Rebel French Priest Marcel Lefebvre Dies at 85 : Religion: He was excommunicated in 1988. The traditionalist died an outlaw in Vatican eyes.


Marcel Lefebvre, an ultraconservative archbishop who triggered a schism in his church by insisting that he was more Catholic than the Pope, died unrepentant Monday.

Death came to the rebel French prelate in Martigny, Switzerland, after a massive heart attack Sunday night, hospital officials there said. He was 85.

“Our future is the past,” Lefebvre sometimes asserted in explaining a traditionalist conviction that led him to reject the “satanic influences” of church reform and modernization. Catholic traditionalists honored the strong-willed, white-haired Lefebvre as the embodiment of the “true church.”

A priest for 61 years, Lefebvre died an outlaw in the eyes of the Vatican, excommunicated for defiantly consecrating four bishops in a Swiss meadow on a sultry summer morning in 1988 against the orders of Pope John Paul II.


“When the Pope is in error, he ceases to be Pope,” Lefebvre once said. “It is not us but Rome which is moving toward schism. They are the ones moving toward heresy. I am with 20 centuries of the church and all the saints in heaven.”

Lefebvre died near the Econe, Switzerland, headquarters and seminary of his breakaway Fraternity of St. Pius X, named after a reform-hating pontiff who ruled from 1903 to 1914 and was in Lefebvre’s eyes the last truly Catholic Pope.

Father Franz Schmidberger, a German priest who becomes head of the movement, was at Lefebvre’s bedside when he died. “May God regard him for his life entirely devoted to defending the Catholic faith against heresy,” said Schmidberger. Lefebvre will be buried in Econe on April 2, he said.

The Vatican expressed official sorrow at Lefebvre’s passing and said the Pope had offered a prayer “entrusting the soul of the deceased to the mercy of God.”


“Up until the last moment, the Holy Father hoped for a change of heart and had manifested his desire to rescind the canonical penalty (excommunication), had there been a minimal sign of the bishop’s contrition,” a Vatican statement said.

What the Vatican on Monday called the grave “wound the archbishop’s behavior had inflicted on the communion within the church” was the former missionary’s rebellion against reforms ordered in the 1960s by the Second Vatican Council.

A decision to scrap Latin as the universal language of the Mass and replace it with local languages particularly incensed Lefebvre, who denounced the vernacular Mass as “neo-Protestant . . . a bastard rite.”

Lefebvre had already amassed degrees in philosophy and theology when he was ordained a priest in 1929. He worked for 13 years as a missionary in Gabon, and later as papal representative for French-speaking Africa.


Named by Pope John XXIII to help prepare for the Second Vatican Council, Lefebvre refused to sign two of the council’s reforming documents, emerging as the leader of traditionalists who vowed to “uphold the traditional faith.” He rejected not only reform of the Mass but also the council’s calls for improved relations with other religions.

In 1969, moving ever further right and away from Rome, he founded his Fraternity and began training seminarians. In 1976, Pope Paul VI suspended Lefebvre from all priestly duties when he refused to stop ordaining priests.

Anxious to avoid an open break after he became Pope in 1978, John Paul II would later authorize use of the Latin Mass, but Lefebvre was unappeased.

At the Vatican, where John Paul is himself a doctrinal conservative, Lefebvre came to be seen as an incorrigible reactionary whose movement developed links with the most extreme right-wing political organizations in many of the two dozen countries where it exists.


“Anything we have condemned has been condoned by the post-council church,” Lefebvre said on the day he broke irrevocably with Rome. “They have condoned modernism, communism and Zionism.”

After a compromise agreement with the Vatican collapsed in May, 1988, the rebel archbishop announced that he would consecrate bishops. He did it in Econe on June 30, 1988, terming it “an act of necessity” to assure continuity of his movement.

“What we do is for the good of the church. Rome will one day thank us for the action we have performed here today,” he said that morning in a soft, thin voice tossed by a mountain breeze. It marked the first schism in the 850-million-member Roman Catholic church since 1870, when conservatives called Old Catholics revolted at the doctrine of papal infallibility.

Two hours after the ceremony in Econe, the Vatican announced Lefebvre’s excommunication and that of the four new bishops, one of whom, Richard Williamson, had been directing three dozen traditionalist students at a seminary in Ridgefield, Conn., and who returned to lead Lefebvre’s followers in the United States.


A number of seminarians bolted from Econe after the Vatican action, but a year after the excommunications the Vatican noted that the traditionalist movement was continuing to grow in the United States and a number of other countries. Schmidberger has since said that the Fraternity counts about 200 priests, many of them ordained by Lefebvre, with about 300 seminarians studying in the United States, Europe, Australia and South America.

At the movement’s headquarters, Lefebvre’s followers around the world have been estimated at about 1 million. The Vatican says it is less than half that. At the time of Lefebvre’s excommunication, the U.S. wing of his movement had about 25 priests and 95 centers for worship in the traditional Tridentine Latin Mass.