With this second installment, The Angelus continues its series of excerpts from "Vatican Encounter: Conversations with Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre" by José Hanu.
A SUPERFICIAL, EVEN A FALSE, IMAGE
José Hanu: Some of your enemies continue to repeat that you are the son of a textile industrialist from Tourcoing.
Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre: I could have been the son of a farmer, a lawyer, a miner, a deep-sea fisherman, etc. Do I owe my parents to accident, as you might term it, or to Providence, as I prefer to see it? In any case, these are the facts: I belong to an industrial family from the North. Is this a taint?
José Hanu: A socio-political taint! Many "progressive" Catholics who believe that the family environment conditions the individual seem to think so anyhow. I have even heard one of them say that, given your origins, you are "congenitally and therefore irreparably reactionary." ln short, unredeemable. To buttress his case the man brandished all sorts of clichés which contain some truth and which you know so well.
The industrialists from the region of Lille, Roubaix and Tourcoing built their fortune on the labour of twelve-year-old children who have to work in their factories bare-chested and bare-footed in the stifling and humid atmosphere of the textile mills. Those industrialists take out insurance against Hell by obliging their workmen to arrive five minutes early for work so that they can recite a "Hail Mary" and protect themselves against revolutionary atheism by regularly exacting what they call "letters of confession" from their workers, which are proof that they are being taken in hand by a clergy devoted to capitalism.
Those are the industrialists who had children by the dozen, and whose wealth, amassed from the toil of poor people, was so great that they could give a "chimney" - that is, a plant, to every one of their sons, and a "brick," that is, a million francs, to each of their daughters.
Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre: Let's be serious! Somewhere in the past, this picture may have had the semblance of truth. But to be rightly understood, it has to be put into historical context and completed. Even if some of the industrialists from Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing have behaved in this manner, many others had displayed remarkable social concern. There are many witnesses to this.
Besides, the profession of woolweaver, as my father's was, has always been hazardous because it is closely related to the fluctuations of the market. And how many men, some of them most competent and most prudent, have not fallen by the wayside in this venture? I know what I am talking about because my own father found that be was ruined in 1929, the year of my ordination. My young brothers still remember how our parents tried to protect from seizure their furniture and other family possessions. During those trying times, my father and mother behaved admirably.
I take great pride also in insisting that they led exemplary lives in every way, especially religious, civic and social. They could not have been like that, if their ideas had not been diametrically opposed to what you have just described.
José Hanu: It is true, Excellency, your parents were quite unusual Catholics. That is why I wanted to learn their views before I questioned you. From many points of view, theirs were saintly lives. I am not going to ask you to tell me about yourself. On the one hand, family modesty will prevent you from telling everything and on the other hand, one might believe that your love for your father and mother might transfigure them. However, because I think that character or action or a vocation are determined to a certain extent by the family environment, I find it necessary to speak of your parents. I shall therefore tell you what I learned. Please correct me, if my information is wrong.
FAITH AND PATRIOTISM
It was easy for me to learn the memory your parents left with their fellow citizens, for they were typical of certain Catholic couples of the past (I am a child of such myself), for whom the idea of duty dominated everything: religious duty, patriotic duty, duty toward the state, duty toward the family. And it must be stated here that this sense of duty was common to Northern families, workers and middle class alike. Naturally, the lives of your father and mother were tied together inseparably, but for greater clarity I shall recall them separately.
I can easily picture your father. I am not at all surprised to hear that he, the head of an enterprise, got up early in the morning to attend the six o'clock Mass, receive Holy Communion and recite a decade of the rosary, and went to work ahead of any of his employees: he was far from being the only one to behave like that.
It was normal, too, that he should be the last to leave the workshop and the office and that he would lead the evening family prayer, kneeling before a crucifix, just before the younger children were sent to bed. There was no scarcity of small children: your father gave your mother eight of them. With many other Catholic families in the North in those days, they considered a large family a gift from God.
To your father's religious profile, already quite pronounced I should say, two other traits must be added.
At age eighteen, your father had joined the stretcher-bearers of Notre Dame de Lourdes, and never abandoned this helpful mission. He also joined the Third Order of St. Francis, and thus wore a scapular to recall the hard rules of that order which he had vowed to follow in part. He wanted to be "one of the best Children of Mary" and he certainly imposed great sacrifices upon himself "to merit Heaven." Today this seems like a dream, but it was a fact. I have to repeat, furthermore, that the case of your father was not an isolated one.
