The young men had been sent to the Archbishop because they wished to become priests but could find no seminary offering a truly traditional Catholic formation. They had asked older priests for advice and had been told to go to Mgr. Lefebvre. He was reluctant at first but they insisted. He told them that if he undertook their direction their studies would be long and intense and they would lead a life of prayer and sacrifice, the formation necessary to prepare them for the priesthood in these times. They insisted that this was what they wanted. But where could they study? Unfortunately, nowhere suitable could be found in Rome itself; but an old friend, Mgr. Charrière, Bishop of Lausanne, Geneva, and Fribourg, suggested that the students pursue their studies at the University of Fribourg. The Fraternité Sacerdotale de Saint Pie X was established in his diocese on All Saints' Day, 1970, with all the necessary canonical formalities.1
Alas, it soon became clear that this university was infected with Modernism and Liberalism. With the approval of Mgr. Nestor Adam, Bishop of Sion, Mgr. Lefebvre obtained a large house which had belonged to the Canons of St. Bernard in this diocese. The house was at Ecône, no more than a hamlet near the small town of Riddes in the Catholic Canton of Valais. The name of Ecône is now known throughout the world, and thousands of visitors from all over the world come there each year. But until the foundation of the Seminary of St. Pius X it is doubtful whether the name would have meant anything to anyone not living in the immediate vicinity.
The Seminary was formally opened on 7 October 1970. A fascinating account of the events leading up to its acquisition by Mgr. Lefebvre was provided by Father Pierre Épiney, Parish Priest of Riddes, in an address which he gave at the opening of the Priory of St. Pius V at Shawinigan-Sud, Quebec, on 19 March 1977. Father Épiney spoke from his heart as a priest and pastor.2 The circumstances in which this saintly young priest was deprived of his parish are described under the date 15 June 1975. Father Épiney's account follows:
The Beginning of Ecône
My dear colleagues and Canadian friends, I am not going to talk abstractions. All I want to do is give my own testimony, for Providence willed that I should be the first eyewitness of what happened at Ecône.
Ecône will soon be known throughout the world
Ten years ago I was appointed parish priest of Riddes, in which Ecône is situated. That was in 1967. At that time Ecône was nothing in particular. Only one Canon of the Grand-Saint-Bernard remained, and he just looked after some dogs and a few calves. The place was up for sale. In 1968, on 31 May, the Feast of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary, one of my parishioners, M. Alphonse Pedroni (he has already been to Canada with me and also with Mgr. Lefebvre) overheard a member of the Communist Party say in a local café: "is for sale: we're buying it. And the first thing we'll do is destroy the chapel." Alphonse went home, took up the telephone, and called the Canon:
"Is it true that Ecône is for sale?"
"Yes, it's true."
"I'll buy it at the price you have been offered."
He found four friends to help him buy that house and insure that it kept its religious character. The property had belonged to the Canons of Saint-Bernard for over 600 years.
These five men improved the land (in our country it is all vineyards) and waited for the providential moment.
Then one day Mgr. Lefebvre appeared. He was in touch with some young men who wanted to become priests. He had tried opening a house in Fribourg, in Switzerland, but it had become too small. Providence led him to a meeting with these men who were happy to put the house they had bought at his disposal.
I shall always remember that visit of Mgr. Lefebvre's. We had a meal together in a local restaurant. He did not know us. He seemed perplexed at the attitude of M. Pedroni, who said not a word all during the meal. In the end Mgr. Lefebvre urged him to say something.
"Listen, Monseigneur. We are happy to entrust that house to you. I should just like to say this: Ecône will soon be known throughout the world."
During the difficult summer we have just lived through at Ecône, Mgr. Lefebvre reminded me of that: "Alphonse was a true prophet."
"No" to retraining
As for me, what opened my eyes was a retraining course for priests ten years ordained, at Montana in Switzerland. It was to last fifteen days, I stuck it for ten! Then I left and went on a pilgrimage to Fatima. Back home, I told myself I must do something: things could not go on as they were. The theories taught in the retraining were not the Catholic faith we were taught in the seminary. They were hazy theories leading nowhere.
So I thought: "You are no theologian; you are not going to write articles for the papers; you are just a parish priest. You must try to adopt at least two supernatural means to stem the damage and to restore to the parish - with the smallest proportion of practicing Catholics in the whole country - some enthusiasm and a little more love of God."
