After a life of exemplary service in the church, the Archbishop, though at retirement age, still had in front of him his greatest work. His generous spirit and clear vision are today the beating heart of the SSPX.
Marcel Lefebvre, the founder of the Society of Saint Pius X, was born on 29 November 1905 in the city of Tourcoing, in the north of France. Marcel was the third of eight children and grew up under the watch of his devoutly Catholic parents, René and Gabrielle, who owned a local textile factory.
Seminary and ordination
Marcel, being attracted by the priesthood from his youth, followed the advice of his father and entered the French seminary in Rome at the age of 18. Six years later, he was ordained a priest and shortly thereafter, he finished his doctorate in theology and began pastoral work in the diocese of Lille (in the north of France).
Father Lefebvre’s older brother René, a missionary of the congregation of the Holy Ghost Fathers, insisted that the new priest join him in Gabon (Africa). Father Lefebvre finally yielded to these entreaties and made his temporary vows in the Holy Ghost Fathers in 1932. He was then sent to Gabon, first as a professor at a seminary, and then soon thereafter as Rector of the seminary. After three years of difficult work as a missionary, he decided to commit himself permanently to missionary work by making his perpetual vows with the Holy Ghost Fathers.
Apostolic Delegate for French-speaking Africa
After these first few years, successively greater responsibilities were confided to Marcel Lefebvre. He was called back to France and was named Rector of a seminary in Mortain. Later, Pope Pius XII named him the Apostolic Vicar of Dakar (the capital of Senegal in Africa), upon which nomination he was consecrated Bishop. The following year, 1948, the Pope honored Bishop Lefebvre still more by naming him Apostolic Delegate for all of French-speaking Africa and bestowing upon him the title of Archbishop.
Superior General of the Holy Ghost Fathers
Pope John XXIII, like his predecessor, believed that Archbishop Lefebvre possessed a theological knowledge as well as experience in the missions and in teaching that were of a unique and exceptional quality. Consequently, he designated him as a member of the preparatory commission of the Second Vatican Council, a body entrusted with the task of setting the agenda for the upcoming ecumenical council. The Holy Ghost Fathers were also very impressed by the work of the Archbishop and so elected him Superior General in their general chapter of 1962.
Archbishop Lefebvre was at the height of his career. Nevertheless, the Second Vatican Council would prove to be a bitter disappointment. The majority of the texts that he had helped prepare for the Council were completely rejected and were supplanted by new versions that were liberal and modern.
In reaction, the Archbishop, along with other perplexed prelates, formed a conservative group called the Coetus Internationalis Patrum, of which the Archbishop was the head. This group was primarily opposed to the introduction of modernist tendencies in the texts of the Council.
In the end, the Coetus was not successful in stopping the modernist reforms and Archbishop Lefebvre left the Council with a broken heart. Moreover, the Holy Ghost Fathers, out of step with the conservative leadership of the Archbishop, obliged him, in so many words, to step down as Superior General, in their general chapter of 1968. At the time, Marcel Lefebvre was 63 years old and, after a life in the service of the Church, he was thinking about retiring.
The founding of the SSPX
At this point, the life of the Archbishop becomes intertwined with that of the SSPX. In order to accommodate the repeated requests of various young men looking for a traditional priestly formation, Archbishop Lefebvre opened a new seminary in Ecône, Switzerland.
The local ordinary, Archbishop François Charrière, gave his blessing for this work on 1 November 1970, and the Priestly Society of Saint Pius X was born.
Elsewhere on this site, you will find a brief summary of the history of the SSPX, which will not be repeated here. Nevertheless, we must add a detail to the general history, one related to the participation of Archbishop Lefebvre in the Coetus Internationalis Patrum.
During the Second Vatican Council, Marcel Lefebvre became good friends with Antonio de Castro Mayer, the bishop of Campos, Brazil. The two shared ideas in their diverse functions within the Coetus and they stayed in contact for a long time after the conclusion of the Council. Both of them refused to apply the modernist teachings of the Second Vatican Council and they wrote together an open letter to the Pope in 1983, lamenting the many errors with which Rome seemed to be infected. When Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated four new bishops in 1988, Bishop de Castro Mayer assisted as co-consecrator.
Tradidi quod et accepi
Archbishop Lefebvre, after having guided the SSPX for more than 20 years, died on 25 March 1991. He was buried in the crypt located beneath his beloved seminary of Ecône, where today his mortal remains can be visited.
On his tombstone were engraved the words of the apostle St. Paul: “Tradidi quod et accepi” (I have passed on what I have received – 1 Cor. 15:3).
To learn more about Archbishop Lefebvre, please visit marcellefebvre.info