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September 2, 2005
Vol. 5, No. 1

John L. Allen Jr.


Benedict and the Lefebvrites; Speaking with Fr. Franz Schmidberger and the Vatican; The skittishness was palpable; Another private audience; WYD debriefing; Soulforce in Rome; A footnote to the CL meeting


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Rarely has a 35-minute audience, one that didn't even appear on the pope's official list of engagements, made as much of a splash as Benedict XVI's "private" Aug. 29 encounter with Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior of the Society of St. Pius X, the body founded in 1970 by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

The "Lefebvrites," known for their adherence to the pre-Vatican II rite of the Mass, split with the Vatican in 1988 when Lefebvre ordained four bishops without the pope's permission.

Benedict has a personal history on this score. It was then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who, in 1988, was asked by John Paul II to oversee negotiations to avoid just such a schism. Ratzinger worked out a "protocol of agreement" with Lefebvre, promising to appoint a bishop to head the society, and requiring only that the Lefebvrites approach doctrinal disputes with "a positive attitude of study and of communication with the Apostolic See, avoiding all polemics."

(CNS/ Catholic Press Photo, CIRIC)
Schismatic Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior general of the Society of St. Pius X, is seen near a portrait of Pope Piux X in Econe, Switzerland, in this Sept. 17, 2004, file photo.
Lefebvre, however, balked at the last minute and went ahead with the ordinations. In response, John Paul excommunicated Lefebvre and the four bishops (including Fellay). Lefebvre died in 1991.

Today, the Society of St. Pius X claims roughly 200,000 followers worldwide in 27 nations, with 450 priests, 180 seminarians, 50 brothers and 110 sisters, six seminaries, three universities, and 20 secondary schools and 50 primary schools.

After Fellay's plans for a meeting with the pope became public in July, the Catholic rumor mill had been awash with speculation. Some felt that Benedict XVI would announce a universal "indult," or permission, for celebration of the Mass according to the 1962 Missal, the last before the reforms of Vatican II. Others felt the pope would offer the Lefebvrites a special juridical structure, such as an apostolic administration. (A similar strategy was employed in 2001 to reintegrate a group of traditionalist Catholics in Campos, Brazil). Part of this deal, according to the speculation, would have involved "regularization" of marriages performed by Lefebvrite priests and annulments handed out by their tribunals.

None of this came to pass, at least in the immediate wake of the meeting. Instead, both sides issued statements commenting on the positive atmosphere and vowing to proceed "by degrees," but both in their own way acknowledging the serious difficulties that remain.

That doesn't mean, however, that the encounter is without interest.

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On Friday, Sept. 2, I spoke by phone with Fr. Franz Schmidberger, the current number two official in the Society of St. Pius X, and the man who did the preparatory work for the Aug. 29 meeting between Fellay and the pope. Schmidberger was Lefebvre's first successor as Superior General of the Society of St. Pius X.

It was Schmidberger who preached the homily at Lefebvre's April 1991 funeral in Ecône, Switzerland.

In the lead-up to the Aug. 29 encounter, Schmidberger said he met in Rome with five cardinals and other officials of the Roman Curia, including Colombian Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, head of the Ecclesia Dei Commission created in 1988 to meet the pastoral needs of Catholics attached to the old Mass. Those five cardinals, he said, included three currently in the Vatican and two who are retired. Aside from Castrillón Hoyos, he declined to name the cardinals involved.

Schmidberger told me that he believes reconciliation between Rome and the Lefebvrites "is a question of some years, rather than months."

Schmidberger said he was bothered by a Vatican statement after the meeting which spoke of moving towards full communion.

"We have always considered ourselves to be in full communion with Rome," he said. "Talk of restoring 'full communion' is psychological rather than theological."

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That Vatican statement also spoke of moving forward by "degrees," so I asked Schmidberger what those degrees might be.

Schmidberger cited the two pre-conditions that have routinely been laid down by the Lefebvrites: the pope should acknowledge the right of any priest to celebrate the pre-Vatican II Mass, and the Vatican should stop referring to the "excommunications" of the four bishops consecrated by Lefebvre in 1988.

