As a cardinal, Pope Benedict reportedly called Marcel Lefebvre ‘the most important bishop of the 20th century’
LifeSiteNews was able to obtain a written recollection of these words by the German cardinal from one of the two priests present at that meeting in the Palazzo di San Uffizio. Abp. Marcel Lefebvre (third from right).Spiritains / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
Fri Dec 3, 2021 – 2:43 pm EST
VATICAN CITY (LifeSiteNews) — In the summer of 2003, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, reportedly told two priests in a private audience that he considered Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the founder of the priestly Society of St. Pius X, to be “the most important bishop of the 20th century with regard to the universal Church.”
LifeSiteNews was able to obtain a written recollection of these words by the German cardinal from one of the two priests present at that 30 minute long meeting in the Palazzo di San Uffizio.
In this conversation, Cardinal Ratzinger apparently honored Archbishop Lefebvre for his work for the Church and admitted that “from my current point of view, I have to agree with Archbishop Lefebvre in retrospect about having his own bishops.”
The entire recollection of Cardinal Ratzinger’s remarks reads, as follows:
1) “It is hard to see what the Church owes to Archbishop Lefebvre, not just for his
‘African period,’ but also later for the Church as a whole. … I consider him to be the most important bishop of the 20th century with regard to the universal Church.”
2. “Had the French episcopate at that time shown even a little more
Christian charity and fraternity towards Archbishop Lefebvre, things might have taken a different course…”
3) “From my current point of view, I have to agree with Archbishop Lefebvre in retrospect about having his own bishops. Today after the experience of ’15 years of Ecclesia Dei’, it is clear that such a work as that of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X cannot simply be handed over to the diocesan bishops.”
In 1988, Archbishop Lefebvre had consecrated four bishops without the approval of Rome. He had tried to work with the Vatican and receive their approval, but the obstacles seemed so high, he decided to go the way of disobedience. Among the grave reasons why Archbishop Lefebvre saw the need to consecrate his own bishops to continue his work for Tradition in the Church was his own growing age and, at the same time, the ecumenical 1986 Prayer Meeting in Assisi, at which a Buddha statue was placed on an altar in the presence of Pope John Paul II.
That Ratzinger said Lefebvre was the “most important bishop of the 20th century” is corroborated to some extent by what Bishop Schneider once told Edward Pentin: “Pope Benedict XVI once said about Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre: ‘He was a great bishop of the Catholic Church.’
Bishop Athanasius Schneider spoke about the history of the SSPX in a July 2021 interview. He said that the Society was originally founded 50 years ago in Switzerland with the approval of the local bishop and of the Vatican, but later came “into conflict with the Vatican” for criticizing statements of the Second Vatican Council. They also wanted to celebrate only the Traditional Latin Mass, Schneider explained. The “mistrust” grew between the SSPX and the Vatican when the Pope would not approve their proposed four candidates for episcopal consecration. It was then clear to Lefebvre, Schneider continued, that the Holy See would not “approve” a future SSPX, with its “constructive” criticisms of some “expressions of Vatican II.” — Article continues below Petition — SIGN: Show Pope Francis the Latin Mass will survive any suppression 34767 have signed the petition.Let’s get to 35000! Add your signature: Show Petition Text Keep me updated via email on this petition and related issues.
The 1988 consecrations of four of the SSPX’s own bishops then led to the excommunications of Lefebvre, his four bishops, and Bishop de Castro Mayer, who had been present at the rituals.
During the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, however, “there were made two very important steps to normalize the situation,” Schneider continued. In 2007, “Pope Benedict issued a [motu proprio] Summorum Pontificum, giving the freedom to the priests to celebrate this Mass; in some way he re-established the rite of the traditional Mass of the Church, which was always one of the main demands of Archbishop Lefebvre and the Society of Pius X.”