When World War I broke out in 1914, he was only thirty-five years old but he already had six children, which brought him exemption from frontline duty. He should have been glad about it but, instead, he felt ashamed.
After the first battle in nearby Belgium, he joined a society for injured war veterans. At the wheel of his own automobile, he crossed the French and German lines several times to collect, under fire, the most seriously wounded French and Allied soldiers and to transport them to the military hospital at Tourcoing.
After the Germans occupied Tourcoing, he organized the evacuation of English prisoners and helped the Belgian secret service. Finally, in January of 1915, when he heard that his exhausted country was mobilizing new recruits, he went to Paris, hoping that he could enlist in the regiment in which he had served once before. It was in vain: in the eyes of the recruiters six children were reason enough to stay out of battle.
Since he spoke English and German fluently (as, by the way, most of the Northern industrialists did), he presented himself to the secret service. For the rest of the war, he was one of their most active liaison agents for the Intelligence branch. He had taken the name of Lefort, constantly scurrying between England and France, Belgium and Holland, and, of course, constantly in danger of his life.
Such a valiant man was not going to give in when, eleven years later, misfortune struck. He repeated with Job: "God has given me everything, God has taken everything, praised be the name of God," but he also professed: "Help yourself and God will help you.” He succeeded in reestablishing himself, with "the help of Providence," as he used to say regularly.
At the end of the second war there was another occupation. He was sixty-two years old, but where would he be found? In the service of France, of course. But his patriotism proved to be fatal for him. The Germans, who had put him under surveillance, distrusted him more than anyone else: arrest, trial and deportation to Sonnenburg followed, and finally death. His comrades in captivity reported his extraordinary courage in the midst of indescribable privations, under the fists of his jailers and, even, of his male nurses, in a repugnant cell. They told, above all, how his unshakeable faith was of immense help to all those around him.
Sometimes your father was allowed to write from prison to his family. Your family was good enough to let me see the text of a letter he wrote on September 9, 1941. This document in some way constitutes his testament. Here are the most moving passages:
"I am awaiting the hour of Providence. What is certain is that here we are gaining some small merits and getting a good foretaste of Purgatory. I am sorry for those who are in my circumstances but lack the comfort of religion.
"There were terrible moments, but I have felt God's help. I could see that I was helped in the moments when I felt the lowest. For all this, I thank God. Suffering purifies.
“It will be a great sacrifice not to be able to see my children before I die. I bless them with all my heart and confide them to Our Lady, the Virgin Mary, who was so good to me. She loves my family, who will always remain consecrated to her and who will always seek through her the extension of the reign of her Divine Son."
The life of your father, Excellency, was thus an exemplary one for a Christian and a patriot. I cannot help thinking that his example had far-reaching effects on you. For there are many similarities between you and this scrupulous and ardent Catholic; that fighter that Resistance man who never gave in to the enemy not even when the enemy seemed to triumph - that obstinate man who accepted adversity without bowing his head.
Knowing your devotion to the Virgin Mary and to what you mystically seem to call the reign of Christ, one has the impression that this last message still lives in you as vibrant and as clear as when you received it thirty-five years ago.
SEVERITY AND MORAL STRICTNESS
However, as the members of your family have confided to me without prodding, the extreme moral strictness of your father was often very difficult for the young people. His severity may have been excessive.
Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre: Why talk about strictness and severity? We should rather call it "austerity." But an austerity which was mellowed and - oh, how much - refined by a perfect family life! It was a perfect union which the family members still remember - all the brothers and sisters who are still living - across the abyss of fifty years!
José Hanu: That severity of your father, it is true, did not lead the children to rebellion, not to a nervous breakdown, nor to vice.
Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre: Look at this family photo: Five of the children became priests or nuns, all happy in their lives consecrated to God, whereas a "modern" psychiatrist, looking at a person of such background and education, would probably have sworn that they all left the house, slamming the door behind them, to embrace drugs and prostitution!
As for the others, established in the world, you have been able to assume yourself that they are not alienated. When we were young, all Catholic children were educated in the same manner, whereas, today, families who still have the courage to have their offspring so educated find themselves pitched into a climate so permissive that it often undermines their efforts or even nullifies them.
It can therefore happen that the son of a Catholic who is "rigid" finds himself encouraged by his friends, or by a teacher in high school, or by modern Catholic literature, to revolt, and that this revolt leads him to the worst degradation. But the environment, not the parent; is to blame for this.
