Book Review: Marcel Lefebvre

: Marcel Lefebvre, the Biography
Author: H.E. Bp. Bernard Tissier de Mallerais
Publisher: Angelus Press
Excellence: 4 stars
Why: Without sparing detail, H.E. covers all the possible ground for a possible canonical investigation in the future regarding Archbishop Lefebvre
Summary in a sentence: The comprehensive, answer-all-questions, guide to the Archbishop and founding of the Society.I've put off this review for some time simply because this book is daunting. Weighing in at 670 pages in the English edition, I have met countless of Society faithful who have been going to SSPX chapels far longer than I have who simply have not picked this up. Why? Frankly, I don't know. Yes, it's long. But, why not learn about the man who is responsible for you having a Mass to go to on Sunday? No one is saying you have to read it all at once. But start. This book is the perfect complement to Dr. White's literary Horn of the Unicorn.It's rather difficult to summarize this book, so what I thought I would do for the review is take out selected quotes/passages. I cannot hope to contextualize tone and content for all these quotes, but I hope they provide fruit for thought and encouragement to read the book, as they are arranged generally in chronological order of pages, but are arranged topically, with no specified order. In a few instances, the Archbishop is being facetious, but I will leave that to you to discern...

On the birth of baby Marcel, his mother remarked:

"He will have an important role in the Church close to the Pope" (7).

"Every evening, family prayers gave them the opportunity to put right any disagreements that might have occured throughout the day, and to unite their hearts in God's love" (8).

On receiving his first Holy Communion:

"he (Marcel) took his finest pen and wrote to the Pope to thank him for the decree which enabled him to receive Holy Communion at the age of six" (9).

Reflecting later on his childhood experience of World War I:

"We saw that human life was insignificant and that one has to know how to suffer" (15).

Fr. Berto regarding the spirit of the French Seminary in Rome under Fr. Le Floch:

"Sentire cum ecclesia: judge as the Church judges, in the light of the teachings of the Councils and the Popes, in the light of St. Thomas Aquinas, leaving aside all personal ideas in order to embrace the mind of the Church" (35).

"For him (Lefebvre) referring to the magisterium of the Roman authorities was enough to end any discussion or correct any deviation" (43).

On the unhappy suppression of Action Francaise through misinformation given to Pius XI (my opinion, not expressed by H.E.):

"The condemnation of Action Francaise was a turning point in the history of the Church; from then on the bishoprics were given to left-wing clerics whilst all opposition to liberalism was falsely tarred with the same brush as Action Francaise. Fr. Le Floch was branded in this way, as Archbishop Lefebvre later on" (49).

The Archbishop on Action Francaise:

"Oh, it was not a Catholic movement, but it was a movement against the disorder sown by the Freemasons in the country, in France: it was a healthy reaction, a determination to re-establish order and discipline, a return to morality and to Christian morality" (49).

On Pius XI:

"Pius XI was not a liberal. But he was weak, very weak in the practical sphere and rather inclined to compromise with the world" (51).

From a fellow seminarian:

"He (the Archbishop) wasn't a run of the mill person. His features were those of someone who took life seriously. My companions told me, 'He knows what he wants and he knows how to get it.' He made a very good impression on me, I found him impressive" (59).

On rubrics of the Mass:

"The piety of a priest is not to be measured by how long he pauses at the Memento but by the degree of his obedience to the rubrics" (62).

On the unsatisfactory resolving (again, my opinion) of the Roman Question:

"I felt that the Roman question had been resolved quite otherwise than he (Lefebvre) had hoped. He looked upset" (65).

Regarding a situation in which the Archbishop, as head of the seminary, talked about social action:

"Another similar objection went thus: 'We are in a seminary and you want to give us an education in politics. But we are told a priest should not play at politics.' Fr. Lefebvre gave a clear answer to this:

You must understand the truth correctly: the priest should not be involved in politics, but let us make a distinction. If politics means the various acceptable ways of ruling and governing, then yes. If politics means the model of the body politic, its origin, consittution, and goal, then it falls under the moral law, and thus under the teaching of the Church. The priest must be able to say such and such a principle is wrong or significant. You must be guides who are able to enlighten others; you must be men of principle" (146).

