Missionary, bishop of Tulle (France), titular archbishop and superior general of the holy ghost fathers;b. Tourcoing, France, Nov. 29, 1905; d. Martigny, Switzerland, March 25, 1991. Marcel Lefebvre was one of eight children of René and Gabrielle Lefebvre. Madame Lefebvre, a pious but demanding mother who predicted that her son Marcel would play a "great role" in the church, died in 1938. Marcel's father, a rigid disciplinarian with monarchist political views, was active in the French underground during World War II. Captured by the Nazis, he died in Sonnenburg Prison at age 62 in 1944.
Marcel studied for the priesthood at the French seminary in Rome. After receiving degrees in philosophy and theology, he was ordained on Sept. 21, 1929 and subsequently appointed to the working-class parish of Mariasde-Lomme, an industrial suburb of Lille, France. Three years later, through the influence of his older brother René, a priest member of the Holy Ghost Fathers, Marcel joined the same congregation. He was sent to Gabon, where he served as rector of a seminary and in various missionary apostolates in French Equatorial Africa.
Lefebvre returned to France in 1945 to head the training school of the Holy Ghost Fathers at Mortain. Two years later he returned to Africa, was ordained a bishop, and named vicar-apostolic of Dakar by Pope PiusXII. In September 1948, Lefebvre was appointed apostolic delegate for the whole of French-speaking Africa, a position he held for the next 11 years. He returned again to France in 1959 and was appointed bishop of the diocese of Tulle by Pope John XXIII. In 1962, when he was elected superior general of the Holy Ghost Fathers, the pope named him titular archbishop of Synnada in Phrygia.
Between 1960 and 1962, Archbishop Lefebvre served on the Central Preparatory Commission charged with producing the schemata presented at the Second Vatican Council. Although he later professed that he approached Vatican II with high hopes and an open mind, his work on the Preparatory Commission quickly led to disillusionment. During the Council debates, Lefebvre's opposition to the new theological currents intensified. He was a founder of the International Group of Fathers (Coetus Internationalis Patrum) an organization of conservative prelates who maneuvered to uphold tradition against the liberal-progressive elements pressing for change. Lefebvre sided with the conservatives in all the major Council debates and refused to sign the conciliar documents on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes ) and the Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae ).
Seminary at Econe. In 1968 Lefebvre resigned as head of the Holy Ghost Fathers in a dispute with members of the Chapter General over reform of the order in keeping with the Council directives. He then moved to Rome to retire but, by his own account, was sought out by a group of young men who were looking for someone to direct them in traditional priestly formation. Lefebvre, who had previously directed a small group of conservative seminarians to the French seminary in Rome, subsequently encouraged them to pursue their studies at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. He abandoned this course of action when he became convinced that the university—like the Church itself—was "infected" with modernism. In June 1969 he gained permission from Bishop Charriere of Fribourg to establish a house for seminarians and with the approval of Bishop Adam of Sion, Lefebvre obtained a large house belonging to the canons of Saint Bernard in the canton of Valias, Switzerland. This property became the Econe seminary, opening formally on Oct. 7, 1970. The following month, Bishop Charriere canonically established Lefebvre's priestly fraternity as the Fraternité Sacredotale de Pie X (the Society of Saint Pius X)—named after the Pope known as the "scourge of modernists."
Lefebvre's seminary quickly developed a reputation as a traditionalist stronghold committed to the Tridentine rite, to Thomistic theology, and to a general repudiation of the reforms of Vatican II. In the fall of 1974, in response to Lefebvre's escalating critique of the Council and continuing use of the (then prohibited) Tridentine Mass, and in response to pressures from French bishops
who opposed Lefebvre's "rebel seminary," the Vatican announced an investigation of Econe. On November 21, in reaction to the "scandal" occasioned by remarks made by the two Belgian priests who carried out the visitation, Lefebvre issued an acerbic declaration denouncing the neo-modernist and neo-Protestant tendencies that were contributing to the "demolition of the Church, to the ruin of the priesthood, to the destruction of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the sacraments, to the disappearance of religious life, and to naturalist and Teilhardian teaching in universities, seminaries, and catechetics…." Lefebvre renounced the new Mass as the preeminent symbol of all postconciliar trends opposed to "orthodoxy and the never-changing Magisterium." He pronounced Vatican II "entirely corrupt" and asserted that fidelity to the true Church could only be assured by a "categorical refusal" of the Council.
In February 1975, Lefebvre was asked to go to Rome for a "discussion" with curia officials. Shortly after the meeting, his Declaration was condemned as "unacceptable on all points." In spite of this reprimand, a public rebuke by Pope Paul VI, and an order to close his seminary, Lefebvre continued his traditionalist initiatives. On July 22, 1976 he was officially suspended a divinis for refusing a direct Vatican order prohibiting ordinations. Defying the suspension in August, the "rebel archbishop" gave a controversial and emotional sermon during a public and previously planned Mass at Lille. He denounced the "bastard sacraments," the "adulterous union of the Church with the Revolution," and the ecumenical dialogues with Protestants—while reiterating the call for the re-establishment of the temporal power of the Church wherever possible.
