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Vatican, Brazilian group to reconcile


A group of traditionalist priests in Brazil linked to schismatic French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, along with their illicitly ordained bishop, is apparently set to be reconciled with the Catholic church.

Pope John Paul, sources tell NCR, has approved an agreement regularizing the status of 28 priests of the Society of St. John Vianney in the Campos, Brazil, diocese. The group is led by Bishop Licinio Rangel, ordained a bishop in 1991 by three of the four rebel bishops Lefebvre had consecrated in 1988. It was Lefebvre’s decision to ordain bishops that provoked a decree of excommunication from the pope.

Lefebvre, who died in 1991, was a fierce critic of the reforms launched by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). His best-known disagreement was over the use of languages other than Latin for the Mass, but members of the Society of St. Pius X, as his followers are known, also object to other innovations, especially the push for dialogue with other Christian churches and religions.

The Society of St. Pius X claims more than 160,000 members in 40 countries. The Brazilian Society of St. John Vianney is not part of the society, but is closely aligned with it.

For more than 20 years, these traditionalist priests in Campos have operated what amounts to a parallel diocese, building their own churches to serve an estimated 15,000 faithful. The priests were inspired by the former bishop of Campos, Antonio de Castro Mayer, the only Catholic prelate present for Lefebvre’s 1988 episcopal ordinations.

When Mayer died in 1991, Rangel was ordained to continue his work. He is the only other bishop ordained to date as part of the Lefebvrite episcopal line.

Though the Vatican declined an NCR request for comment, sources in Brazil say the agreement will grant an ecclesiastical status to the Society of St. John Vianney along the lines of a personal prelature, a status currently enjoyed by the conservative movement Opus Dei. It would permit the society to deliver pastoral care to members under the jurisdiction of its leader rather than the diocesan bishop. A key difference with Opus Dei, sources say, is that the new prelature would be geographically limited to Brazil.

A key to resolving the problem, sources told NCR, is the positive attitude of the bishop of Campos, Roberto Gomes Guimarães, a friend and classmate of Rangel and known to be supportive of the Brazilian group.

In recent months, the Vatican has signaled strong interest in healing the Lefebvrite schism. In November 2000, Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos, head of a special papal commission created in 1988 to work with traditionalists, opened talks with the Society of St. Pius X.

Though never confirmed by the Vatican, the head of the society, Swiss Bishop Bernard Fellay, has said that Castrillón offered the Lefebvrites an ecclesiastical structure known as an “apostolic administration.” In effect, it would have created a quasi-diocese with global dimensions, allowing the Lefebvrites to carry out their work without permission from local bishops.

The proposal foundered, according to Fellay, when the Lefebvrites imposed two conditions: that the excommunications imposed in 1988 be lifted, and that the pope acknowledge a universal right for all Catholic priests to celebrate Mass according to the pre-Vatican II rite.

Castrillón, according to Fellay, responded that “it is not possible to disavow the work of the council and of Paul VI by freeing the traditional Mass,” citing opposition from some powerful curial cardinals.

Fr. Ludger Grun of the Society of St. Pius X headquarters in Menzingen, Switzerland, told NCR Jan. 2 that the society is still waiting for a response to a letter from Fellay to Castrillón of June 2001 reiterating the two conditions.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, January 11, 2002