In this month's excerpt from the book "Vatican Encounter: Conversations with Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre" by Jose Hanu, the Archbishop speaks about the beginnings of the Society of Saint Pius X.
Jose Hanu: And so, judging the Council by its fruits, you wanted to found a seminary with your own means, one that, if I may say so, would be "anti-conciliar," in order to maintain "solid doctrine"?
Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre: I did not want anything of the kind! I found myself in Rome, where I had just resigned as Superior General of the Congregation of the Fathers of the Holy Ghost. They, too, had been infected by the virus of collegiality. They had called a special chapter, which was to turn everything upside down. They needed "a direction-giving team," commissions, and, of course, debates, lobbies, negotiations, votes, etc.
And these were the same men who, only a few years before, had implored me to take the head post. But I did not want to preside over the ruin of our own congregation, where I had spent so many years. I left them to their "collegiality."
I had a very small pension, which barely permitted me to live, but I did not care; I welcomed that retreat which permitted me to pray and work.
It was then that many young people, either recommended or led to me by saintly priests or laymen, began to seek me out. Those young men felt a vocation, felt they were destined to the priesthood, but they found it impossible to prepare for the priesthood in one of the "new" seminaries. They were young people of very high calibre. They did not only seek advice; they also sought spiritual direction. They hoped that I would accept them.
What was I to do? Did I have the right to disappoint them? I always was of the opinion that one has to accept the things the way God sends. I told them:
"I did not call you here. I don't even know you. You came on your own, by your own free will. If you really want to, you will follow a very serious and profound course of studies, you will have a life of prayer and sacrifice, which will sustain your vocation and will permit you, I hope, later to attain a fruitful apostolate.
I am still saying the same things to the young men who feel that they were chosen by Our Lord Jesus Christ, and who come to see me. I have never "called" anybody. I have never held anybody back. God is the master of souls, especially those of future priests. If he sends them to me, all I do is try to point out the right way.
I have them first study in Rome. Unfortunately, it was difficult to get all these young men together and to find the financial wherewithal. There was, of course, the French Seminary, but there I met many difficulties.
I talked to Bishop Charriere, bishop of Lausanne, Geneva and Fribourg. I knew him well. He had come to Senegal in May of 1958 to bless the new church of Fatick, built partly from contributions from his diocese. It was certainly providential that Bishop Charriere should remember his visit to Dakar and Senegal. He suggested that I assemble my young seminarians at the Catholic University of Fribourg. That is how the "Zealots" were founded and later the International Confraternity of Priests of St. Pius X, for which Bishop Charriere was good enough to sign the founding documents.
But, unfortunately, though I had thought that I would find in a university of such standing and repute excellent Catholic teachings, I regretfully had to state the contrary. This university, like the others, had been contaminated by the new ideas. Future priests went there, their hair long and their pants in tatters. And the professors of moral theology held views, as I told you, that were contrary to orthodoxy. My seminarians were quite upset about it. It was not in order to receive that kind of teaching that they had turned to me!
Thanks to the goodwill of some fine Catholics of Valais, (the Swiss canton where Econe is located) I placed my first-year seminarians in a house, which they had bought in Econe. I decided, with their permission, to add on to it and make it a true seminary with professors who would be able to form true priests, according to tradition.
Jose Hanu: You enlarged an old house and put up a new modern building, flanked by other buildings. The entire structure would accommodate, in individual rooms, 140 professors and seminarians, and would contain a chapel, refectory, class and study rooms, kitchens, common rooms, and a religious community, which took over the services. That must have cost a small fortune!
Where did the money come from? Where is it still coming from? Because now you have other houses: in Germany, in Italy, in England, in the U.S.A., without counting the priories which you just bought to permit the priests whom you ordained to fulfill their ministry.
Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre: I thank Providence and the intercession of St. Joseph. It was with us as it was with the Little Sisters of the Poor. And, as with them, neither Providence nor St. Joseph has ever abandoned us. Hadn't I already built, in Senegal, churches, schools, welfare centers, youth hostels? Providence has always helped me and never let my hands be empty.