For the next 12 years, communication between Lefebvre and the Vatican remained open. The archbishop corresponded with Pope Paul VI and his successors and answered various doctrinal queries from the Vatican. While these discussions proceeded without resolve, Lefebvre's priestly fraternity steadily expanded its international network of traditionalist publishing enterprises, chapels, schools, priories, and seminaries. Lefebvre traveled extensively on behalf of the Society, giving spiritual conferences to his priests and supporters and bringing the traditional sacraments to beleaguered groups of traditionalist Catholics.
Excommunication and Death. Following the election of Pope John Paul II (1978) the atmosphere in Rome regarding the "Econe affair" turned more conciliatory. Lefebvre met personally with John Paul II on Nov. 18, 1978. Although the expectation of rapprochement was high, negotiations between Lefebvre and the Vatican remained at an impasse throughout the 1980s. In 1983, Lefebvre retired as superior general of the Society and chose Father Franz Schmidberger, a German priest, as his successor.
While appearing publicly irenic and willing to reach some accommodation with Church officialdom, Lefebvre continued to equivocate on his position on Vatican II and on the doctrinal integrity of the new (Novus Ordo) Mass. In October 1983, he increased pressure on the Vatican by intimating that he would ordain an episcopal successor, with or without papal permission.
Aging and in ill health, Lefebvre renewed this threat again in 1987 during the June ordinations at Econe when he announced his "Operation Survival" for tradition. A new round of Vatican negotiations ensued, culminating the following year in the archbishop's signing a May 5, 1988 protocol granting him much of the substance of his previous demands: official recognition of the Society, semi-independence from diocesan bishops, and permission to continue to use the Tridentine liturgy. On the critical issue of a successor, Lefebvre received permission to ordain one bishop.
The long-sought solution to the "Econe problem" proved short-lived, however. Lefebvre promptly withdrew his assent to the protocol the following day. Insisting that the Vatican was stalling and had not collaborated effectively, he demanded a June 30 date for the ordinations and the right to ordain more than one episcopal successor. These demands were refused. Lefebvre, in turn, proceeded with his plans to "perpetuate tradition" in spite of a flurry of last minute Vatican pleas. On June 30, 1988, under a tent church constructed in the shadow of his flagship seminary in Econe, he ordained four of his priests as bishops. Lefebvre and his new bishops incurred immediate excommunication—along with Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer of Campos, Brazil, a longtime supporter of Lefebvre's, who attended the ordinations.
Following his excommunication, Lefebvre's contact with the Vatican diminished, although several overtures were undertaken from Rome to reopen the conversation. Through his writing and public pronouncements, Lefebvre maintained that his excommunication was "absolutely null and void." His denunciations of Vatican II, the conciliar Church, the de-Christianization of society, and the subversion of Catholicism by a cabal of Freemasons, communists, and liberal and modernist forces within it continued unabated.
In the early hours of March 25, 1991, following surgery for the removal of an abdominal tumor, Marcel Lefebvre died in Martigny in the Canton of Valais near Econe, Switzerland.
Archbishop Lefebvre's serene and tranquil public demeanor and deep personal piety belied a resolute and doctrinaire mind. His many years of seminary and episcopal experience sharpened his administrative acumen and political sagacity in dealing with the internal affairs of his expanding priestly fraternity and with Vatican officials. To his opponents and detractors he was an incorrigible reactionary whose conservative religious views and rigid ecclesiology paralleled the ancien regime political thinking of France's extreme right-wing elements. From the magisterial perspective Lefebvre became a recalcitrant and disobedient servant who refused to recognize an ecumenical council, broke the bonds of ecclesial unity, and led his followers into a schism because of his "incomplete and contradictory" notion of the Church's living tradition.
To many of his supporters, however, the French archbishop was a "saint," a modern day Athanasius, an instrument of Providence who heroically exposed the "false spirit" of Vatican II and who acted to save the Church from its betrayal by a modernist bureaucracy and the forces of subversion that had long conspired against it.
Throughout his controversy with the Vatican, the "rebel archbishop" presented his actions in the rhetoric of classical sectarianism: as pristine and uncorrupted initiatives through which he and his supporters alone maintained continuity with the true faith. He died professing that he had done no more than "hand down" what he had received by his own training and ecclesial mandate.
Bibliography: y. congar. Challenge to the Church: The Case of Archbishop Lefebvre (Huntington IN 1976). j. hanu, Vatican Encounter: Conversations with Archbishop Lefebvre, trans. E. Shosberger (Kansas City KS 1978). m. davies, Apologia Pro Marcel Lefebvre, Vols. I, II, III (Dickinson TX 1980, 1984, 1988). m. lefebvre, A Bishop Speaks: Writings and Addresses, 1963-1975 (Edinburgh n.d.); I Accuse the Council (Dickinson TX 1982); An Open Letter to Confused Catholics (Herefordshire, England 1986). f. laisney, Archbishop Lefebvre and the Vatican, 1987-1988 (Dickinson TX 1989). w. dinges, "Roman Catholic Traditionalism," in m.e. marty and r.s. appleby, eds., Fundamentalisms Observed, Vol. I (Chicago 1991): 66-101. The Angelus XI:7 (July 1988); XIV:5/6 (May/June 1991).
[w. d. dinges]