The political situation were coming to a head after the war. In the colonies the wind of change was blowing, in fact from the United States. It was an independence – political, economic and religious – which was even favoured by much of the clergy. In the religious sphere independence simply meant replacing European bishops with African ones.
I, too, in Dakar, along with the other bishops felt that we were becoming a liability, unwanted, we ought to give way to the Africans. There didn’t seem to be a problem as long as Rome agreed and that seemed in fact to be the case. I had heard Mgr. Constantini from the Congregation of the Propaganda say something which seemed to me to be quite extraordinary and indeed completely false. “If you think it’s European bishops who are going to convert Africa and the other mission countries, you’re wrong” he said. “We’ve got to have African bishops.” That’s very nice to have African bishops, indeed I was not against the idea of African bishop but they would also need to know what they were doing and they would have to be able to continue the work of the apostolate.
In January 1962 things were speeding up, I could feel it. As I was a member of the preparatory commission for the Council I had to go to Rome quite frequently. I took advantage of this to write a letter to the Propaganda saying, “Well, if you want to replace me with an African I would be willing to resign and return to Europe. I don’t have a problem with that”. Well, they wrote back, “We accept your resignation and await your return to Europe”.
At the same time I asked orally to wait six months before accepting another appointment wherever. There was going to be a General Chapter of the Holy Ghost Fathers on 22nd August, 1962. Now, it seemed to me, from talking to some of my confreres that there was a possibility, though I had nothing to do with it, nonetheless it was even probable that I would be elected Superior General.
If I was elected I really wanted to improve my English which was quite poor, since we had an enormous number of English speaking members of our Congregation, a tremendous number of parishes in America and so on. We had a lot of apostolate in the English speaking countries and since I didn’t speak English fluently this delay in being appointed would make it easier for me to learn.
“No, no, no; quite out of the question. You must be a bishop in France!” they said. A bishop in France, indeed. Well, we’d see about that. I knew what the bishops of France thought of me. In a certain sense they feared me because I was a traditionalist, an integrist, even then, because I had been a supporter of Jean Ousset.
Jean Ousset had founded a movement for the laity called “La Cité Catholique“. I often visited Solesmes and one day the prior of Solesmes said to me while I was still in Dakar, “Monsignor, you should support these good people. They are very brave and they have a very strong faith; they’re very determined and are trying to liaise with the bishops but the bishops don’t trust them and so they’re not being very supportive. It would help them a lot if you went to see them and gave them your support, promising to help them to restore Catholic principles”.
So, I got in touch with them. They then published a book called “Pour qu’il règne” [That he may reign] which was sort of like their charter. It was a big book, a beautiful book which is well worth reading, even today. We read through it at Ecône a few times because it’s a marvellous book, full of the faith of Christendom, faith in Our Lord and in His social reign, a marvellous book. They asked me to write a preface so I wrote back to them and I wrote the preface. The bishops in France, who were against the Cité Catholique movement were furious.
“There you are, that’s all we needed, Mgr. Lefebvre sticking his nose in our affairs and writing a letter for Cité Catholique“.
This picture was taken during the celebration for the centenary
of the Congregation of the Holy Ghost. (1858-1958)
I didn’t get a very warm welcome. The proof of this can be seen in the fact that John XXIII was absolutely determined for me to have a diocese in France and, because I was an archbishop, I should get an archdiocese. That would have been what should have happened. And in fact there was an archdiocese vacant at the time, in Albi. I could well have been the Archbishop of Albi which was not such an important diocese anyway.
Aha, but the bishops of France had given the Pope an ultimatum. “If you absolutely must give Archbishop Lefebvre a diocese in France we would ask that:
First: He shouldn’t be a member of the Assembly of Cardinals and Archbishops.
At that time there was no such thing as bishops’ conferences which brought together all bishops. There was simply an Assembly of the Cardinals and Archbishops which in a sort of way gave the direction for the French bishops. So, normally, since I was an Archbishop, I should have been a member of that Assembly, obviously.
Secondly: He should have only a small diocese, not an archdiocese.
Thirdly: This should not be a precedent.”
Three conditions! I read the letter to the Pope from the bishops. So, that was how they welcomed their confrère in the episcopate. That was the episcopal charity of the French bishops. Shocking! Well, I didn’t mind, I wasn’t that bothered. It wasn’t that important to be a member of the Assembly of Cardinals and bishops. And I didn’t care about the size of the diocese. A small diocese was fine with me. St. Francis de Sales used to say, “A single soul is a big diocese”. Oh well, I said, two hundred and twenty thousand souls is in fact a very large diocese!”
So, I wrote back to Rome, “I am prepared to accept whatever you give me. Once again, if it were up to me, I would rather have no diocese at all but if you put me in charge of a diocese that’s fine by me.”