I decided to begin with the Rosary: the Rosary every day, and on Thursday evenings before the Blessed Sacrament. I decided to go back to the traditional Mass, but with the Epistle and Gospel in French, and every Friday to hold catechism classes for adults. I was astonished at the graces received. The people came. I had a hundred to a hundred and fifty at catechism. I was amazed; and preparing catechism did me a lot of good, because it made me go back over the whole of traditional doctrine. People came to say the Rosary, including a good pagan.
I had to build a church, but I had nothing. I turned to St. Joseph. (I thanked him specially this morning, on his feast day: he has given me such help.) We managed to overcome all difficulties so well that the bishop himself, the day he came to consecrate the church, said to me: "You can thank God. I know this parish - there were not even two men who came to Mass." (He was himself a Canon of Saint-Bernard, and had been parish priest at Ecône. He knew the people.) "You can thank God. What I have seen this morning is beyond anything I could have imagined."
The seminary at Ecône: What will happen?
So I am telling you that I have been well rewarded spiritually and materially. And then Providence pitched the Ecône Seminary into my parish. You can imagine how interested I was, seeing what was going on (for these newcomers do exactly the opposite of what the retrainees are doing). Mgr. Adam, my bishop, was also interested. He twice asked me to pick him up and bring him to the Seminary. He was delighted with what he saw there. Of course there were others, incited by the French progressives, who took a poor view of it. But at last the enterprise started, and I saw the seminarians arriving one by one.
The first week at Ecône they had nothing, so they came to eat at my table. For example, I witnessed the arrival of Denis Roch, a converted Protestant, an engineer. I shall not forget his first visit. After we had talked for an hour he said to me: "Father, Providence arranged for us to meet today. If you please, shall we say a decade of the Rosary together?" We knelt down in the room. It is not every day that you meet a young man like that, a convert from Protestantism, who says to his parish priest after a conversation: "Shall we say a decade of the Rosary?"
So, I witnessed the birth and the growth of this great work. I had the good fortune to be close to Mgr. Lefebvre and to learn much from him. I can therefore tell you without fear of being mistaken: He is truly a man of God; he is a good and a great missionary. Someone said to me one day: "He makes me think of Saint Pius X." Yes, that is so. He has only one desire: that Our Lord Jesus Christ shall reign over all hearts, over all families, over all nations, and that souls shall be saved - for he is a missionary. He does not theorize; he can talk very simply to people because his purpose is the conversion of people: he wants all souls to go to heaven.
I remember one day, a year ago, Cardinal Thiandoum, Archbishop of Dakar, was with me. He had come to topple me into the New Mass. I let him talk; and then I said:
"Listen; Eminence. Do you know who Mgr. Lefebvre is? Must I, a simple parish priest, remind you what he has done for you in Dakar? Eminence, who made you a priest?
-Eminence, who founded the major seminary?
-Eminence, who made the Archdiocese of Dakar?
-Eminence, who made the Dakar Carmel?
-Eminence, who made the monastery of Vieta in Dakar?
-Mgr. Lefebvre. He is my father, I am his son. You are right.
-Well then, Eminence, now that Mgr. Lefebvre finds himself in a situation like this, attacked, calumniated, ridiculed, dare you let your father be so defamed, and say nothing?
(That made him weep.)
Then it is your duty to defend your father and to defend Holy Church. You are too afraid. You must not be afraid, especially when you are invested with authority. What do you risk? - losing your position? losing your life? Good! you will go to heaven."
As for Mgr. Lefebvre, he has no fear. Yet his temperament is very gentle. There is nothing swaggering or bellicose about him. But I have rarely in my life met a man with such courage, such strength of will, such firmness in decision, such persistence and perseverance. And I can say - for I lived with him, at his side, this difficult summer - that he has come to the fight, this year, with redoubled courage. Providence has blessed him with extraordinary powers, for, humanly speaking, he should have been crushed. That proves we have to do with a man of God. I think Providence has made us a great present in giving us this missionary.
That is just what the opposition is now most afraid of, for the missionary in Mgr. Lefebvre has set about "having children." You may laugh at that, but it is true. It was thought that "Vatican II" had won. A few old priests were still resisting, but they would die off. The matter was clear: the whole post-conciliar renewal would be put into effect, as well in the great cities as in the African bush. Fine! - and they were already rubbing their hands. Then, all of a sudden, in a tiny corner of Switzerland, an Archbishop appears who sets about "having children," giving to the Church priests who celebrate the traditional Mass. So the enemy, occupying a strong position in the Vatican, saw red and trained all its guns on Ecône; and Ecône, till then unknown, became famous the world over.
