The late, great Michael Davies (God rest his soul) published in his Apologia Pro Marcel Lefebvre (Vol. 1 Ch. 14 – US HERE – UK HERE) Lefebvre’s own account of that same meeting with Paul VI on 11 Sept 1976.
You can read it online HERE.
Lefebvre’s account is more complete in many ways. Frankly, I find Lefebvre’s account more convincing, especially as I consider that the one who transcribed the conversation as reported below was, well… Benelli, then the Sostituto, and, as people in the Curia knew, ruthless.
I saw at the Italian Vatican Insider of La Stampa a story about the “verbale” or “transcript” of the conversation between Paul VI and Archbp. Marcel Lefebvre of the SSPX of 11 September 1976. It was recently published in a book. More on that below.
As I read this, I was overtaken with great sorrow. The frustration of these two men, talking to, at, across each other is palpable. Lefebvre’s sad determination and Paul’s somewhat feckless naïveté come through. Note their exchange about the number of Eucharistic prayers in France and Paul’s insistence that “great graces” were coming from the Council despite the rampant abuses that were multiplying at the time. I am reminded of Paul’s self-contradictory assurances on the eve of the promulgation of the Novus Ordo before Advent 1969.
Hindsight is an advantage. However, there was plenty of evidence right in front of everyone’s face at the time that something wasn’t right. The solutions were not a matter of gnostic rocketry, either.
Here is my fast translation, since I am staring at literal piles of stuff to be handled. I hope someone else will also take it in hand. I left some of the background out. My emphases and comments:
“Perhaps there was something not appropriate in my words, in my writings; but I didn’t ever want to get to (raggiungere) your person, I never had that intention… I cannot grasp how in a single stroke I am condemned because I form priests in obedience to the holy tradition of Holy Church.”
“That’s not true. You said and wrote many times that you were wrong and why you were wrong. You never wanted to listen… You said it and you wrote it. I would be a modernist Pope. Implementing an Ecumenical Council, I would betray the Church. You understand that, if that were the case, I would have to abdicate; and to invite you to take my place to direct the Church.”
A dramatic document, transcribed by typewriter in Italian with French interjections. Pope Montini on 11 September 1976 received at Castel Gandolfo the French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, head of the fraternity of St. Pius X and great protester (gran contestatore) against the Council. The special transcriber (verbalizzante de’eccezione), whom Paul VI wanted to be present at the audience together with his special secretary, Fr. Paolo Macchi, was the Sostituto of the Secretary of State Giovanni Benelli (who a few months later would be promoted to Archbishop of Florence and created Cardinal): a special assistant, who 10 years before had been pro-nuncio in Senegal, where until a few years before the French prelate had been our missionary Bishop. The transcript of the conversation – between the Pope, who had brought the Council to a conclusion and had promulgated the liturgical reform, and the rebel Bishop who challenged the authority of the Pontiff – was published in a book “La barca di Paolo” written by the director of the pontifical household Fr. Leonardo Sapienza.
The meeting, one reads in the transcript just published, lasted a little more than a half hour, from 10:27 to 11:05. The transcription fills eight pages. “His Holiness has charged the Sostituto to transcribe his conversation with Msgr. Lefebvre: if, during the conversation, he would have thought it opportune to intervene, he would have mentioned it”. But there is no trace of intervention by Benelli. Notwithstanding the presence of two witnesses, the Sostituto and Fr. Macchi, the conversation was always between the Pope and Lefebvre, alternating in Italian and French.
“I hope to have before me, a brother, a son, a friend. Unfortunately, the position that you have taken is that of an anti-pope – Paul VI exhorted – what should I say? You have not acquiesced in any way in your words, in your acts, in your behavior. You did not refuse to come to me. And I would be happy to be able to resolve such a distressing situation. I will listen; and I will invite you to reflect. I know that I am a poor man. But right now it is not a person who is in play: it is the Pope. And you have judged the Pope to be unfaithful to the faith to which he is the supreme guarantor. Perhaps this is the first time in history that this has happened. You have told the entire world that the Pope does not have faith, that he does not believe, that he is a modernist, and so forth. Yes, I have to be humble. But you are in a terrible position. You are carrying out acts, before the whole world, of extreme gravity…”.
Lefebvre defends himself saying that it was not his intention to attack the person of the Pope, he admits: “perhaps there was something not appropriate in my words in my writings.” He adds that he is not alone, but has “with him some bishops, some priests, numerous faithful”. He affirms that “the situation in the Church after the Council” is “such that we cannot understand any longer. What to do. With all these changes either. We risk losing the faith or we give the impression of being disobedient. I would want to get on my knees and to accept everything, but I cannot go against my conscience. I am not the one who created a movement” it is the faithful “who do not accept this situation. I am not the head of traditionalists… I am acting exactly as I did before the Council. I cannot grasp how in a single stroke I am condemned because I form priests in obedience to the holy tradition of Holy Church.” [NB: Libs claim all the time that they are following their “conscience”. But, apparently, only they are allowed to do that.]