On purpose, I referred to certain high school teachers and modern Catholic literature, for the spectacle of our times is that the teaching clergy, whose mission is to put backbone into characters and souls, have permitted themselves to be led astray or have even gone halfway to perversion. Today, "authority" is always wrong, especially when vested in a person. And the atmosphere, since we are, above all, people steeped in Christianity, is gravely affected by this situation. You will now understand why I bless the "rigorism" - the severity of the home where I first saw the light of the world.
I SHALL DIE A MONARCHIST
José Hanu: But your father was a dyed-in-the-wool monarchist, wasn't he? The letter I cited does not make any bones about it:
"Be of good courage and patience, for the situation will clear up and we shall have good days for Our Dear Country, returned to its beautiful traditions, which the disorder will have reduced to ruin.
"You know that I am dying a Catholic, a Frenchman and a monarchist. For I think that it is only with the establishment of Christian monarchies that Europe and the world can retain their stability and true peace."
Maybe it is here, in the piety of the son or in the piety of the family, that one could find an explanation of some of the passages of your sermon at Lille, which has astonished so many people? I have an exact transcript of that sermon. May I quote some excerpts?
"By now the theses and the principles of liberal Catholicism are officially accepted. And what did the liberal Catholics desire for the last century and a half, if not the marriage of the Church to the Revolution? This is the reason why, for a century and a half, the Supreme Pontiffs have condemned liberal Catholicism: they have refused to bless the marriage with those who worship Reason, who sent priests to the scaffold and persecuted nuns. Remember the prison ships of Nantes, where the faithful priests were crammed together to send them to the bottom!
"Now this is what the Revolution did. But let me tell you, my dear brethren, what the Revolution did was nothing compared to what Vatican II did by espousing liberalism. It would have been much better if the 40,000 or 50,000 priests who abandoned the cassock all over the world, who have gone back on their vows before God, would have died as martyrs, had gone to the gallows. At least they would have gained their souls! Now they risk losing them.
"The union of Church and Revolution is adulterous. And from such an adulterous union, nothing but bastards can come forth. And who or what are the bastards? Our rites. The rite of the Mass is a bastard rite! . . . "
I have to admit that your choice of words - "bastard" seemed bold to me, but it also struck me as very well chosen. It gives me a certain exhilaration. But there is this spectre of liberalism. M. Giscard d'Estaing speaks of "advanced literalism," that spectre, above all, of the Revolution. Are you too a royalist? A belated royalist? Because the Revolution has done a lot of damage, but it has permitted the breakup of feudalism, and feudalism, especially in the social field, had few elements that were Christian.
Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre: Yes, my father was a monarchist but I do not think that this constitutes a blemish. As far as I am concerned, I have never lent my name to any kind of political party whatever. Besides, the example of so many monarchs who betrayed their mission, as have so many bishops, certainly does not encourage one to be a monarchist! In the meantime this is the fact and we cannot deny it: the Church is a monarchy.
As far as my sermon at Lille is concerned, it was an echo of what all the Sovereign Pontiffs have always alleged, and that which they always have condemned, except since Vatican II. That's why the sermon was Catholic, not political.
There were certainly abuses to be reformed in 1889, but there is a wide abyss between those reforms and destroying religion itself and, furthermore, tearing down kings because they upheld religion. The last Council has acted in nearly the same fashion, but in order to put through some useful reforms it has gone in search of the leading principles of liberalism. And these principles, logically enough, have given the deathblow to the Church.
To get back to my father, do you think he asked, while he was risking his life in 1914 to save the wounded, "Are you a royalist?" And that he abandoned those who were not? Many of the people who testified with great emotion to the physical and moral help he gave them in the German Sonnenburg Prison held political opinions, which were diametrically opposed to his.
Besides, there is one fact, which is of special significance for his social ideas: In 1920 he entered the city council of Tourcoing, where he remained to the day of his arrest in 1941. Would one have had confidence in him for so many years, especially during the major social trouble which marked that period, if he were not a just man and profoundly human? In fact - and all opinions tend to agree on this point - he was a moderate and tender man. Considering himself a brother in Jesus Christ to his fellowmen, he thought that he had to set an example to his brethren, whatever the cost. This is undoubtedly the most beautiful lesson he could give me and I shall remember it to my dying days in my heart and in my spirit.
José Hanu: Here is an interesting question: Did your father conform at the time of the Vatican's censure of Action Française?
Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre: Look how history is written! My father had monarchist convictions but he was far too levelheaded to get involved in the Action Française! What a pity for my enemies!