Last year, because of the ordinations, the Vatican launched a press campaign to discredit Mgr. Lefebvre and his young priests, to have them taken for schismatics and rebels. But that very press campaign turned against the Vatican; for when people have been able to see and hear Mgr. Lefebvre their Catholic Faith has revived, and they have said: "He is the one who is right. He, at least, can be known for what he is. We can see that he is an archbishop and that his priests are priests. As for the others, we just do not know what they are." So a large part of public opinion turned in favor of Mgr. Lefebvre and his work.
The Seminary Expands
It soon became known that there was an orthodox seminary in Switzerland. More young men with vocations came forward and financial support began to arrive, first from Switzerland and France, then Germany, then Britain, Australia, the U.S.A. and now from all over the world. Mgr. Lefebvre has rejected as totally false the claims that Ecône relies for its support on rich European industrialists or American millionaires. There are a few large donations (which are very welcome, and why not?) but the major part of the financial support for Ecône is made up of tens of thousands of small gifts, the sacrifices mainly of Catholics of modest means or even the very poor.3 The Archbishop has made St. Joseph responsible for the financial support of the Seminary - and has had no cause for complaint. The number of vocations was so great that an ambitious building program was undertaken. Three new wings have been added and the Seminary is now able to house 140 seminarians and their professors in accommodation of high quality - in fact all the facilities of the Seminary, lecture hall, kitchen, dining hall, and living accommodation are almost certainly of a far higher standard than those of any other seminary in Europe. This was, to a certain extent, a matter of necessity as the standards demanded by the Swiss planning authorities are very high. It was even necessary to incorporate - at very great cost - an atomic bomb proof shelter, a feature which is obligatory in all new public buildings in Switzerland.
I have tried to evoke the spirit of the Seminary, and life there, in Chapter VI, which includes an account of my first visit to Ecône in 1975.
In its early years the Seminary received the enthusiastic support of at least some sections of the Vatican, that of Cardinal Wright, Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, in particular. A letter which he wrote in 1971, expressing his satisfaction at the progress of the Seminary, is reproduced in Appendix V. He was still recommending young men with vocations to apply for admission to Ecône as late as 1973. I possess the written testimony of one of the seminarians to this effect.
Houses have also been opened in a number of other countries, one of them at Albano, near Rome. This house at Albano was obtained with all the authorization required by Canon Law. It is being used at present for the religious order for women founded by the Archbishop but will eventually be used for sixth year training for the newly ordained priests of the Society. This will not only free accommodation at Ecône for new entrants but, in Mgr. Lefebvre's own words, will also "enable our young priests to draw upon all the resources of the eternal Rome, its Tradition, its martyrs, its magisterium, its monuments, and also to deepen their attachment to the Bishop of Rome, the successor of Peter. "4
The aim of the Seminary is to form good and true priests, devoted to Our Lord, to Our Lady, to the Church, and to the Mass; men burning with pastoral zeal.
The Archbishop is convinced that such a formation can be achieved only by means of a traditional seminary formation based, above all, on Thomism and the traditional Latin Liturgy.
This view certainly seems to be confirmed by the position in France, where half of the major seminaries have already been closed. In France, between 1963 and 1973 there was an 83 per cent drop in the number of men studying for the priesthood. In 1963 there were 917 seminary entrants. In 1973 there were only 151.5 So great indeed is the excess of priests who die or abandon the priesthood over the number of new ordinations to replace them that a spokesman for the French Bishops' Conference has gone so far as to suggest the ordination of married men as a possible solution.
There is, incidentally, a very high "drop-out" rate in the remaining French seminaries, 422 students having "dropped out" in 1973.6
Should this trend continue it is quite within the bounds of possibility that within ten years the Society of St. Pius X could be ordaining more priests than all the seminaries in France put together.
There can be no doubt that it was the escalating success of Ecône in the face of the accelerating decline in the French seminary system which initiated the campaign against Ecône.
It will be shown in Chapter III that Mgr. Lefebvre was far from popular with the more Liberal French bishops even before the Council. As Appendix VIII to Pope John's Council makes clear, the post-conciliar "renewal" in France had proved to be a débâcle almost as catastrophic in its dimension as that in Holland. The success of Ecône provided so dramatic a contrast to this débâcle that its very existence became intolerable for some French bishops. They referred to it as Le Séminaire Sauvage - the Wildcat Seminary - giving the impression that it had been set up illegally without the authorization of the Vatican. This appellation was seized upon gleefully by the Liberal Catholic press throughout the world and soon the terms "Ecône" and "Wildcat Seminary" became synonymous.