At the same time, Schmidberger said, for its part the society should "multiply our contacts with the bishops and the Roman Curia."

Then, Schmidberger said, "We have to have serious conversations about the Second Vatican Council."

"There are many points we simply do not agree with," he said.

Schmidberger cited the council's ecumenical teaching, which he characterized as, "The Holy Ghost has used other denominations as means of salvation." This, Schmidberger said, is unacceptable.

He said the same point applies to the council's teaching on other religions.

Schmidberger also said the society "cannot accept" the council's teaching on religious liberty.

"This is not because it is our position, or because we want to puff ourselves up with glory, but because it is in contradiction with what other popes have said," Schmidberger said. "It is in contradiction, for example, with what Pius IX said in the encyclical Quanta Cura. I really don't see how these two things can be reconciled."

Issued in 1864, Quanta Cura was accompanied by Pius IX's famous Syllabus of Errors, in which religious liberty was denounced as "liberty of perdition."

Finally, Schmidberger pointed to the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes, which in paragraph 12 says that "all things on earth should be ordained to man as to their center and summit."

"We do not agree," Schmidberger said. "The center and summit must be God."

"These are very substantial points," he said. "It's not just a matter of working out a few minor things."

I asked Schmidberger if, in his view, these theological debates had to be resolved before the Lefebvrites could be reconciled with Rome.

"No, but we have to be able to express our reservations about the council," he said. "We must have this liberty. We must be able to criticize the council. … It's for the welfare of the church. There are profound wounds coming forth from this, and those wounds must be healed."

Hence, Schmidberger said, it's not that Rome must renounce chunks of Vatican II before "normalization" can occur. It's rather that, from the Lefebvrite point of view, a right to challenge the council's teaching must be guaranteed.

Schmidberger, who was present for Benedict XVI's meeting with Fellay, said the pope said nothing about any of this.

"But we are patient," he said. "We have waited years. We can go on waiting."

Finally, Schmidberger addressed what he described as a "calumny" against the Lefebvrites: that they do not accept popes since John XXIII as legitimate.

"We always have held to the pope, we pray for him, and we insert his name in the canon of the Mass," Schmidberger said. "This is an attempt to mix us up with other agendas."

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Both John Paul II and now Benedict XVI have reached out to the Lefebvrites in ways that they have not with other "dissident" factions. This has puzzled some observers, who wonder why Rome has gone to such lengths to reconcile with the Society of St. Pius X, which, after all, has roughly the contours of a mid-sized diocese.

I spoke with a senior Vatican official on this point on Tuesday, Aug. 30. He observed that the Lefebvrites represent the only formal schism in the church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, which creates a special set of problems. The heart of his answer has to do with the distinction in Catholic theology between the "validity" and the "licitness" of a sacrament.

To take an example, according to Catholic theology, whenever a legitimate Catholic priest celebrates the Eucharist, the sacrament is valid -- the bread and wine really do become the body and blood of Christ. Yet canon law restricts the number of times a priest can say Mass on a given day, twice on weekdays and three times on Sunday. If a Catholic takes communion at a priest's third Mass on a Tuesday, he or she is still receiving the Body of Christ, but it's not "licit" and the priest could get into trouble for doing it (depending on the circumstances).

Hence "validity" has to do with sacramental theology, "licitness" with the requirements of canon law.

Applied to the Lefebvrites, the point is that the bishops consecrated by Lefebvre are fully valid, meaning that they have an undeniable claim to apostolic succession. The priestly ordinations they in turn perform are also valid, albeit illicit. Thus the Lefebvrites can in effect build a parallel church, the legitimacy of which the Vatican cannot challenge, even if it is outside church law.

This is what makes the Lefebvrite situation different, according to the senior Vatican source, from other groups of disaffected Catholics. The concerns of other groups represent a pastoral challenge, but the Lefebvrites are a genuine ecclesiological nightmare -- legitimately ordained bishops acting outside of communion with the pope, spawning an entire ecclesiastical structure that Rome is constrained to recognize but cannot control.

