Monsingor Lefebvre in his own words

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 brief tenure as Superior General of the Holy Ghost Fathers as the Second Vatican Council begins until the time of his resignation.

So, the Congregation looked after the blacks and thus spread to quite a few countries. As I mentioned last time, we were in the United States and also in Canada but Africa, whether English, French or Portuguese speaking, was the principal and major field of missionary work. We were in the West Indies: Martinique, Guadeloupe, Trinidad; in South America: French Guiana, Brazil in Amazonas as well as the Provinces of Santa Catarina and Rio in the South. In short we were everywhere where there were blacks.

It was, however, in Europe obviously, as well as Canada and the United States where the vocations came from and where our houses of formation were situated. France had the most houses since the Congregation had been founded by Father Libermann who was an Alsatian Jew (odd, but there you are). But we also had a Belgian province and one in England, Ireland, Germany and Switzerland. There was no Italian province. There were a few Italians but not many. The Italians like to join Italian Congregations, they’re very family oriented. When an Italian moves, to the United States, China or wherever, he takes his nephews, nieces, cousins and his whole family with him. He doesn’t work with the people of the country but rather imports his family to work with him. They’re very attached to their country and it’s very difficult for a non-Italian congregation to get established there. We didn’t get many German-speaking Swiss either. The French-speaking ones joined but it was more or less impossible to get established in the German-speaking part. I wondered later if it would be the same for the Society of St. Pius X but, although I didn’t take any particular precautions, we still got German Swiss, both men and women, Italians too. We’ve got some Italians, three more entered Flavigny this year which is marvellous, thanks be to God!

The Holy Ghost Fathers were, therefore, a force to be reckoned with especially with all the bishops we had. But I was elected Superior General just as the Council was beginning and it was to have a tremendous impact on the life of the Congregation.

Similarly, right from the beginning, the General Chapter had given me the responsibility of relocating the Mother House which at that time was in Lhomond St. in Paris along with the Provincial House. This often caused all sorts of problems so the General Chapter decided that the Mother House had to be transferred to Rome where the Mother Houses of many other religious congregations were. So, in my first two years as Superior General we moved to another house in Paris and again, two years later, the Mother House was moved to Monte Mario in Rome where it still is today. Now, that was quite a lot to deal with as well as the Council and the Visitations I had to do. I had to go to a variety of countries, different places throughout the world. It was quite a job. And those who had been against me being elected Superior General took advantage of that during the Council. There was in fact a small group who didn’t like my way of thinking and they were afraid of my ‘traditionalism’. Nonetheless, in spite of that I had still been elected with a large majority.

This little group was very active. They included a number of seminary professors like Fr. Lécuyer who was in Rome. They formed a small group of intellectuals – very progressive, rather modernist and very determined. Moreover, since it seemed the Council was working in their favour they felt emboldened and took the opportunity of spreading their ideas of modernising – the aggiornamento – the Congregation.

After the Council the Pope asked all the Congregations to hold an extraordinary General Chapter in order to reform them in the spirit of the Council. Now, that was a very vague and therefore problematic and dangerous idea, very dangerous indeed.

In 1968 our Congregation, along with all the others, had to hold this chapter. I had been elected for a term of twelve years, from 1962 until 1974, so there was no necessity for me to resign in 1968, I should have remained superior for another six years. I was faced, however, with a real revolution within the Congregation. Some of the General Chapter, especially the Dutch, said they no longer wanted the constitutions to be enforced, even before they had been changed and any changes had been approved by the Congregation for Religious. Even with the General Chapter the congregations still had to submit their modified constitutions to the Congregation for Religious which would then approve or reject them. But they were not happy with that! With no authorisation from the Congregation for Religious, they wanted the chapter to be presided over by a triumvirate which meant that I, the Superior General, was not to preside over the chapter at all even though it was clearly written in the constitutions that the Superior General was to be in charge of all business discussed at the General Chapter.

When I saw what was going on I decided to have a vote to see if this triumvirate idea would be accepted by the General Chapter and when it turned out that a majority did – which basically meant getting rid of the Superior General – I resigned. They wanted the triumvirate, three fathers elected by the General Chapter, to preside and make sure that the Congregation was reformed in the spirit of the Council. I could see already that everything would be turned upside down, completely changed, and that the Congregation would adopt this new spirit which I was absolutely against and which I had fought against during the Council. The thought that I, as Superior General, would then have to sign all these proceedings which would in fact mean nothing less than the destruction of the Congregation and that I would go down in history as the one who, to all intents and purposes, had been responsible for it, was too horrible.

After the vote, then, since they wanted to get rid of me anyway, I got into the car and went back to the Mother House. On the way I popped in to the Congregation for Religious to see the Cardinal Prefect and see if he agreed with what they were up to and if they were going to get away with it. Cardinal Antoniutti wasn’t there, I think he was visiting South America at the time, and it was his next in command, the Secretary, who saw me. I explained the situation to him.

“Do you agree with all this or what?”

“Oh, you know, that’s how it is now, since the Council. In fact the Superior of the Redemptorists has just been in about the same thing… They want changes… well, at least the ones who were running the General Chapter do… Anyway, I advised the Superior General to take a trip to America and see how things worked out…”

So, he advised me to take a trip to America as well, to abandon my Congregation and let the General Chapter get on with it! Absolute madness! I said to myself, I can’t believe this, I’m not even going to discuss this with the Secretary. If that’s what he thinks I’d be wasting my time.

Back at the Mother House, I wrote a nice letter to the Pope saying that I was tendering my resignation because of what was going on in the Congregation and what I was going to have to do. I told him I couldn’t take responsibility for something like that.