Continuing our serialised life of Mgr. Lefebvre as told to the Sisters of the Society at
St. Michel we look this month at Mgr. Lefebvre’s appointment as Apostolic Delegate
and the expansion of the missions in the time before the Council.
So, now that I was Apostolic Delegate, if there was a bishop to be appointed I had to go and see the Superior General of the Congregation concerned which meant travelling to Rome where most of them were to be found. Everything had to be discussed and of course I couldn’t forget to consult the Congregation of the Propaganda. I also had to establish the Delegation Apostolic distinct from the diocese – the diocesan Curia and the delegation had to be kept separate. I also had to make an effort to respond to the bishops asking for teaching brothers or nuns for their dioceses. So, I kept in contact with the Superiors General of the religious Congregations to encourage them to send sisters to Africa, wherever I’d been asked to send them. I made the proposals. They were very, very busy years but I must admit I hadn’t expected them to be such encouraging years, even inspiring because I saw all those dioceses, the development of the missions from 1946 onwards between the war and the Council, a good ten or fifteen years.
There was an extraordinary expansion of the missions, quite extraordinary! They built seminaries, ordained priests. Many religious Congregations came and, because they had priests, could send missionaries. They started and increased the missions, the convents, all types of institution. There were sisters for the dispensaries and the hospitals. I brought in the missionary Franciscan sisters of Mary to work in the hospitals, the Sisters of St. Thomas of Villeneuve, nursing sisters… There was a large number of teaching sisters who came to Africa to help. It was a magnificent expansion, extraordinary. It was really encouraging. Those were great years.
Every year I went to see Pope Pius XII which obviously gave me a chance to meet all sorts of people in the Roman Curia. I had to go and see the Congregation for religious, the Propaganda, the Holy Office and the Secretary of State. As Apostolic Delegate I was, like the nuncios, answerable to the Secretariat of State, which gave me a secret code to conduct any correspondence. I also had to give reports on the state of all the dioceses and this necessarily put me in touch with many cardinals and monsignori, in fact with the whole Roman Curia.
I was very aware that some people in Rome were behind me and fortunately the Pope was too. The Holy Father was a great encouragement which was a big help. I could also rely on Cardinal Tardini from the Secretariat of State. But there were also others – including Mgr. Montini (the future Paul VI), Mgr. Martin, who was working in the Secretariat of State at that time and various other members of the Propaganda – who behaved as if I had robbed them of a position. You see, I was Apostolic Delegate which was almost like a nuncio. And I hadn’t been through the usual channels of being secretary at a nunciature, secretary of this and that. I hadn’t had a diplomatic career. “You haven’t been through the Academy of Noble Ecclesiastics in Rome which trains future diplomats and nuncios… To become Archbishop of Dakar straight away and then on top of that Apostolic Delegate! You’re an intruder! You’ve pinched one of our jobs!” There was certainly a bit of mistrust…
In 1951, Monsignor with his sister,
Mother Marie-Gabriel and his brother Rene.
I came to the end of my term of office as Apostolic Delegate in 1959. Now, Pope Pius XII had died in
1958 and it was he who had appointed me and I can truly say, supported me. I saw him almost every year which was obviously a great encouragement and consolation for me. He had been a real man of God, a man of the Church. On my trips to Paris as Apostolic Delegate I would sometimes meet up with Mgr. Roncalli at the nunciature. [ Mgr. Roncalli was the Apostolic Nuncio in France from 1944 – 53. He was appointed Patricarch of Venice and Cardinal in 1953 and in 1958 was elected Pope, taking the name of John XXIII.] Every time I was in town he not only invited me but absolutely insisted on seeing me. Once he said to me, “You know, in my opinion, people like you who have a diocese shouldn’t also be Apostolic Delegate. I don’t think it’s a good idea, I have to disagree with the Pope there.”
Well, that wasn’t up to me, it was none of my business. But that’s what he said. So, of course, when he became Pope in 1958 I said to myself, “You know, it won’t be long now. You’ll probably get a call from Rome telling you to give up one thing or the other.” And in fact that is exactly what happened.
Less than a year later I got a letter from Rome asking me to choose between remaining Archbishop of Dakar or Apostolic Delegate since the two positions were to be kept separate from now on. I wrote back, “Since I did not choose to be either one or the other it’s hardly up to me to choose which one I should now give up. I leave it completely up to the competent authorities who make such appointments; they must decide whether I should remain as Apostolic Delegate or Archbishop of Dakar.
In reply, I got an answer which was typical of the Curia,” Since you have chosen to remain in the office of Archbishop of Dakar that is what you will do and you are hereby relieved of your duties of Apostolic Delegate.”
Can you imagine! I’ve still got the letter with Rome’s reply. They didn’t want to take responsibility you
see so to get out of it they phrased the letter like that “Since you have chosen to stay on as Archbishop of
So it turned out that I remained the Archbishop of Dakar but I was no longer Apostolic Delegate. That
continued from 1959 until 1962 though I no longer had the responsiblilities of all the other dioceses as in the
past. Because I could now spend my time looking after my diocese, my auxiliary, Mgr. Guibert, was no longer
strictly necessary and so was appointed the bishop of Reunion.