This Vatican official said that it's not just that Benedict XVI sympathizes with some criticisms of the post-Vatican II liturgical reforms, or that as a basic conservative he's more open to the Lefebvrites than, say, to Voice of the Faithful, or that he has a sense of unfinished business from 1988 (however true all these points may be).

At bottom, the official said, any pope would feel a special urgency to try to resolve an honest-to-God schism, because it risks further formal division in Christianity, which, among other things, runs contrary to everything the ecumenical movement has tried to achieve over the past 40 years.

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Both sides were eager not to over-play the Aug. 29 meeting.

As noted above, the Vatican didn't put the meeting on the pope's official list of audiences, and care was taken to ensure that TV crews did not get images of Fellay entering or exiting Castel Gandolfo. Neither Navarro nor any other Vatican official gave on-camera remarks about the encounter.

On the part of the Lefebvrites, the skittishness was palpable.

Journalists had been sent a communiqué by the Italian branch of the society on Wednesday of the week before the meeting, which triggered an avalanche of requests for interviews with Fellay. Spokespersons told journalists that their plans were not yet clear, but if Fellay said anything to the press, it would be at the society's headquarters in Albano, not far away from Castel Gandolfo.

During the morning of Aug. 29, however, spokespersons did not return phone calls.

The result was that a group of journalists, including RAI, TG-5 and Sky (the main television news outlets in Italy), ANSA (the main Italian wire service), the Associated Press and NCR showed up Monday afternoon at the Albano headquarters, where we were detained outside the main entrance. At one point, a car carrying an Associated Press TV camera crew was allowed to enter, only to be expelled a few moments later.

Priests of the society wearing cassocks periodically arrived at the gate to find out who we were, promising to relay requests and get back to us.

In the end, only the RAI crew was allowed to speak with Fellay. After a further hour of waiting, the rest of us were informed that members of the society were praying the breviary and would be unavailable for further comment.

This hesitation is understandable, given that both sides have to worry about forces within their own camps who viewed the meeting with skepticism.

Richard Williamson, for example, another of the four bishops consecrated by Lefebvre in 1988, bristled.

"In fact, a Rome-Society of St. Pius X agreement seems impossible," he wrote in July. "And if the Society rejoined Rome, the resistance of Catholic Tradition would carry on without it, and if the Pope 'converted', then instead of the gentle war now being waged on his right by Tradition, he would be faced with a savage war being waged on his left by the cabal of neo-modernists. Either way, the war goes on between the friends and the enemies of the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ."

On the Vatican side, Cardinal Francesco Pompedda, the former prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, told the Italian daily La Stampa that full communion can only be achieved "if the Society of St. Pius X submits itself to the legitimate authority of the Pope" and recognizes the validity of Vatican II decrees.

Pompedda said the society was founded upon "an attitude of condemnation of the Second Vatican Council."

Pompedda said that he did not perceive a "new climate between the two parties." He said that "it was not the Holy See that created the division," but the defiance of the traditionalist groups.

Another Vatican official who has been involved with negotiations with the Lefebvrites put it more simply to me on Sept. 2: "They need to be converted."

Given those reactions, neither Benedict nor Fellay wants to risk the impression of a too-hasty "surrender."

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Speaking of private meetings with the pope, it was revealed this week in the Italian press that last Saturday Benedict XVI received Oriana Fallaci, a legendary Italian journalist and author of 2001's La Rabbia e l'Orgoglio ("The Rage and the Pride"), a strong wake-up call about what Fallaci sees as the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism. There is currently a legal process underway in Italy against Fallaci, brought by a controversial Muslim activist, claiming alleged vilification of Islam.

Fallaci wrote the book from her adopted home in New York City, where she said she was jolted out of a 10-year literary silence by the events of Sept. 11.

Though the Vatican writer for Il Messaggero, Orazio Petrosillo, rightly pointed out that popes receive all sorts of people who have interesting things to say, and that such meetings do not necessarily signify total agreement, nevertheless it's likely more than simple intellectual curiosity that motivated Benedict to sit down with this self-professed secular atheist.

