Volume 3, Chapter
--31 May 1979
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.
however, there were - there are - waverings, counter-currents, grinding
of teeth, the extent of which it would not be amiss to examine in
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:
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.
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
in the diocese of Lyons interpreted the letter from their Archbishop
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.
stance. I am their head, therefore I will follow them.
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:
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.
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.
Episcopate as a body, if not as individual members, subscribe to
this subversive theology imposed upon it by its bureaucrats. Hence
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.
* * *
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
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.
Novo incipiente nostro, 8 April 1979. Frequently referred to
as the “Holy Thursday Letter to Priests." (Full text available
in Flannery, Vol. II.)
Courtesy of the Angelus
Press, Regina Coeli House
2918 Tracy Avenue, Kansas City, MO 64109