The Ordinations of June 29, 1976


WHO ARE ordained to Holy Orders, whether to the diaconate or the priesthood, must first be accepted by a diocesan bishop or a religious order. The technical term for this acceptance is "incardination." It is not permitted to ordain men who will simply be wandering priests not subject any competent authority. A diocesan bishop who has accepted a candidate for Holy Orders does not necessarily have to carry out the actual ordination himself. He can authorise another bishop to conduct the ordination on his behalf (by sending dimissorial letters). Up to and including the ordinations of 1975, all those ordained at Ecône had been properly incardinated into the dioceses of bishops sympathetic to Archbishop Lefebvre. The Vatican has not suggested that there was anything in the least illicit or irregular about these ordinations.

Once it became clear that Archbishop Lefebvre could not be browbeaten into closing his Seminary a new tactic was devised by Cardinal Villot. He decided to make it impossible for the seminarians to be ordained by intimidating those bishops sympathetic to Archbishop Lefebvre to the extent that they would decline to incardinate any seminarians from Ecône into their dioceses. Young men would clearly have little incentive to enrol in, or remain in, a seminary from which they could not be ordained. Thus in his letter of 27 October 1975 to the hierarchies of the world, Cardinal Villot stated:

It is therefore now clear that the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X has ceased to exist, that those who still claim to be members of it cannot pretend-a fortiori-to escape the jurisdiction of the diocesan Ordinaries (bishops), and, finally, that these same Ordinaries are gravely requested not to accord incardination in their dioceses to the young men who declare themselves to be engaged in the service of the Fraternity.

Archbishop Lefebvre was thus faced with the dilemma of having either to incardinate his seminarians directly into the Fraternity itself or to close down the Seminary. There would have been no point in continuing it if the students were not to be ordained. He opted for the former course having taken legal advice from competent canon lawyers who advised him that, despite the letter from Pope Paul dated 29 June 1975, the entire legal process taken against the Fraternity had been so irregular that it could not be considered as having been legally suppressed. The Archbishop was further advised that, as the Vatican had permitted priests to be incardinated directly into the Fraternity on three separate occasions, it could be considered that the privilege of incardinating priests directly into the Fraternity now existed.

It is only fair to point out that canonists who are by no means unsympathetic to the Archbishop take a contrary viewpoint and accept that, from a strictly legal standpoint, the Fraternity had been legally suppressed and that the privilege of incardinating priests into it had not been adequately established.

It would be possible to devote endless pages to discussing the merits of each position but even it if is conceded, for the sake of argument, that the Vatican had the law upon its side it did not follow that the Archbishop was necessarily in the wrong. There are many orthodox Catholics who evade the necessity of considering the Archbishop's case on its merits by reducing the entire question to one of legality. "Archbishop Lefebvre is in breach of Canon Law," they argue, "therefore he is wrong."

At the risk of labouring a point which has probably been made sufficiently clear already, the Law is at the service of the Faith. It is intended to uphold the Faith and not to undermine it. Given that the manner in which the case against the Archbishop was conducted constituted and abuse of power, then he was entitled to resist.

Archbishop Lefebvre decided that he could best serve the Church by ordaining his seminarians and incardinating them into the Society of St. Pius X. The question which no Catholic of integrity can evade trying to answer honestly, is whether this decision constitutes inexcusable defiance of papal authority or a legitimate act of resistance to an abuse of power. The subsequent action taken against the Archbishop must be assessed in the light of the answer given to this question. Sanctions were imposed upon him by the Vatican; they will be detailed in their chronological sequence. Once again, the Archbishop decided to ignore them as they were simply a consequence of his refusal to accept the original command to close his Seminary. Even his worst enemies cannot accuse Archbishop Lefebvre of a lack of logic or consistency. His position is based upon one fundamental axiom: the action taken against him violates either Ecclesiastical or Natural Law, possibly both. If he is correct then his subsequent actions can be justified and the legality or illegality of subsequent Vatican decisions is irrelevant. Those who condemn the Archbishop invariably ignore this fundamental axiom and concentrate upon the legal minutiae of the subsequent sanctions. Those who support the Archbishop will do so most effectively by continually redirecting attention to this axiom rather than allowing themselves to be diverted into futile and endless discussion on these legal minutiae. It is also essential to cite the controversy within the context of the entire "Conciliar Church " where not simply any and every ecclesiastical law can be defied with impunity by Liberals but any and every article of the Catholic Faith can be denied with equal impunity.

Reduced to its simplest terms, the true problem posed by the drama of Ecône is not whether Archbishop Lefebvre is right to defy the Vatican and continue ordaining priests but whether the Vatican is right to order the most orthodox and flourishing Seminary in the West to close.

The Ordination Ceremony

In its issue of 30 June 1976, the Nouvelliste, a Swiss secular paper, carried a front page report which included the following:

Yesterday morning at Ecône, in an atmosphere of faith and spiritual radiance, there assembled, in a meadow prepared for the ceremonies, 1,500 recollected and visibly moved Catholics. There were Romans, Turinese, French from numerous provinces and also from Paris, Germans, citizens of Lichtenstein and, arriving at the very last moment, some Americans; there was an equally impressive number of Valaisans (the canton in which Ecône is situated) and, most impressive of all, a very large number of priests from different orders.

There was no great pomp or ceremony: a tent to shelter the altar, Archbishop Lefebvre and his concelebrants (i.e. the newly ordained priests), and a large red carpet before the tent.

...When the time came for his sermon, Archbishop Lefebvre, obviously moved, explained that for him this day was an exceptional feast and a dramatic moment.

During the sermon the Archbishop refers to the arrival, a day before, of a representative of the Vatican who had placed a new Missal into his hands and promised all the difficulties between the Archbishop and the Vatican would be straightened out if he would use this Missal the next day. This emissary was the Senegalese Cardinal Hyacinthe Thiandoum who had been ordained a priest and consecrated as a bishop by Archbishop Lefebvre. The Cardinal's interview with the Archbishop lasted until the early hours of the morning of 29 June and in consequence Archbishop Lefebvre had very little rest before the arduous ceremonies which faced him on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul.*

It is of some significance that despite all the invective it had poured upon the Archbishop and his Seminary, the Vatican was prepared to normalise relations at the price of the Archbishop's celebrating just one New Mass.

Apologia Pro Marcel Lefebvre, Part One, pp.201-205, by Michael Davies, Angelus Press, 1979


* Note Fr. Couture: Michael Davies says that the emissary was Cardinal Thiandoum. The Archbishop said in a conference in Ecône that it was Fr. Dhanis. This concords also with Msgr. Benelli's letter of June 25, 1976, quoted on p.200 of the same book.

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