For years, critics complained that John Paul II was "soft" on fundamentalist currents in Islam, especially on two issues: terrorism and religious freedom. One of those critics, in fact, was Fallaci herself. ("Your Holiness, why in the name of the only God, don't you take them into the Vatican?" she wrote. "On the condition that they don't smear the Sistine Chapel with shit . . .")

Benedict may not agree with that reading of the previous pope's record, but he certainly agrees with the need for clarity on terrorism and religious liberty. It's no accident that in his recent meeting with Muslims in Cologne, those were precisely the two matters he brought up. He issued a lengthy appeal to combat terrorism, and then stated that a culture that does not honor religious freedom is not worthy of being called a civilization; the implied upshot was that states under shariah, or Islamic religious law, are not truly civilized.

The Fallaci audience, therefore, comes across as another sign that in his approach to Islam, Benedict XVI is likely to take a somewhat more explicitly "hawkish" line than his predecessor.

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I had the opportunity recently to join a group of Canadians in Rome following World Youth Day. The Canadians, part of a group called "Catholic Christian Outreach Canada," were led by Basilian Fr. Thomas Rosica, who was the main organizer for World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002.

Bishop Renato Boccardo and I had been invited for a "debriefing" from Cologne with the group.

Boccardo has a long history with World Youth Day. When he worked in the Pontifical Council for Laity, he was in charge of WYD preparations. When he took over from Jesuit Cardinal Roberto Tucci as the pope's travel planner, he played a key role in the Toronto and Cologne events.

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By day, Boccardo's job is secretary of the Governatorato, or government, of the Vatican City-State. It's a detail-intensive role, as witnessed by an episode on the evening we were together. When Boccardo arrived at the convent, he noticed that workers in the papal apartments, who are carrying out extensive remodeling, had left a light on. In Vatican symbolism, an open shutter on the pope's window signifies presence, and a light signifies activity. Boccardo feared people would think the pope was home instead of at Castel Gandolfo, and called the Vatican's chief of police on his cell phone to ask him to kill the light.

In his remarks to the Canadians, Boccardo described the heart of Pope John Paul II's vision for World Youth Day in three concepts.

Kerygma: The first purpose of the event, Boccardo said, is to come together to hear the gospel, and to reflect on what it means in one's life and circumstances. This is not just a matter of the pope's homilies, but also of the catechetical sessions that are carried out during the week.

Experience of the Church: What World Youth Day does for many Catholic youth, Boccardo said, is open them up to the breadth of what it means to be Catholic, exposing many for the first time to the reality of a global church. Among other things, Boccardo noted, this should make youth aware that their way of doing things is not the only one, and that their movements are not the only options for authentic Catholic living.

Mission: The point of World Youth Day, Boccardo stressed, is not merely to have a great experience of togetherness for a week. It's to energize people to go home and make a difference, bringing new energy to their local churches, youth groups, and other areas of their lives.

On this last point, I told the youth that World Youth Day has become the premier event for the Catholic church on the global stage, which means that it garners the attention of the world press. The question, however, that my colleagues always ask is, "What difference does it make?" Granted that hundreds of thousands of Catholic youth exhibit great passion over a week, does it change anything in the long run? Are these youth more likely to go to Mass? Do vocations to the priesthood and religious life go up? Is there evidence that these events have put a dent in runaway secularization?

These are legitimate questions, and unfortunately they're hard to answer in any quantitative fashion. To date, no one has carried out serious longitudinal studies about the impact of World Youth Day, interviewing participants before and after, following up six months later, two years later, etc., to get a handle on what happens to people who take part. It's a challenge to which one hopes a Catholic university or research body will respond.

In the meantime, I told the Canadian youth that it would be helpful if they went home and talked about what difference the experience made in their lives -- not just to reporters, but in their schools, in their workplaces, among their friends and family. Images of delirious youth greeting the pope along the banks of the Rhine will be greeted in some circles with skepticism until the church can establish that the effect "sticks."