The Canonical Status of Ecône
In view of the frequency of the allegation that Mgr. Lefebvre established his seminary without canonical authorization, the canonical status of the Seminary at Ecône is examined in some detail in Appendix V. At this point I will refer briefly to some of the evidence which makes it quite clear that the Seminary was established legally. Firstly, at no stage in the campaign against Ecône did any Vatican spokesman ever allege that the canonical basis of the Seminary was in doubt. Had there been any weakness in the canonical status of Ecône the Vatican would certainly have used this in its campaign to discredit the Archbishop. On the contrary, in 1974 two Apostolic Visitors were dispatched by the Vatican to conduct an official inspection of the Seminary (see the entry for 11-13 November 1974). The letter of condemnation sent to Mgr. Lefebvre by the Commission of Cardinals stated that the Society "no longer having a juridical basis, its foundations, and notably the Seminary at Ecône, lose by the same act the right to existence." Obviously, the Vatican would not conduct an official inspection of an unofficial seminary nor would it withdraw the right to exist from a seminary which had never possessed such a right. (The Cardinals' letter is included under the date 6 May 1975.)
Definite proof that the Society of St. Pius X and the Seminary enjoyed Vatican approval well after the foundation of Ecône is provided by the fact the members of three religious orders were transferred from their own orders to the society of St. Pius X by the Sacred Congregation for Religious. I have documentary proof that this was done in 1972 before me as I write. The Vatican would hardly have allowed members of religious orders to be transferred to a Society which had established a "wildcat seminary." Again, in February 1971, Cardinal Wright wrote to Mgr. Lefebvre expressing his pleasure at the progress and expansion of the Society and mentioning that it was receiving praise and approval from bishops in various parts of the world (this letter is reproduced in full inAppendix V). It has been alleged that this letter could not have involved praise for the Seminary as it had not yet been founded in February 1971.7On the contrary, it was formally opened on 7 October 1970. On 6 June 1971 the Archbishop blessed the foundation stone of the new buildings, an event which some of his opponents have confused with the foundation of the Seminary.
Finally, bishops from a number of countries incardinated priests from Ecône into their dioceses, observing all the required canonical procedure. This could not have taken place had the canonical basis of the Seminary not been sound.
The Importance of Cardinal Villot
The French bishops held what they believed to be a trump card - Cardinal Villot, Secretary of State and the most powerful man in the Vatican, in de facto terms probably even more powerful than Pope Paul VI himself. As well as holding the all-powerful office of Secretary of State, Cardinal Villot controlled twelve other key Vatican positions.8 Ecône could not be allowed to survive if the French bishops were to retain any credibility. They could count on Cardinal Villot - and with his support there was no hope for the Seminary. It had been sentenced to death. Before examining the campaign designed to implement this death sentence it will be of considerable value if readers are enabled to form an impression of Mgr. Lefebvre for themselves. Ideally they should meet him, but short of doing this the best alternative is to read what he has to say about himself. Chapter III is an account of his life given in his own words - but this should obviously be supplemented by reading his book A Bishop Speaks.9 Indeed, it is presumed throughout the present work that the reader already has a copy of this fundamental text.
1. The text of the Decree of Erection is contained in Appendix V.
2. Father Épiney's account was published in the French-Canadian traditionalist journal Le Doctrinaire, No. 30, April 1977.
3. Hanu, p. 194 (165-166).
4. See Ecône Newsletter No. 5.
5. Report issued by the French National Center for Vocations and cited in the Irish Catholic, 20 March 1975.
6. The Tablet, 27 January 1973 and 1 June 1974. The same reports reveal that in 1971, for example, the excess of deaths over ordinations was 465 and that in the same year almost 200 priests left the priesthood. In 1967 there were 40,994 priests in France. The French Bishops' Conference estimated that by the end of 1975 there would be only 21,820. The number of actual ordinations has declined as follows; 1966-566, 1970-284, 1973-219, 1976-136.
7. See Father Milan Mikulich's Orthodoxy of Catholic Doctrine, April 1977, p. 4.
8. Hanu, p. 238.
9. Available from The Angelus Press in the U.S.A. and in Britain from The Augustine Publishing Company.