Paul VI intervenes to disagree: “”That’s not true. You said and wrote many times that you were wrong and why you were wrong. You never wanted to listen. You continue your exposé.”
Lefebvre responds: “Many priests and many faithful think that it is difficult to accept the tendencies that are going on day after (sic That’s how it is in the transcript) . The Second Ecumenical Vatican Council, about liturgy, about religious liberty, about the formation of priests, about relations between the Church and Catholic states, about relations of the Church with Protestants. We don’t see how what is affirmed conforms to the sound Tradition of the Church. And, I repeat, I am not the only one who thinks this. There are a lot of people who think this way. People who grab on to me and push me, often against my will, to not leave them… In Lille, for example, I was not the one who wanted to put on that protest…”.
“But what are you saying?”, Pope Montini interrupted. “Not me… It’s the television”, Lefebvre stutters in his defense. “But the television,” replied Paul VI, who shows he is well-informed about everything, “transmitted what you said. It was you who spoke, in a most harsh manner, against the Pope”. The French archbishop pushes back putting the blame on journalists: “You know how it is, there are often journalists who oblige you to speak… And I have the right to defend myself. The Cardinals, who have judged to be in Rome have calumniated me: and I believe I have the right to say that they are calumnies… I don’t know what to do anymore. I am trying to form priests according to the faith and into the faith. When I look at other seminaries, I suffered terribly: unimaginable situations. And then: the religious who where the habit are condemned and insulted by bishops: on the other hand, the ones who are appreciated, are those who live a secularized life, and who act like people of the world”.
Pope Montini observes: “But we have in no way approved these behaviors. Every day we strive with great effort and with equal tenacity to eliminate certain abuses not consistent with the present law of the Church, which is that of the Council and of Tradition. If you had taken the trouble to see, to grasp what I do and say every day, to assure for the Church faithfulness to yesterday and response to today and yes, also tomorrow, you would not have arrived at the sad point in which you find yourself. We are the first to deplore excesses. We are the first and the most solicitous to search for a cure. But this cure cannot be found in a challenge to the authority of the Church. I have written this to you repeatedly. You have not taken my words into consideration”.
Lefebvre responded saying that he wanted to speak about religious liberty because “what we read in the conciliar document is contrary to what your predecessors have said”. The Pope says that these are not topics to discuss in the course of an audience, “But,” he assures, “I take note of your uncertainty: it is your attitude against the Council…”. “I am not against the Council,” Lefebvre interrupted, “but against some of its texts”. “If you are not against the Council,” Paul VI responded, “you have to adhere to it, to all its documents”. The French archbishop responded: “it’s necessary to choose between that which the Council said, and that which your predecessors have said”. [Sound familiar?]
Then Lefebvre addresses to the Pope, “a prayer. Would it not be possible to prescribe that bishops grant, in churches, a chapel in which the people can pray as the did before the Council? Today everything is permitted to everyone: why not permit something also for us?”. Paul VI responds: “we are the community. We cannot permit autonomy of behavior to various parts“. Lefebvre responds: “the Council admits pluralism. We ask that this principle be applied also to us. If your holiness would do this, everything would be resolved. There would be an increase of vocations. Aspirants to the priesthood want to be formed in true piety. Your holiness has in your hands. The solution to the problem…”. Then the traditionalist French archbishop says he is disposed that someone from the congregation for religious “oversees my seminary”, he says he’s ready not to hold any more conferences and to remain in his seminary. “Without going out anymore…”.
Paul VI reminds Lefebvre that Bishop Adam (Nestor Adam, Bishop of Sion), “came to talk to me in the name of the Swiss Episcopal Conference, to tell me that his activity could not any longer be tolerated… What must I do? Try to come back into order. How can you consider yourselves in communion with us, when you take positions against us, in front of the whole world, to accuse us of infidelity, of a desire to destroy the Church?”. “I never had the intention…”. Lefebvre defended himself. But Pope Montini replied: “You said it and you wrote it. I would be a modernist Pope. Implementing an Ecumenical Council, I would betray the Church. You understand that, if that were the case, I would have to abdicate; and to invite you to take my place to direct the Church.”
And Lefebvre: “There is a crisis in the Church.” Paul VI: “And we are suffering profoundly. You have contributed to aggravate it, with your solemn disobedience, with your open challenge against the Pope”.