Some statistics under Bishop Lefebvre's reign in Dakar:

"Between 1947 and 1962, the numbers of children in primary education rose from two thousand pupils in nine schools to twelve thousand pupils in fifty-one schools. In 1947, there were only 150 pupils in four secondary schools whereas in 1962 there were 1,600 pupils in eleven schools. One out of every 5.6 pupils was studying in a Catholic school" (165).

Regarding an "innovation":

"On Easter Tuesday at the annual meeting of the mission superiors, the creation of Fogola or 'Friends of the Christians' was unanimously accepted and received the Archbishop's approval. The Fogola would receive a special identity card and be registered at a mission station. Without actually being Christians, they would belong sociologically to the Christian community, get to learn about Revelation, and could be baptized if the obstacle impeding their baptism (often polygamy -s.) were removed. Later, after independence, the fruits of this high-risk strategy were apparent when the 'sociologically Christian masses,' as Archbishop Lefebvre called them, were able to resist the Islamic wave that surged over the 'animist belt.'

The Archbishop did not advocate blind progressiveness. However, some of his remarks sound strange coming from a man who would later be scornfully called "the fundamentalist." He wrote:

On the one hand, one must avoid narrowness of mind, an outdated and fossilized traditionalism that closes its eyes to the materialism and atheism running amok among the young: it locks itself away in its church, content with the presence of a few good parishioners and children. On the other hand, one must avoid a spirit of novelty qui sapit haeresim (which smacks of heresy), the heresy of activism that neglects prayer, preaching, the parish Mass on Sunday, or religious instruction.

Thus, while respecting the guidance of canon law concerning the ministry, 'the Church increases the range of means she uses to bring home the message of the Gospel through the initiatives of priests and bishops inspired by enlightened zeal.' In these conditions, Archbishop Lefebvre concluded, the spirit of the Lord and the spirit of the Church will inspire the missionary's initiatives, and give him 'the ingenuity that comes from true zeal'" (184).

lefebvre4The opinion of his Vicar General, Fr. Bussard:

"He had a special gift for exercising authority with kindness. He didn't look like he was in charge, but he was well and truly in charge...He was not a heavy-handed or authoritarian bishop. No, he was a bishop full of authority" (186).

"an example of what profound interior life of union with God which is the source of spiritual fruitfulness...completely absorbed in his prayers" (187).

"he is harder on rubrics than people" (188).

From a progressive priest who disagreed with the Archbishop, yet was not a liar:

"He (Lefebvre) really is the witness of that Church which was certain of her truth, rights, and power, and which considered herself alone capable of saying how best to organize society" (195).

On his being made Apostolic Delegate to French-speaking Africa, in which there were 3 Jesuit fathers in the missions:

"I, a poor Holy Ghost Father, going to preach to Jesuits!" (206)

Why Pius XII wanted Africa to become "regular":

"...the Church should no longer be a foreign institution in Africa, whence the urgent need to train a hierarchy of native bishops, and whence also the order to safeguard African customs in so far as they were reconcilable with God's law" (207).

A bishop from Cote d'Ivoire:

"(He) impressed me with his calm, his serenity, his smile, his patience when listening, and his questions that were always relevant and appropriate. He had a profound sense of the Church and the papacy" (219).

H.E. weighs in:

"It cannot be emphasized enough that Catholic French-speaking Africa owed its considerable development in the 1950s to the tenacity, tactical genius, and ceaseless, wide-ranging work of the Apostolic Delegate" (224).

In retrospect, the Archbishop in 1987 wrote:

"If the Western nations who were responsible for educating the people of Africa had not betrayed their mission and if the Church had not gone back on everything she stood for, today instead of seeing the worrying progress of Islam, most of Africa would today be Catholic" (239).

On Islam's political methods:

"The countries in which there is a Muslim majority are separating themselves as quickly as possible from the West, and using Communist methods...fanaticism, collectivism, slavery of families, these countries were especially open to Islamic customs" (240).

"...while Muslims are a minority in a Christian country they accept its laws, but when they are numerous and organized, they become aggressive and want to impose their laws" (604).

On some other innovations:

"(Lefebvre) recommended...granting wider permission for the celebration of evening Masses. He envisaged the more general use of the black clerical suit and Roman collar with a little cross on the lapel, and advocated an increase in the number of bishops so that no diocese would have more than 200,000 faithful" (273).

"I (Lefebvre) quite like the new idea of a permanent diaconate" (277).