Jose Hanu: But Excellency, we are talking here about enormous sums! People talk about billions of old francs, of very rich Americans who built "a bridge of gold" for you, of European capitalists who subsidized you.
Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre: That's completely untrue, pure imagination. People talk without rhyme or reason. As you know, the old house at Econe, with its little chapel, belonged to the Canons of the Great St. Bernard. The canons wanted to sell the house. The buyer wanted to transform it into a hotel, and possibly a hotel of doubtful character. Catholics of the village and of the district were so upset about it that they formed a group to buy it themselves, so that it could remain a house of faith. And we have come to an agreement with them concerning its use.
When I wanted to add on to the house, to make it bigger, I asked myself: "Where will I find so much money?" But confident in St. Joseph, I had great hopes.
At that time, I was about to leave Paris for Rome. A lady called me: she wanted to see me right away. You see, the number of people who want to see me is important. In most cases, it means considerable loss of time. So I tried to avoid seeing that lady. But she was so anxious to meet me, if only for a few moments, that I gave in. She meant to tell me how pleased she was with what I had said at the Council and to promise that she would help me in the battle I was fighting – and that she did most generously.
The new buildings at Econe will be paid for! Always Providence. Providence is here every day and appears in the thousands of Catholics who help us, penny by penny. Actually, big gifts appear and the growing work makes for growing expenses. It is all right to buy old properties but often you have to spend more to salvage them than if you buy new houses! But it is the small gifts of the modest, even poor Catholics that count, and it is thanks to these contributions that we are living. They make it possible for the penniless seminarians to continue their studies. Whatever people say, the majority of our seminarians come from modest, even very modest, backgrounds. Their families cannot afford the cost of room and board, which amounts to 30 francs a day, 28,000 old francs a month.
Thus, millions of Catholics - children that save five francs from their allowance, the households of small pensioners who send us ten francs per month - all make it possible that about fifty vocations can blossom at Econe. Providence!
THE BISHOP’S CHAUFFEURS
Jose Hanu: Providence, I am told, also takes care of transportation. Everybody at Econe and roundabout knows the "chauffeurs of the Bishop." There are four of them. They are men from the country, neither rich nor poor, who are completely devoted to you. A phone call, and one of the four is here - to take you to Italy, France or Germany, ready to deliver your reply to the Pope, to the Vatican, ready to drive one of the priests of Econe to one of the priories. Quick, reliable and, above all, often free transportation. When you went to Canada, one of them went with you all the way.
Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre: True, Providence has willed that there would be such faithful. And for Econe, it is a blessing from Heaven. Thanks to them, I can travel thousands of kilometers, without getting too tired, without having to trouble myself with trains, flights, taxis. This system has another advantage: by often changing my means of transport, I can elude the journalists easier. But what is inconvenient are the conclusions certain people are drawing. They think we have unlimited wealth. Didn't I get to Lille in a "sumptuous white Mercedes" and to the Vatican a few days later in a "prestigious blue S.D.S."? Well, after having driven myself for 47 years, I don't even have a car anymore.
Jose Hanu: The attitude of your seminarians strikes me, Excellency, as having a certain family-like background. This seems to contrast with the fact that half of them are unable to assume the expenses of their studies.
Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre: That is the grace, which shines in their faces and also the custom of wearing the cassock. When they arrive in their civilian clothes, it is easy to recognize the sons of the middle classes and those of working classes. But as soon as they wear the habit, they all have the same appearance. The seminary quickly takes care of all social differences. They are all brothers. It is nothing like when the GFU and GFO get together.
Jose Hanu: In general, it seems to me they are no longer very young men.
Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre: Some of them enter at seventeen or eighteen years, some of them later. God calls them in His own time. But I am happy with the average age, which is about twenty-three. These are young men who have already finished their studies and sometimes they are very highly educated; they come from great schools, have master's degrees, even doctorates. They have thought deeply and they know what they want.
Jose Hanu: But the life at Econe really is not very attractive. Here is a schedule:
That's a very hard life, Excellency!
Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre: That was the kind of life led in all the seminaries fifteen or twenty years ago. It seems hard at the beginning, but one gets accustomed quickly and time passes incredibly fast.
