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Pope in talks with Lefevbre group

NCR Staff

Pope John Paul II may be on the verge of ending the only formal schism of his tenure, a 1988 rupture with devotees of the Latin Mass, according to reports in Europe and in traditionalist Catholic circles.

Negotiations initiated by the Vatican have been underway with followers of the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefevbre since the summer of 1999.

Lefevbre, who died in 1991, was a fierce critic of changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), especially translation of the Mass from Latin into the vernacular languages. When Lefevbre ordained four bishops in 1988 to continue his movement, the Vatican declared a formal schism and excommunicated Lefevbre and the bishops.

At the present time the Society of St. Pius X claims 150,000 followers in 37 nations, with 401 priests, 200 seminarians, 55 brothers and two religious communities with a total of 198 members.

Recent European press reports, confirmed for NCR by a source close to the Pius X society, suggest negotiations have focused on the possibility of reintegrating the schismatic group through one of three standings in canon law: a personal prelature, an ordinariate or a patriarchate.

The only personal prelature in the Catholic church at this time is Opus Dei, a global movement that describes itself as promoting holiness in everyday life. Members fall under the jurisdiction of a prelate rather than a local bishop.

Armed services are typically served by ordinates, non-geographical dioceses headed by a bishop. Many of the Eastern churches in communion with Rome are patriarchates, or groups of believers under the authority of a patriarch.

The common denominator is that each group has its own bishop and hence is not subject to control by diocesan bishops. Sources say this is a key point for the Pius X society, which fears that some local bishops might try to move members away from their allegiance to the Latin Mass and other traditional Catholic beliefs and practices.

According to sources, John Paul II is eager to heal the schism, perhaps as early as mid-April in time for Easter celebrations. Yet negotiations are complex, sources say, and the idea of rapprochement with the Vatican faces sometimes-fierce resistance from within the Society of St. Pius X.

Such reports first surfaced in the Spanish daily La Razón in mid-March, and later in the Italian monthly Jesus.

Both Msgr. Camil Perl, secretary of the Vatican’s Ecclesia Dei commission, responsible for relations with Lefebvre’s followers, and papal spokesperson Joaquín Navarro-Valls have told the Italian press in recent days that negotiations are indeed underway.

Perl told NCR he could confirm that talks are in progress but could not say anything more.

According to Richard Williamson, one of the four bishops ordained by Lefevbre in 1988, the current negotiations began in the summer of 1999. At that time the head of the Ecclesia Dei commission, Colombian Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos, wrote to each of the four bishops, addressing them as “my dear brother” and saying that the pope’s arms were open wide to embrace them.

A meeting between three of the bishops and Castrillón took place Aug. 14, 2000, in Castrillón’s Rome apartment.

A series of letters from Williamson commenting on the negotiations appears on a St. Pius X Web site (www.sspx.ca).

One public signal of progress came on Aug. 8, 2000, when more than 1,000 members of the society entered St. Peter’s Basilica for a prayer service to mark the Jubilee Year. Though the event had not been on the Vatican calendar, officials acknowledged it had taken place with the approval of the Holy See.

More recently, John Paul named four high-profile new members to the Ecclesia Dei commission on Feb. 24. They were Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s top doctrinal officer; Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estévez, head of the office on liturgy; Archbishop Julián Herranz, head of the office for the interpretation of legislative texts; and Cardinal Louis-Marie Billé, president of the French bishops’ conference. Sources say the appointments indicate the talks have entered a final decision-making stage.

Ratzinger had handled the initial discussions in 1988 and had signed an agreement with Lefevbre, but it fell apart when Lefevbre went ahead with the ordinations.

If Williamson, based at the society’s Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Winona, Minn., is any indication, debate within the St. Pius X Society over the wisdom of an accord with the Vatican will not be easy to resolve.

In an Oct. 3, 2000, letter about talks with Castrillón, Williamson wrote: “I do believe that behind the cardinal … there are villains at work, either Judeo-Masons or prelates working for Judeo-Masonry, who are far more sinister than this cardinal is. … [Castrillón] is, in Lenin’s phrase, a useful idiot who will be cast aside the moment he no longer serves their forward march to the One-World-Religion.”

Another delicate issue is what happens to groups such as the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, created by the Vatican for priests devoted to the Latin Mass who did not want to join Lefebvre’s schism. A source close to one such group told NCR that some of its members might join the Pius X group if it is welcomed back, while others, fearing what they see as the ultra-conservative character of some Pius X leaders, would likely opt to stay where they are.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 30, 2001