Reflections on the effectiveness of the Coetus Fathers at the Council:

"...We were able all the same to limit the damage, to change these inexact or tendentious assertions, to add that sentence to rectify a tendentious proposition or an ambiguous expression.

But I have to admit that we did not succeed in purifying the Council of the liberal and modernist spirit that impregnated most of the schemas. Their drafters indeed were precisely the experts and Fathers tainted with this spirit. Now, what can you do when a document is in all its parts drawn up with a false meaning? It is pratically impossible to expurgate it of that meaning. It would have to be completely recomposed in order to be given a Catholic spirit..."

Fr. Berto on the Archbishop during the Council:

"I had the be his theologian...the Archbishop is far superior as a theologian to me - and would to God all the Fathers had his knowledge of theology. His theological habitus is perfectly sure and acute, and his very great devotion to the Holy See adds to it the connaturality which enables the Archbishop, even before the discursive habitus comes into play, to discern intuitively what is and what is not compatible with the sovereign prerogatives of the Rock of the Church...I have not 'collaborated' with him...I have truly 'sub-laborated' with him..." (296).

An intervention on the new and redefined ends of marriage during the Council:

"...One could (now) say in fact, 'No conjugal love, therefore no marriage!' Yet how many marriages there are without conjugal love! They are nevertheless true marriages" (302).

On classmates in the French Seminary who had later become Bishops:

"They had sold out totally to liberalism and to the liberal theses. It is pitiful. It is one of the saddest things of my life" (317).

In a few words, the Archbishop's opposition to Dignitatis Humanae:

"the Church of Christ alone possesses the fullness and perfection of divine law, natural and supernatural, as she alone has received the mission to teach this law and the means to observe it; it is in her that Jesus Christ, Who is our law, is found in reality and truth. Consequently, she alone, always and everywhere, possesses a true right to religious liberty" (329).

to Paul VI regarding the matter:

"It contains passages that are word for word contrary to what was taught by Gregory XVI, and Pius IX" (492).

(Paul VI responded "We are not here to discuss theology.")


"Our Lord asked His apostles to preach the Gospel to all nations, not to preach liberty!" (499).

Years later the CDF responded to the Dubia presented regarding this matter with:

"the doctrine on religious liberty was 'incontestably a novelty' was the outcome of 'doctrinal development in continuity'" (546).

Regarding the Council as a whole:

"In an inconceivable fashion, the Council promoted the spreading of liberal errors. The Faith, morality, and ecclesiastical discipline are shaken to their foundations as all the Popes have predicted. The destruction of the Church is advancing rapidly" (335).

H.E. editorializes: "When the Magisterium malfunctions, it is Tradition that judges" (481).

On the Archbishop's obstinancy in his ideas despite opposition:

"a gentle, pig-headed man...'It is because of his training under Fr. Le Floch'...'it was because of his Maurassian education'..." (349).

Some words that clerics who like to be photographed in business suits with their cleric brothers should hear:

"The cassock makes the priest a living sermon" (361).

About the apostolate:

"There is no opposition or separation between the religious life and the apostolic life. The contemplatives' life is essentially active" (362).

"Perfect charity, according to St. Thomas, exists when one's preaching flows from the depths of contemplation" (366).

Padre Pio on the new "revising" Chapter of the Capuchins that was soon to be called, around the time of the visit of the Archbishop:lefebvre2

"It's all idle chatter and destruction!" (368)

Jean Madiran on the New Mass:

"To reject systematically the rites handed down, to replace them by rights which have not been handed down is to ruin entirely the traditional character of the liturgy" (401).

In the early days of the foundation of the Society:

"I would like to rebuild the true priesthood with true priests. It will be a consolation to me in the mad age in which we live" (413).

On attendance at the New Mass:

"We cannot collaborate in spreading a rite which, even if it is not heretical, leads to heresy. This is the rule I am giving my friends" (417).

"...We must avoid - I could almost say completely - assisting at the New Mass" (464).

Fr. Aulagnier observes the Archbishop during some early trials of the Society:

"...Just then I saw him weep from discouragement...I...shared...'Your Grace, we're not going to stop now; we have to continue!' He looked doubtful, but I think in the end he was deeply touched" (419).

One of the benefactors to the Archbishop, on the night the property was guaranteed to the Society:

"Well, Monseigneur, I tell you: they'll talk about this seminary of Econe throughout the world" (425).