Should this house not be a house of formation for regularity and silence, for the mastery of self, and all the natural virtues, which are the necessary complement to supernatural virtues? But it does not mean that the life is sad. On the contrary. As you saw yourself, all these young men look happy. They have fun.
Last April Fool's Day, they played a little joke on me. The main course for lunch was in a small bowl, with a tight lid. When I lifted the lid, I found clear water with two little fish in it.
Jose Hanu: The enemies of Econe - and God knows there are many - say that the course of study is mediocre, for the simple reason that "no intelligent Catholic can follow you" and that thus the level of your professors leaves much to be desired.
Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre: People say so many things! For instance, after a visit of inspection in the name of the Vatican here at Econe, Monsignor Descamps, honorary president of the Catholic University of Louvain and secretary of the Episcopal Biblical Commission, declared in an interview with La Libre Belgique that we were of "incredible fanaticism."
But he was unable to justify this accusation. Speaking of Econe he said: "The style of this seminary was absolutely in line with tradition and in this sense it was an edifying seminary, with a very sympathetic community, with much order and discipline, a great sense of silence and religious exercises, great faithfulness to all the rules of seminaries such as we have known them." If this is "fanaticism," we must change the definition of the word in the dictionaries. As to the level of our professors, I can vouch that it is altogether excellent, even remarkable.
The superior of the seminary and director of studies is Canon Berthod, who has a Ph.D. in theology. Before coming here, he was head of the famous Catholic College at Champitet, and has been superior of the novitiate of the Great St. Bernard order. Among the young chair holders, one comes from Central, another has a master's degree in biology, another a master's degree in history from the Sorbonne. Among the other professors or lecturers, one holds an important chair in a great French Catholic university and is an official member of the household of several dioceses.
Pastoral formation is guaranteed by priests who have had much experience with parish work. Canon law is taught by a great Roman specialist, author of several first-class works. I can therefore say very firmly that the training dispensed here is at least equal in every respect to that in other seminaries. The study lasts six years - as long as medical studies. It does not leave untouched anything a priest should know for his own sanctification, as well as for the happy accomplishment of his ministry among the faithful, in the parish or elsewhere.
Jose Hanu: But, Excellency, what will become of these young priests, since all the dioceses obstinately refuse them? Sometimes, I have to admit, even very nastily. Two of your seminarians told me that when they were on vacation with their parents, they wanted to visit their respective parish priests and that these two pastors closed the door in their faces! Seems that the sight of a cassock alone was insufferable for them. One observation, though - the same seminarians were easily comforted by the fact that, for example, in the bus, which they boarded, many people stood up and said: "Please, sit down." They gave their seats to them and greeted them as priests.
Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre: Yes, well, at the moment, it is true, the dioceses and the bishops refuse these young priests. But the faithful call them. That is why I have no worries in this regard. Our priests will live by two and three in our priories. They will be able to fulfill their apostolate from there. Those who are already installed there are beloved and respected and have many faithful who watch over them.
Jose Hanu: But what about the worldly temptations which they were spared so far? How will they face them? And how can they advise the adolescents and Catholic couples?
Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre: I was waiting for that question! Our seminarians each year have three months of vacation. They have ample leisure with their families or in the youth camps which they take care of, or otherwise, to be confronted by temptation. But be assured that our seminarians receive all the instruction necessary about problems of morals.
The advice to the young and to Catholic couples has two sides, a technical one, so to say, and a religious one. The first one is not our concern but that of laymen: physicians, professors, parents of good will who have received the necessary educational preparation. It is different with the moral and religious aspect, which is the priest's concern. Is it necessary to be married, as some pretend, to be able to give counsel and guidance in this field? That means that a physician would be looked upon askance, treating a diabetic, if he never had been a diabetic himself. It is precisely because the seminarians at Econe and the priests we have formed have their bodies under control, thanks to a life of work, prayer and asceticism, and thanks also to their courage and their faith. They have credibility in the eyes of Christians who are troubled about a perverted world. The example they are giving enables them to exhort single or married Catholics to obey the law of the Church. Their own experience of chastity allows them to do spiritual counseling.
May it please Heaven that the seminarians who "are questing" in the conciliar Church be of the same calibre!