by Louis Salleron
L'Aurore --31 May 1979
On 8 April last, Palm Sunday,1the Pope addressed a long letter to "all the priests of the Church" to remind them of the nature of their priesthood, and to exhort them to remain faithful to it.
On the same day, in another much shorter letter, he asked the bishops to help their priests fulfill their mission:
Have a special solicitude for their spiritual progress, for their perseverance in the grace of the priesthood. Since it is between your hands that they pronounce - and renew each year - their priestly promises, and especially their commitment to celibacy, do everything in your power to enable them to remain faithful to these promises which are demanded by the Holy Tradition of the Church.
These two letters, especially the one to priests, had a resounding impact. The immense majority of the faithful saw in them the first attempt to come to grips with the disorder and strife which had existed for far too many years. The attitude of John Paul II was all the more appreciated because he expressed himself so clearly, yet in simple, familiar words, even affectionate in tone - characteristic features of his government - which have so endeared him to everyone since the first day of his pontificate.
In France, however, there were - there are - waverings, counter-currents, grinding of teeth, the extent of which it would not be amiss to examine in detail.
On 18 April Cardinal Renard, Archbishop of Lyons, wrote to all the priests in his diocese informing them of the Pope's letter and adding a few personal comments, of which the following are essential:
Whatever position you may hold, parish priest, chaplain (to a hospital, to some movement, to a school, or to migrants), professor, a working priest, priest of Fidei donum, priest in a religious order, each one of you is, for us, a member of the presbyterium, engaged in a ministry which we have recognized and appreciated, even if it has not been possible for us to express it to you in a fraternal way, nor as often as we would have wished.
If, as the Pope now asks us, we must make every effort possible to encourage vocations, to train new generations of candidates for the priesthood, future priests, there can be no question of slowing down pastoral initiatives for the renewal of Christian communities large or small.
We hope that the baptized, in increasing numbers, will be witnesses of the Gospel in their entire lives, that they will accept responsibilities and prepare themselves for certain "ministries." A direct link must be seen to exist between our fidelity to this aim and the evangelical exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi on evangelization in the modern world (December 1975), and the duty we have to encourage entrants to the presbyterial ministry. The one cannot be achieved without the other. Vocations always come from fervent, open communities…
We do not want to end this letter without thinking of our brothers who, having married, no longer exercise the presbyterial ministry. Let us openly remain their brothers.
Elsewhere the Cardinal informed his priests that he was going to Rome at the end of April and could therefore inform the Pope of their comments and questions.
Many priests in the diocese of Lyons interpreted the letter from their Archbishop thus:
Here is the Pope's letter. If you do not agree with him write to me and I will inform him of your opinions. Do not be afraid that I shall let you down. The Pope must be obeyed, but as he is so far away he cannot clearly evaluate our pastoral initiatives. I will explain them to him. Have confidence in me as I have in you.
A familiar stance. I am their head, therefore I will follow them.
The priests, therefore, in their turn, wrote. They were not only those from the diocese of Lyons, but those (about 30) from regions to the east of the diocese, priests who represent the association of "married priests" (sic) and priests (87) who want to form a "collective" to fight all forms of oppression and repression in the Church and Society; those who, individually, had made their views known in various publications. In all, a small minority, but a minority which represents a widespread frame of mind, protected by bureaucrats and under the progressive wing of the French Episcopate.
The two most significant documents are (1) the call for the creation of a collective which is purely revolutionary (Marxist style), and (2) the letter to the Pope from the priests living east of the diocese of Lyons, a letter disarming in its puerile insolence, but revealing a typical post-conciliar mentality. Let the readers judge for themselves. These priests said to the Pope:
Your letter reads like a message from on high and is too much in keeping with a theology which does not fully accept the orientations of the Second Vatican Council. In your letter you give the name "laicization" to what is, for us the wish to share in the lives of our people (…) We can already state that in this respect your declaration is being used by those in France who are opposed to Vatican II.
For lay Catholics who are constantly accused of being against the Council and the post-conciliar orientations, it is gratifying and consoling to discover that the Pope shares this disgrace It is nonetheless disturbing that so many stupidities can be published with so much assurance.
The Heart of the Debate
But is it a question only of stupidities? No, the debate is far more serious. It is a completely new doctrine of the priesthood which, today, is poisoning "The Church of France." According to this doctrine, the priest is no longer a man set apart and endowed, by the Sacrament of Orders, with the power to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, with the special mission to preach the Gospel and to teach the truths to be believed. He is now only a member of the faithful, man or woman, married or celibate, chosen by the community to serve them and give thanks to God.
The French Episcopate as a body, if not as individual members, subscribe to this subversive theology imposed upon it by its bureaucrats. Hence the inertia.
It is to the joint problems of the Mass and the priesthood that the crisis in the Church in France is due. The Pope will need all his patience and all his energy to end it.
* * * *
Louis Salleron's article helps in several ways to put the case of Mgr. Lefebvre in its correct perspective. Pope John Paul II's letter on the priesthood provides an excellent and even inspiring evocation of the true nature of the Catholic priesthood. Archbishop Lefebvre might well be the only French bishop who would give it unqualified acceptance and support, and insist that all the priests subject to him did likewise. The Pope's ideal of the priesthood is precisely the ideal proposed to the seminarians at Ec6ne. It was noted and documented in Apologia I that the Holy See's Basic Norms for Priestly Training are observed more faithfully at Ecône than almost any other seminary in the West (see pages 69-70). Despite this, Mgr. Lefebvre is the only French bishop who is suspended a divinis. The other French bishops are all in good standing with the Holy See, even though, as a body, they subscribe to the revolutionary doctrine of the priesthood which is poisoning "The Church of France." It must also be noted that the catechetical instruction which they impose upon Catholic children in France is among the worst in the entire world.
Professor Salleron's article also illustrates the extent to which the Catholic ethos of the French Church has disappeared almost entirely outside traditionalist groups. Once this ethos is lost it is rarely regained. And those who have repudiated Tradition flaunt their revolutionary new religion before the Pope himself with what Professor Salleron terms aptly "puerile insolence." It must be one of the great ironies of Catholic history that in the post-conciliar era the epithet "rebel bishop" is retained for Mgr. Lefebvre alone. No doubt the English hierarchy under Henry VIII would have used the same epithet for St. John Fisher.
1. Novo incipiente nostro, 8 April 1979. Frequently referred to as the “Holy Thursday Letter to Priests." (Full text available in Flannery, Vol. II.)