Some words of formation to his future priests:

"The cassock is a witness, a sermon. It repels wicked spirits and those subject to them: it attracts upright and religious souls. It greatly facilitates the apostolate...

If there is one thing I have always sought, it is not to have personal ideas. We have the ideas of the Church!...As I have already told you, I do not want to impose any spiritual spirituality unless it be the spirituality of the Church..., i.e. spirituality as St. Thomas conceives of it in his Summa Theologica: a spirituality based on the exercise of virtues, the truths of faith, the supernatural virtues, and the beatitudes. This is how our spiritual life normally works" (437).

On some early professors of the seminary:

"Fr. Guerard des Lauriers came to give a class in Mariology for which he had scribbled his notes on the back of a subway ticket but which still went beyond the abilities of the average student to understand. Professor Fay's talks presented a grand historical overview of the successive epochs of the Counter-Church, from the cabal and esoteric sects up to Freemasonry with its present-day role..." (445).

On Fr. Barielle:

"Haunted by the idea of eternal salvation, Fr. Barielle lived by faith and was in touch with heavenly realities: the Blessed Trinity, the Sacred Heart, St. Joseph, the holy Angels. He lived on these devotions, taught them, and promoted them" (447).

On speaking tours, the Archbishop might comment:

"Learn how to do without television, support the loyal priests, organize catechism groups. I pray to God that you keep the Faith until your dying day, so that the Church might continue" (451).

On why vocations to the brotherhood might be disappearing:

"...are rare in our age because they require a spirit of faith which is tending to disappear from a world wholly obsessed with human advancement" (456).

On "Rome"

"...I would have preferred to die rather than have to confront Rome and the Pope!" (478).

"...the problem of the Mass is at the heart of this conflict between Econe and Rome" (486).

"...Of course I am not the one who makes the truth, but neither is the Pope" (490).

"...Do we really have a Pope or an intruder sitting on the chair of Peter? Happy are those who lived and died without having to ask themselves such questions!" (505).

"It is possible that we might be forced to believe that the Pope is not the Pope. Because it seems to me initially - I do not yet want to say it solemnly and publicly - that it is impossible for a Pope to be publically and formally a heretic" (536).

"These notions (difficulties of jurisdiction, disobedience, and apostolicity) presuppose a Pope who is Catholic in his faith and in his government" (541).

"The See of Peter and the posts of authority in Rome being occupied by anti-Christs, the destruction of the Kingdom of our Lord is being rapidly carried out...especially through the corruption of the Holy Mass which is both the splendid expression of the triumph of our Lord on the Cross - Regnavit a ligno Deus - and the source of the extension of His kingdom over souls and over societies..." (549).

After St. Nicholas du Chardonnet was taken back from the Modernists:

"We should seize a church in every diocese!" (512)

On returning to the land:

"They (faithful) should home school if possible, and go back to the land, which is healthy, brings one closer to God, evens out temperaments, and encourages one to work" (513).

Notes in the margin of his copy of Redemptor Hominis, by JPII:

"No. 11 presents a wholly new conception of Christianity. It is Teilhardian humanism..."

And further:

"Where does he speak of incorporation in Christ through baptism?" (529)

Towards the end, during his hospitalization, to his nurses:

"You have got a good deal out of me: I am paying full price and you are not even feeding me!" (609)

H.E. should be commended for a fine and utterly complete vita of this man, without whom it can be said we would not have the Traditional Mass today.

Stephen Heiner

Stephen lives in Paris, France. He founded True Restoration in 2006.

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3 Responses

  1. Stephen, I contracted pneumonia two years ago and used the affliction to read Marcel Lefebvre, every page, every note etc., down to the last page. I learned that the Archbishop was a mature natural administrator, father figure, and spiritual leader. I found a true hero, whose complexity embraced mind and heart in the kindest, simplest way. Those who profess to be friends of the Fraternity of SSPX, must read about the man who resisted a natural inclination to obey superiors, who were taking the Church down the perdition's road. No naturally disposed revolutionary, Archbishop Lefebvre nonetheless embraced a bloodless martyrdom. In doing so, he handed us the faith, inviolate. For that I am profoundly grateful. A note of thanks to Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais for an extraordinary biography.

  2. Alan Aversa says:

    Is there an e-book or audiobook version of this anywhere? Thanks

  3. Alan

    I'm sorry, not that I know of.