The Biography of Marcel Lefebvre

by Bp. Tissier de Mallerais, Angelus Press

by the late John Vennari - Catholic Family News – Excerpts

June 1969 - Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre was sixty-five and retired. He had survived the tumultuous battles of the Second Vatican Council. He had just resigned as Superior General of Holy Ghost Fathers. He had spent himself for over 40 years in the Lord’s vineyard. He assumed his work was over. Providence had other plans.

A handful of seminarians at the time were dissatisfied with the priestly formation they were receiving: a formation both liberal and lax. Only four years after the close of the Council, the seminaries were already permeated by the modernist spirit of Vatican II: weekly liturgical experiments, seminarians concocting their own liturgies, seminarians going out at night, bad theology courses, no rule of life, no cassocks, no Latin, no discipline, contempt for Tradition, total collapse.

The distraught seminarians were advised to seek counsel from Archbishop Lefebvre, now living quietly in Rome. The Archbishop counseled the young men to try a House of Studies at Fribourg, but this turned out to be as unsatisfactory as anything they already encountered. The Archbishop then looked into another House of Studies in Switzerland only to find more disorder, more aggiornamento, more “spirit of Vatican II”. The seminarians were orphaned. They had no place to go. They had suffered ridicule for their traditionalist stand while in the seminaries of the new springtime. What could be done for them?

It was then on June 4, 1969 when Professor Bernard Fay, Father Marie-Dominque, O.P., Dom Bernard Kaul, Father d’Hauterive and Professor Jean-Francois Braillard met with Archbishop Lefebvre on the dilemma. They took the aging prelate “by the scruff of the neck” and insisted “something must be done for these seminarians!” The “something” they had in mind was that Archbishop Lefebvre establish a seminary.

Archbishop Lefebvre agreed to do what he could, if he received a sign that it was the Will of Providence. Two days later, on June 6, 1969, with the approval of Bishop Charrière in Fribourg, Archbishop Lefebvre’s seminary was born. Originally called the Saint Pius X Association for Priestly Training, it welcomed its first eleven students in October of the same year.

One of these students was a young Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, who would subsequently work closely with Archbishop Lefebvre, witness first-hand the formative years of Society of Saint Pius X, be ordained in 1975, hold the post of Secretary General to the Society, be chosen by the Archbishop to receive Episcopal Consecration in 1988, and write the most authoritative biography of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre to date.

Start from the Beginning

The Biography of Marcel Lefebvre is divided into four sections:

Part I: The Heir (from boyhood to African Missionary);
Part II: The Missionary (Missionary, Bishop, Apostolic Delegate in Africa);
Part III: The Combatant (return to France, Vatican II, the Ottaviani Intervention);
Part IV: The Restorer (founding of Society of Saint Pius X to his death).

The reader’s first temptation when picking up the book is to open to the center — the section on Vatican II — and start from there. That is when the sparks really start to fly, and it is the part of the story that apparently pertains most to us.

The reader must resist this temptation and start at the book’s beginning.

There is no way one can truly understand Archbishop Lefebvre and the fight he braved for Tradition if one does not read his early years — his remarkable life before the Second Vatican Council and the events that made him who he was. Here we learn how the man was seemingly sculpted by Divine Providence to do the exact work of resistance he shouldered after the Council. Especially, we learn of his rigorous Thomistic formation which became the foundation for every priestly action.

His earlier life also contains valuable lessons: trust and submission to the designs of Providence even when it conflicts with one’s natural bent, the importance of solid theological formation, unswerving anti-liberalism, devotion to the Immaculate Heart, simplicity, hard work, and fidelity to Catholic Tradition come what may.

The Society of St. Pius X

The Society was founded with full ecclesiastical approval, but was unlawfully suppressed because of its no-compromise adherence to Tradition. The chapter entitled “I Adhere to Eternal Rome”, is one of the most riveting sections of the book. It recounts the mid-1970s showdown between Archbishop Lefebvre and Pope Paul VI’s Vatican. We meet again all the old players including Cardinal Jean Villot and Archbishop Giovanni Benelli who were determined to crush the stronghold of Tradition in Econe.

This, in fact, is where the real battle for the Society of Saint Pius X was fought. Everything that followed, including the 1988 Consecrations, was the logical follow-through of the impasse between Archbishop Lefebvre and Papa Montini. Paul VI perceived Econe as a threat to his Vatican II reform, even though the reform was an obvious disaster.

Those Who Knew Him

The Biography is of unique value as the author has drawn upon a large reservoir of primary sources from Europe, which means there is much in the book that English-speaking readers encounter for the first time.

Of particular charm is the closing chapter that displays the Archbishop’s kindness and good nature. There are stories from families and friends, and a section entitled “As His Drivers Saw Him”. One anecdote stands out:

Bishop Tissier de Mallerais is to be commended for culling a huge amount of research, notes and documents, including interviews from students and acquaintances who knew the Archbishop before the Council. With these and other sources, he presents the biography in an organized, readable fashion. It was no easy task, and it was executed with skill.

The book gives the reader a comprehensive overview of the contemporary crisis of Faith. It explains the roots of the crises and the means of legitimate resistance. This is all presented within the context of a story, the life and work of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, a remarkable man who stood virtually alone as an embodiment of immutable Catholic truth; who refused to budge in the face of an all-pervasive Modernism. The valuable lessons contained in the book are innumerable. The copious footnotes and complete Index make the book a superb reference tool. It deserves to be in every library and in every home.

The Biography of Marcel Lefebvre by Bishop Tissier de Mallerais is available from Angelus Press.