An Open Letter to Confused Catholics

His Grace Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre


20. The Mass of All Time

One fact cannot have failed to surprise you: at no time during this affair has the Mass been an issue, although it is at the heart of the conflict. This enforced silence is the tacit admission that what is called the Rite of St. Pius V remains fully authorized.

On this subject Catholics can be perfectly easy in their minds: this Mass is not forbidden and cannot be forbidden. St. Pius V who, let us repeat, did not invent it but “re-established the Missal in conformity with the ancient rule and the rites of the Holy Fathers,” gives us every guarantee in the Bull Quo Primum, signed by him on July 14, 1570: “We have decided and declared that the Superiors, Canons, Chaplains and other priests by whatever title they are known, or Religious of whatsoever Order, may not be obliged to celebrate Mass otherwise than as enjoined by us. We likewise order and declare that no-one whosoever shall ever at any time be forced or coerced into altering this Missal: and this present Constitution can never be revoked or modified, but shall for ever remain valid and have the force of law... Should anyone venture to (make such an alteration), let him understand that he will incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul.”

Supposing that the Pope could withdraw this perpetual indult, he would have to do it by an equally solemn act.  The Apostolic Constitution Missale Romanum of April 3, 1969 authorizes the so-called Mass of Paul VI, but contains no expressly formulated prohibition of the Tridentine Mass.19 So much so that Cardinal Ottaviani could say in 1971: “The Tridentine Rite has not been abolished as far as I know.” Bishop Adam, who claimed at the Plenary Assembly of the Swiss Bishops that the Constitution Missale Romanum had forbidden the celebration of the Rite of St. Pius V except by indult, had to retract when he was asked to say in what terms this prohibition had been declared.

It follows from this that if a priest were censured or even excommunicated on this ground, the sentence would be absolutely invalid. St. Pius V has canonized this Holy Mass, and a Pope cannot remove such a canonization any more than he can revoke that of a saint.  We can celebrate it and the faithful can attend it with complete peace of mind, knowing furthermore it is the best way of maintaining their faith.

This is so much the case that His Holiness John Paul II, after several years of silence on the subject of the Mass, has finally loosened the fetter imposed on Catholics. The letter of the Congregation for Divine Worship, dated October 3, 1984, “authorizes” anew the Rite of St. Pius V for the faithful who request it. It imposes, admittedly, conditions we cannot accept, and in any case we did not need this indult to enjoy a right which has been granted to us until the end of time.

However, this initial gesture--let us pray that there will be others--lifts the suspicion unjustly cast on the Mass and liberates the consciences of those confused Catholics who still hesitate to attend it.

Let us now come to the suspension a divinis laid on me on July 22, 1976. It followed the ordinations of June 29 at Ecône; for three months we had been receiving from Rome reproofs, supplications, orders and threats to persuade us to cease our activity and not to proceed to the priestly ordinations. Over the last few days beforehand there was no end to the messages and deputations, and what were they saying? Six times they asked me to re-establish normal relations with the Holy See by accepting the new rite and celebrating it myself.  They went to the length of sending a Monsignor who offered to concelebrate with me and they put a new missal in my hand with the promise that, if I said the Mass of Paul VI on June 29 in front of all the people who had come to pray for the new priests, everything would thenceforth be smoothed out between Rome and myself.

This means that they were not prohibiting me from performing these ordinations, but they wanted it done according to the new liturgy. It was clear from that moment that the whole drama between Rome and Ecône was being played around the problem of the Mass, and it still is today.

I said, in the sermon of the Ordination Mass: “Tomorrow perhaps our condemnation will appear in the newspapers; it is very possible as a result of today’s ordinations. I will probably have a suspension laid on me and these young priests will be stamped with an irregularity which ought theoretically to prevent them from saying Holy Mass. It is possible.  Well, I appeal to St. Pius V.”

Certain Catholics may have been troubled by my disregard of this suspension a divinis. But what must be fully understood is that it all forms a chain of events.  Why was I forbidden to perform these ordinations? Because the Fraternity was suppressed and the seminary was supposed to have been closed.  But I had not accepted the suppression and the closure, precisely because they had been illegally decided and the measures taken were tainted with various canonical defects, both of form and substance (notably what writers on administrative law call “misapplication of powers,” that is to say the employment of powers against the purpose for which they should be used). To accept the suspension I would have to accept everything from the beginning; but I did not because we had been condemned without trial, without the opportunity to defend ourselves, without due warning or written process and without appeal.

Once one rejects the first judgment there is no reason not to reject the others, because the others depend on it. The nullity of one entails the nullity of those which follow.

Another question is sometimes put to the faithful and to priests: can you be in the right against everybody else? At a press conference, the representative of Le Monde said to me: “But after all, you are on your own. On your own against the Pope and all the bishops. What sense is there in your struggle?” Well, no, I am not alone. I have the whole of Tradition with me and the Church exists in time and space. Besides, I know that many bishops think like us in their hearts.  Today, since the open letter to the Pope which Bishop Castro Mayer signed with me, there are two of us who have declared ourselves openly against the protestantization of the Church. We have many priests with us. Then there are our seminaries which now provide around 40 new priests each year, our 250 seminarians, our 30 brothers, our 60 nuns, our 30 oblates,20 the monasteries and Carmels which are opening and developing, and the crowds of the faithful who are coming to us.

Besides, the Truth does not depend on numbers and numbers do not make the Truth. Even if I were alone and all my seminarians left me, even if the whole of public opinion were to abandon me, that would be a matter of indifference as far as I am concerned. I am bound to my Creed, to my catechism, to the Tradition which has sanctified the Elect in Heaven and I want to save my soul.  We know public opinion all too well. It condemned Our Lord a few days after having acclaimed Him. It is Palm Sunday followed by Good Friday. His Holiness Paul VI asked me: “But after all, don’t you feel in your heart something that reproaches you for what you are doing? You are causing in the Church an enormous scandal, enormous. Doesn't your conscience tell you so?”

I replied: “No, Holy Father, not at all.” If I had something to reproach myself with, I would stop at once.

Pope John Paul II has neither confirmed nor quashed the sanction pronounced against me. During the audience which he granted me in November 1979, he seemed after a long conversation quite disposed to allow freedom of choice in the liturgy, in short to let me do what I asked from the beginning,  to carry on the “Experiment of Tradition” among all the other experiments that are carried on in the Church.  The moment had come when perhaps everything could have been settled; no more outlawing of the Mass and no more problems. But Cardinal Seper, who was present, saw the danger.

“But, Holy Father,” he exclaimed, “they make this Mass into a banner!”

The heavy curtain which had lifted for a moment fell back. We must still wait.

19 Tridentine: referring to the Council of Trent--ed.

20 In 1995 there were 50 Brothers, 110 Sisters and 50 oblates--ed.



To Chapter 19

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