Lefebvre replies: “I have not been judged as I ought”. Montini responds: “Canon law judges you. Haven’t you seen the scandal and the damage that you have done to the church? Are you conscious of it? Do you think you can go before God like this? Make a diagnosis of the situation, an examination of conscience and then ask, before God: what should I do?”.
The Archbishop proposes: “It seems to me that opening up a little the host of possibilities to act today as we acted in the past, everything would work itself out. This would be the immediate solution. As I have said, I am not the head of the movement. I am ready to remain closed up forever in my seminary. The people who remain in contact with my priests and they remain edified. It’s the young people who have the sense of the church: they are respected in the streets, in the subway, everywhere. Other priests no longer wear the cassock, they don’t hear confessions anymore, they don’t pray anymore. And people have chosen: there are the priests whom we want”. (The priests formed by Msgr. Lefebvre, the transcriber notes).
At this point Lefebvre asks the Pope if he is conscious of the fact that there are “at least 14 cannons used in France for the Eucharistic prayer”. Paul VI responds: “not only 14, but hundreds… There are abuses; but the good brought by the Council is great. I don’t want to justify everything; as I have said, I’m trying to correct things where it is necessary. But it is necessary, at the same time, to recognize that there are great signs, graces from the Council, of of vigorous upswing among young people, a growth of sense of responsibility among the faithful, priests, bishops”.
The Archbishop replies: “I’m not saying that everything is negative. I want to collaborate for the building up of the Church.” Pope Montini responds to him: “but it is not so, certainly, that you contribute to the building up of the Church. But do you know what you are doing? Do you know that you are going directly against the Church, the Pope, the Ecumenical Council? How can you claim for yourself the right to judge a Council? A Council, after all, whose acts, in great part, were signed also by you. Let us pray and reflect, subordinating everything to Christ and to his Church. I too will reflect on it. I accept with humility your rebukes. I am at the end of my life. Your harshness is for me an occasion for reflection. I will also consult with my offices as for example the Sacred Congregation for Bishops, etc. I am sure that you also will reflect. You know how I had esteem for you, that I recognized your merits, that we found ourselves in agreement, at the Council, about many problems…”. “That’s true”, Lefebvre recognizes.
“You understand,” Paul VI concludes, “that I cannot permit, also for reasons that I would call ‘personal’, that you bring the guilt of a schism upon yourself. Make a public declaration, with which you retract your recent declarations and your recent behaviors, which everyone have recognized as acts taken not for the building of the Church, but to divide it, and to do it harm. From the moment you met with the three Roman Cardinals, there has been a rupture. We have to find again union in prayer and in reflection.”. The Sostituto Benelli, transcribing, concludes the transcript of the conversation with the note: “the Holy Father then invited Msgr. Lefebvre to recite with him a Pater Noster and Ave Maria and Veni Sancte Spiritus”.
[Here comes Turncoat Tornielli, to make sure that you are left with only a negative impression of Lefebvre and only sympathy for Paul.] As is known , the wishes and the prayers of Pope Montini fell on deaf ears. Although the Lefebvrist schism [the Church hasn’t defined it as such] would occur more than ten years later, during the pontificate of John Paul II, when Lefebvre, nearing the end, he decided to ordain new bishops without the mandate of the Pope. Msgr John Magee, second secretary of Paul VI, recalled in a testimony that Montini, after that audience, “hoped that the archbishop (Lefebvre) had decided to change his way of conducting attacks on the Church and the teaching of the Council, but everything was useless. From that moment Paul VI began to fast. [Post hoc…] I remember well that he did not want to eat meat, he wanted to reduce the amount of food he took even if he was already eating very little. He said he himself had to do penance, so as to offer to the Lord, in the name of the Church, the proper reparation for everything that was happening.” [Everything, not just Lefebvre, etc. Everything that Paul VI was, in great part, responsible for as well.]
Turncoat Tornielli, who posted this, closed with this fantastically tendentious paragraph.
The crisis, by the way, was not caused by Lefebvre. You can agree or disagree with what Lefebvre did in order to address that crisis. However, as a bishop he did something. He did not remain enervated and prone on the ground to be run over by the secularizing, anthropocentric juggernaut grinding on the Church after the Council. Even today. we cannot rely on Popes and the Curia to address the crisis – crises – in the Church. Bishops must act. In fact, we all have a roll to play.
At the end of the conversation, Paul told Lefebvre to examine his conscience. That’s always good advice.
Let us all take it.
Take it and then…
GO TO CONFESSION.
That’s how we start to fulfill our roles in the Church.