In 2009 Pope Benedict removed the excommunication of the four bishops. However, this still left some canonical problems unsolved. It was under Pope Francis that “two other important steps” were taken, according to Schneider. Pope Francis granted SSPX priests the faculties to hear Confessions “all over the world.”
“That was very generous,” Bishop Schneider stated.
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He added: “It’s difficult to say that these priests are outside the church or are schismatic when they possess the ordinary faculties of Confession given by the Pope himself. And then the Pope authorized the bishops of the parish priests to grant the priests of SSPX the faculties to assist canonically at marriages, matrimonies.”
The German-Kazakh bishop remarked: “So we see there is a situation which is always closer to a canonical normalization, and this is good. We have to be happy that this situation can be resolved and the SSPX can be present and operate inside the Church for the benefit of the Church, for the renewal of the Church,” for the sake of preserving “the tradition of the faith, in the liturgy, and the spiritual life, because basically, actually the SSPX does no other thing [than] as the Church believed, as the Church worshiped, as the Church lived, until the Council, all these centuries.”
Bishop Schneider concluded that “we have to hope they [the SSPX] will get the full recognition. I hope soon; it would be good. And then the SSPX will be a normal reality as other realities inside the Church. It is necessary for our time in this crisis, in these times of darkness and confusion.” According to the prelate, it is necessary that the Church be enriched by such communities as the SSPX, “priests and laypeople who simply keep the faith of all ages, the Mass of all ages, and this they will do, the priests and faithful of the SSPX.”
Asked if it is licit to attend SSPX chapels, Bishop Schneider answered that, if there are no other possibilities, “of course, because they can [hear confessions] licitly,” one can “go to the [Sacrament of] Confession with the approval of the pope. And the same priest who gave them…absolution – it would be strange that they cannot assist at his Mass.”
He added that “the Sacraments, the Holy Mass are given for the salvation of souls, for the benefit of the souls. I think that when it is difficult for the normal Catholics to reach the Traditional Mass and there is a possibility closer to the Society of St. Pius X, they can go there or to get a good catechism for the children or young people. Therefore, I think since they are not outside the Church – in spite of some unresolved canonical problems, it seems to me that it is licit that laypeople can go” to SSPX Masses.
These comments by Bishop Schneider show us how today, the role and work of the SSPX is being assessed in very different ways than it was the case in the past, where Catholics used to stress the aspect of disobedience.
The 2003 remarks by then-Cardinal Ratzinger seem to vindicate much of the work of Archbishop Lefebvre who chose to disobey in order to preserve not only the traditional Latin Mass, but also the life of the traditional faith in all of its aspects.
Now that the Ecclesia Dei communities are facing soon visitations from Rome that sure aim at suppressing their original and traditional charisms, they, too, are faced with the question of whether or not they will obey and allow the suppression of Tradition to take place in their midst.
Let us remember that at the time of Archbishop Lefebvre, the Tridentine Mass had been essentially suppressed by Pope Paul VI, just as Pope Francis is attempting to do the same.
Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò – who has also praised Lefebvre for his work – recently, in August of this year, commented on this matter:
With his Motu Proprio, Benedict XVI restored the Roman Apostolic Mass to the Church, declaring that it had never been abolished. Indirectly, he admitted that there was an abuse by Paul VI when, in order to give authority to his rite, he ruthlessly forbade the celebration of the traditional Liturgy.
Abbé Claude Barthe, a traditional priest and liturgy expert, also recently stated that Pope Paul VI had abrogated the traditional Latin Mass when he said “The Mass of Saint Pius V, when it was abrogated by Paul VI (because it was abrogated, it must be said; Jean Madiran rightly pointed it out), was identical, almost in detail, to what it was in the eleventh century.”
Moreover, Viganò stated last year that he considers “Archbishop Lefebvre an exemplary confessor of the faith, and I think that by now it is obvious that his denunciation of the Council and the modernist apostasy is more relevant than ever.”
