In favor of a traditional formation of diocesan priests

Par l'abbé Claude Barthe

Français, italiano

A prominent point of the present crisis is the collapse of the number of priestly vocations in the dioceses. In different situations, in case of traditional or very conservative options, to the contrary, vocations continue to relatively flourish. Here again, as in other areas previously discussed such as catechism, liturgy, predication on Last Ends, the idea would be to return to the center of the Church what has been pushed to the side, for what regards the formation of priests according to a traditional model.

The dynamic of the provisional as a motto to live by

In the various articles that we have published to take part in a reflection on a true reform of the Church, we have insisted on the fact that it was necessary to project ourselves in the future, one not yet all laid out. We are speaking of a process of transition towards a return to order (magisterial, liturgical), from a present situation when those who are aware of the disorder, in the name of the instinct of the faith, have been forced to come together to save what can be saved (preserve the catechism, the liturgy, vocations).

But these safeguarding measures must be addressed in view of the term to attain, a restoration in the full sense of the word. To this end, one must convince himself that we are in a “dynamic of the provisional”. The expression is from Brother Roger of Taizé whose perspective, one of a foggy ecumenical romanticism, is obviously not ours, except for what regards denouncing the peril of installation, the key theme being: at Taizé, we have the conviction that we makes our particularity one day “will have to disappear”, that our present element of organization are “instruments which allow us to hold onto Hope”, which are only “provisional data”[1].

This danger exists today on the part of clerics and bishops who administer a Church modeled  by the spirit of the Council, and who are unable to imagine coming out of it. At best, they reduce their actions to fighting the crisis with reformist attempts, without a radical calling into question (that is to say trying to get to the roots of the crisis) which prove themselves bound by some revolutionary ways, always disappointing. But, this danger exists also on the part of all those who, at various levels, have entered in the “opposition” – liturgy, theology, catechism, Catholic schools, seminaries – and who seem unable to imagine them either, that we could one day come out of this marginal situation in which their action is confined, whether this action be tolerated (SSPX) or officially approved but yet outside the shared norm (ex-Ecclesia Dei institutes).

The traditional communities (and even the conservative communities, like the Communauté Saint-Martin) hold their existence historically from the foundation by Archbishop Lefebvre, first in Friburg, Switzerland, in 1969, then in Ecône, in 1970-71, of a house of priestly formation which was the cause and the imperative for the creation of a community[2]. The seminary was  thus the heart of a clerical association (as taken from the old code of Canon Law, “a pious union”) of diocesan right, erected in 1970 in the diocese of Friburg and suppressed in 1975. As the society expanded internationally, other seminaries were opened in Germany, in the United States, and in Argentina. When the Ecclesia Dei institutes started appearing as apostolic societies of pontifical right, in 1988, they reproduced this very same structure each with the characteristics of its own charism, of societies destined first to train priests in a traditional way (liturgy, philosophy, theology) in seminaries just made for that, Wigratzbad, Gricigliano, Courtalain, etc., for the celebration of the traditional mass.

This specificity always attracts many candidates – at least relatively in a context of collapse of vocations in diocesan seminaries -, but their liturgical identity which is their heart brings them at the margins, and as a result the priests trained in these seminaries have an apostolate, thought maybe large[3], yet well distinct from the “ordinary” apostolate of parishes and dioceses.

The importance of border zones

This clear-cut partition in distinct territories prevents or considerably interferes with a liturgical , catechetical traditionalisation of the entire ecclesial arena, even if it did not call for the immediate adoption of the old rite in ordinary parishes. But this liturgical traditionalisation will be the heart of the ecclesial transition that is to be promoted. In a way, it is the big piece of the puzzle, other pieces such as philosophy, theology, homiletic, traditional catechesis, generally “derive from” the liturgy.

This is why presently this border zones are of great interest: personal parishes assigned to the traditional liturgy integrated in the diocesan landscape, and in some rare cases can be entrusted to diocesan priests; “ordinary” parishes where the diocesan priests have adopted the traditional liturgy often side by side with the new liturgy; dioceses where these situations of border zones have increased in number as in the dioceses of Fréjus-Toulon, France, and Albenga, Italy, though both have been the target of disciplinary measures. It is actually in dioceses such as these two that some seminaries were willing to engage in a process of traditionalisation, as was the case in the diocese of Ciudad del Este, in Paraguay, with its very thriving Saint Joseph Seminary, opened in 2004, but disciplined ten years later. The same process could start again comes a time of greater freedom.

