once again raise the issue which had caused the Vatican to act in the previous year. In an interview to the French paper Le Figaro (published on February 4, 1988), Lefebvre would state that, if things remained the same, he would be forced to consecrate Bishops to ensure apostolic succession to the Priestly Fraternity.

In the interview, Lefebvre established a date (the following June 30) and a number of priests who would be made bishops (three).

To be continued.