In June of 1976, Archbishop Lefebvre ordained a number of priests, even though certain forces in Rome had already tried to suppress the SSPX. In his June 29 homily for that event, he explained what he saw as the clear reason for the attempt at suppressing the SSPX. Here I quote at length:
But if in all objectivity we seek the true motive animating those who ask us not to perform these ordinations, if we look for the hidden motive, it is because we are ordaining these priests that they may say the Mass of all time.1 It is because they know that these priests will be faithful to the Mass of the Church, to the Mass of Tradition, to the Mass of all time, that they urge us not to ordain them.
In proof of this, consider that six times in the last three weeks – six times – we have been asked to re-establish normal relations with Rome and to give as proof the acceptance of the new rite; and I have been asked to celebrate it myself. They have gone so far as to send me someone who offered to concelebrate with me in the new rite so as to manifest that I accepted voluntarily this new liturgy, saying that in this way all would be straightened out between us and Rome. They put a new Missal into my hands, saying “Here is the Mass that you must celebrate and that you shall celebrate henceforth in all your houses.” They told me as well that if on this date, today, this 29th of June, before your entire assembly, we celebrated a Mass according to the new rite, all would be straightened out henceforth between ourselves and Rome. Thus, it is clear, it is evidence that it is on the problem of the Mass that the whole drama between Ecône and Rome depends.
That is to say, it was clear that the SSPX was being disciplined for preserving the Mass of all ages that all traditional Catholics today have come to know and to love so much.
The following comments might be helpful for Catholics today who are members of the Ecclesia Dei communities that very soon face a fate similar to that of Lefebvre:
Tomorrow perhaps, in the newspapers, will appear our condemnation. It is quite possible, because of these ordinations today. I myself shall probably be struck by suspension. These young priests will be struck by an irregularity which in theory should prevent them from saying Holy Mass. It is possible. Well, I appeal to Saint Pius V – Saint Pius V, who in his Bull said that, in perpetuity, no priest could incur a censure, whatever it might be, in perpetuity, for saying this Mass. And consequently, this censure, this excommunication, if there was one, these censures, if there are any, are absolutely invalid, contrary to that which Saint Pius V established in perpetuity in his Bull: that never in any age could one inflict a censure on a priest who says this Holy Mass.
Here, Lefebvre spoke words that we have heard in recent articles responding to Traditionis Custodes and its attempt at essentially abrogating the traditional Mass: “This Mass is canonized. He [Pope Pius V] canonized it definitively. Now a Pope cannot remove a canonization. The Pope can make a new rite, but he cannot remove a canonization.”
“He cannot forbid a Mass that is canonized,” the archbishop concluded.
May these words encourage all traditional Catholics now to stand firm, even with joy, and give witness to the Mass of all ages.
LifeSiteNews reached out to Pope Benedict XVI, sending him the memoir of the 2003 meeting with the two priests and asking him for comment. We shall update this report should he respond.
Dr. Maike Hickson was born and raised in Germany. She holds a PhD from the University of Hannover, Germany, after having written in Switzerland her doctoral dissertation on the history of Swiss intellectuals before and during World War II. She now lives in the U.S. and is married to Dr. Robert Hickson, and they have been blessed with two beautiful children. She is a happy housewife who likes to write articles when time permits.
Dr. Hickson published in 2014 a Festschrift, a collection of some thirty essays written by thoughtful authors in honor of her husband upon his 70th birthday, which is entitled A Catholic Witness in Our Time.
Hickson has closely followed the papacy of Pope Francis and the developments in the Catholic Church in Germany, and she has been writing articles on religion and politics for U.S. and European publications and websites such as LifeSiteNews, OnePeterFive, The Wanderer, Rorate Caeli, Catholicism.org, Catholic Family News, Christian Order, Notizie Pro-Vita, Corrispondenza Romana, Katholisches.info, Der Dreizehnte, Zeit-Fragen, and Westfalen-Blatt.