At any rate, the diocesan clergy needs to find new vitality with priests with a traditional formation. Such evolution supposes a double movement, one on the part of the bishops and one on the part of the traditional or very conservative communities.

On the part of the bishops, it supposes a formalization of the kind of priests trained and ordained in traditional communities, or maybe trained in the dioceses but who have re-trained if we may say, but whose liturgical ways have outcasted them or marginalized them. It also supposes a true integration of the traditional communities or the most conservative communities in the official apostolate work of the diocese. Though it is true that in order to enter with determination a process of transition the practice of the usus antiquior as the eminent form of the liturgy will be a criteria start of a recovery, so much it is true that a lasting lex orandi is the sign of an unchanged lex credendi.

We would like to recommend a short book, La messe à l’endroit. Un nouveau mouvement liturgique[4], in which we addressed the elements of a “reform of the reform”, that is to say a gradual process of transition, rapid and slow at the same time, from an “ordinary” state of the parochial liturgy toward a traditional state of the liturgy (turned towards God; progressive return to the use of Latin as a liturgical language, communion on the tongue, use of the Roman canon, use of the traditional offertory), with the help of the concomitant presence and considered as the norm and, even better, normative of the traditional form of the Roman rite.

But, at the same time, it requires that the institutes, communities, groups, kept on the side, accept the risks of losing some of their identity which is inevitable when coming into the “center”. These risks are very real, the experience proves it: normalization must not bring blandness.

We would like to emphasize the fact that these traditional communities were born concretely of the present crisis, as some sorts of palliatives. It is clear that the large majority of young men who turn to these communities to enter the ecclesiastical state would have normally integrated the diocesan clergy. This remark also applies to the conservative communities founded since the Council.

If, thus, we consider these communities as having large pools of priest traditionally trained, they could very well supply the dioceses and parishes with priests of this type, as long as a certain fluidity between them is established. They could eventually help diocesan priests who wish it to complete or rectify their formation, be places of re-training. And then, in second stage, like congregations that specialized in the training of diocesan clergy did in the past (Sulpicians, Eudists) they could even become in charge of diocesan seminaries, ensuring that doctrinal rectitude allies the culture of an adequate scientific competence, in regards to theology, history, and exegetic.

* * *

The mention of the sons of Mr. Olier, of Saint John Eudes, Claude Poullard des Places, and Mr. Vincent, sends us back to the communities that brought to life this essential part – the heart of its heart – of the Counter-Reform, that is to say the formation of the clergy and the running of seminaries. Evidently the momentum of Christianity in this day and age does not even come close to the burning fire of the era P. Amelote, the biographer of Charles de Condren, calls the “Century of saints”. But it is clear that the intuitions of this great founders were not necessarily followed through and that they can still be pursued further as they remain of the greatest interest. As such, we would like to mention the formation of seminarians within a community of parochial priests, like at Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet with Adrien Bourdoise or Saint-Sulpice with Jean-Jacques Olier. Isn’t that the idea that gave Cardinal Lustiger the impulse to create a specific system of formation for seminarians, an idea which actually had not been entirely developed either, in the case of places of formation attached to parishes, with classes in a school with the rank of a university?

For, if it is evident that the formation of priests must be today substantially one spiritual, philosophical, theological, according to the Tridentine reform, it will also need to be adjusted in relation to an entirely different context. Not only different from a XVII and XVIII century context, or from XIX century post-revolutionary reconstructions, or even the less favorables years in regards to ecclesial potentialities of the Thirties and Fifties, but also different from the situation right after the Council where, in the middle of the fire, the urgency of safeguarding took over any other consideration.

Fr. Claude Barthe

[1] Br. Roger, The dynamic of the provisional, Mowbray edition, 1981.

[2] Mgr Lefebvre taught a priestly spirituality of the kind found in the École française, passed on via Claude Poullard des Places et le Fr. Libermann, respectively founder et re-founder of the Holy Ghost Fathers, up to the theological darings of this particular school. Such as, the qualification of the priestly character as a certain participation to the hypostatic union.

[3] In a French city, the Sunday apostolate of the FSSP and of the SSPX priests each gather more faithful than all the masses at the cathedral.

[4] Carnet Hora Decima, éditions de l’Homme Nouveau, 2010 (https://hommenouveau.aboshop.fr/common/product-article/19)