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Just before 8 a.m. on Jan. 13, 1998, a 39-year-old Sicilian named Alfredo Ormando slipped into St. Peter's Square in Rome. Ormando removed a can of gasoline, doused himself, and lit himself on fire. He began walking in the direction of St. Peter's Basilica "like a giant torch," as one witness put it. Two police officers intercepted Ormando as he reached the steps. They wrestled him to the ground and extinguished the flames, which by then had covered nine-tenths of his body with burns. He was taken to a nearby hospital where he lingered for 10 days before dying.

Ormando, it emerged, was gay. He had been born into a poor village in central Sicily. Depressed by his family's refusal to accept him, Ormando moved to Palermo where he aspired to be a writer -- "an intellectual in a family of laborers," as his landlord recalled. He had little success, with only one book issued by a small local publisher.

Gay rights activists argued that Ormando's choice of St. Peter's Square was not an accident -- he was, they asserted, bringing his problems back to their source.

For some gay Christians, Ormando has become a martyr.

On Sept. 2, roughly a dozen American pro-gay Christians, part of a group called "Soulforce," laid flowers and prayer cards near the obelisk in St. Peter's Square in memory of Ormando, on the spot where they say he "burned himself to death to protest the anti-homosexual policies of the Roman Catholic church."

The group chanted, "We will not forget Armando!"

Philip and Randi Reitan of Eden Prairie, Minn., said they had symbolically "adopted" Ormando as their own son, since his natural family had rejected him. "We know so many young gay men like him, so hurt by the teachings of the church," Randi Reitan said. "When the church teaches people not to accept and to love their own children, it destroys a mother's heart."

"If Alfredo had his family, society and church standing by him, this would not have happened," Philip Reitan said.

The Reitans, who are Lutherans, said they were motivated to become involved in pro-gay activism because their own son, Jacob, 23, is gay.

Mel White, an Episcopalian minister who heads Soulforce, said the group had arrived in Rome on board a gay cruise ship. They had tried to recruit participants in the cruise to attend the protest, he said, but few turned out.

The event took less than 10 minutes, and was not interrupted by Vatican security officials.

It was not Soulforce's first stab at Vatican protest.

In January 2001, a small Soulforce group had threatened to force police to arrest them in St. Peter's Square if a Vatican official did not meet with them to initiate a dialogue about church teaching on homosexuality. After two-and-a-half hours, however, they left voluntarily.

Since it was the Christmas season, they had wanted to process to the giant nativity set in the middle of the square in order to leave photos of themselves, as gifts, at the feet of the Christ child, but police politely turned them away. Before disbanding, the group applauded the police for their courtesy, and then extended their arms towards the papal apartments to bless Pope John Paul II.

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After my experience last week at the massive annual Communion and Liberation gathering in Rimini, I was curious to know more about the roots of the movement, so I picked up Msgr. Massimo Camisasca's book Comunione e Liberazione: Le Origini (1954-1968).

The book, published in Italian, offers a candid telling of the adventures and controversies that surrounded Fr. Luigi Giussani, the legendary founder of the movement who died in February 2005, and his early work with Gioventù Studentesca, the body that would evolve into Comunione e Liberazione.

Here's a line from Giussani, quoted by Camisasca in a footnote, which may still have some relevance in the debate over the "new movements":

"A movement in the church is like an unplanned pregnancy … the child may be unwanted, but it can't be aborted," Giussani said. The implication is that over time, the church will learn to love the child, even though it wasn't in the script.

Whether that's yet happened with CL, or the other movements, probably depends on one's point of view.

As a further note, Americans may be interested to know that when Cardinal Giovanni Colombo of Milan decided to send Giussani away in 1965 so that Gioventù Studentesca could be absorbed by other structures, his exile, of all places, was in Texas. The idea was that Giussani would study American Protestant theology. In the event, Giussani lasted barely four months in the Lone Star State, from July to October 1965, and then fled back to Milan with health problems.

Years later, in recounting an episode in 1954 in which he and a non-believing teacher squared off in a Milan high school, Giussani said he told his colleague that even if he never saw America he would have faith it existed, as a means of illustrating that faith is an essential component of human reasoning. As an aside, Giussani observed: "At the time, I was persuaded I would never see America … I wouldn't have missed much!"

So much, apparently, for his experience of Texas.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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