Sermon of Bishop Bernard Fellay, Superior General of the SSPX, December 8, 2011, in Ecône
“We want only one thing: to attack the real problem in the present crisis.”
My dear seminarians,
my dearest confreres,
We celebrate today the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary. Some people, curiously enough, perhaps because of the word “conception” (which they connect with what we say in the Angelus, “And she conceived by the Holy Spirit”), think that this feast concerns the virginal motherhood of the Blessed Virgin: Mary conceived the Child Jesus while remaining a virgin. That is not what it is about. When we speak about the Immaculate Conception, we mean the spotless conception of the Most Blessed Virgin. The Blessed Virgin was conceived and came into the world without sin, preserved from the stain of original sin. This law is imposed on all the children of Adam and Eve; we all have the inheritance of original sin.
Adam and Eve sinned, and they committed that first sin as the head of the whole human race. In that sin, one might say, they pawned the whole human race, all their descendants. So it is that all the sons and daughters of Eve and Adam come into the world with this terrible inheritance: a debt owed to God. And more than a debt, because they are deprived of what can bring about their happiness: grace. This lack of grace is not a neutral state, it is a state of hostility toward God. A state of imprisonment, of slavery in the hands of the devil – the consequence of that first sin which is called original sin. One human creature was preserved from it, the Most Blessed Virgin Mary.
The Immaculate Conception, the extraordinary privilege of the Holy Mother of God
This absolutely extraordinary privilege is precisely what today’s feast celebrates. She does not have that inheritance. Why? In expectation of the merits of her Son. Her Son is Our Lord, the Savior. And God willed that His Son – the Son of God – should come into the world from a mother who from the very beginning of her existence was preserved from sin, from opposition to God. Immaculate! Immaculate even in her conception. And this Immaculate Conception will preserve this immaculate character during her whole life. Throughout her life, the Most Blessed Virgin Mary would never sin, would never offend the Good Lord. A truly extraordinary privilege! Let us truly salute, let us hail the Mother of God, the Queen of heaven and earth, our Mother, for such a beautiful, such a magnificent privilege!
To say that she was preserved or spared may give us a somewhat negative idea. But when we say about a tablecloth, for example, that it is spotless, we are not saying something negative. If a tablecloth is spotless, if it is immaculate, it is quite beautiful. And when we say that the Blessed Virgin was preserved from sin, this does not mean that she is in a neutral state in relation to God. She is in a state of grace, and not just any grace. Pius IX, in order to establish this dogma of the Immaculate Conception, would base it on the words of the angel’s salutation that we heard in the Gospel: “full of grace”, “Hail, Mary, full of grace”. The angel calls Mary “full of grace” (Luke 1:28). This is the title that he gives her. A fullness of grace, a sanctifying grace, is a participation in the life of God. You see, at the beginning of human history, this natural state, as opposed to the supernatural state, did not exist. The Good Lord, from the beginning, destined man to much more than what man can do. He destined him to become a child of God. He destined him for Heaven. And when we say Heaven, this means: participating in His own happiness, in His beatitude. When He creates man, He wants him to become a sharer in His own nature, in His divine life. In this natural state, we consider human nature as it was created; but a neutral state, in other words, a state of pure nature, does not exist. Either you are with God or you are against God. It is terrible, but so it is. And even the children who die without baptism, who have never sinned personally, who do not have that responsibility, will nevertheless always remain deprived of the beatific vision, deprived of that life of God, that life with God. They will be in a state called limbo, a state where one is deprived precisely of that happiness of God. They will still have a kind of happiness that we may call natural or human, but that is all. It is not the hell of punishments that is reserved for those who have sinned personally, but it is not the happiness that the Good Lord wants to give us. And so, once again, when we hail the Immaculate Conception, we salute the marvel, the most beautiful of all creatures, the one who was most favored by the Good Lord.
Saint Thomas would not hesitate to tell us that she is the one who has reached the limits, if we may put it this way, of God’s infinitude, of God’s perfection. She received the most graces, the most blessings from God in all respects. Thus in calling her the Immaculate Conception, we mean that she is something extraordinary, extremely beautiful, perfect. She is, to that same extent, enriched with all the virtues, all the gifts, truly favored, with a view to the Savior and therefore to the salvation of mankind. This is God’s triumph. It is a victory, an extraordinary victory for us who see so many, many evils around us, so many, many sins, so many, many errors, rebellions, arrogance and insolence against God. Some even go so far as to doubt God; this is the famous objection: “There is so much evil; if a good God existed, all these evils would not exist,” and so on. Well, then! In the Immaculate Conception the Good Lord gives us the sign that He is God and that He is infinitely above all these miseries that you can see in creation.
This is more than just the announcement, this is already the victory of God over sin, over the devil – a victory that will be complete with Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Commitments in the Priestly Society of Saint Pius X
Archbishop Lefebvre wanted the members of the Society to renew their commitment on this feast day of holiness, and he wanted those who desire to enter it to do so on such a beautiful day by making their commitment to the Society. On this day, under such splendid patronage, under her protection, the seminarians enter the Society.
This is an important day for you, dear seminarians, and so do not take it lightly. The questions that we ask you today and the answers that you give to these questions are very serious, very demanding. And just because these are not vows, just because these commitments are canonically one step lower, like a solemn promise made in the presence of God – not that far from the definition of a vow, but canonically a step lower – that does not mean that you should take things lightly. The renunciations that are mentioned in the formula of commitment are renunciations that correspond to the evangelical counsels. Although Archbishop Lefebvre did not want the members of the Society to take vows directly, this is only because of the circumstances in which we live, the circumstances in which our apostolate is carried out, where often it is not materially possible to keep the vows as one should. For example under obedience you must ask permission, but if you are all alone in your mission, you must make a decision, and you cannot refer it to your superior; that goes against the vow of obedience per se, at least against the letter of [the law of] obedience. As for poverty: you must decide to make a purchase quickly, but with the vows it would be necessary to ask permission. Therefore it was because of these very practical circumstances that Monseigneur did not want the members of the Society to take vows. But that does not mean that Archbishop Lefebvre wanted or would have wanted to dispense us from the spirit of the vows. More precisely, the requirement of renunciation, this requirement of a total gift of self to the Good Lord and the Most Blessed Virgin – this consecration to the Blessed Virgin that is found in your commitments – is something very precious that commits you very clearly; you take on an obligation to pursue perfection. And so do not exempt yourselves from these obligations by saying, “We are not religious, we are secular seminarians.” It would be an insult to the Society to say that. That is not what the Society expects of its members. When you look at the virtues – indeed, Monseigneur decided to describe several virtues of members in the Statutes – you may be struck also by the loftiness of these requirements. The first virtue is charity, charity toward God, Monseigneur tells us, toward the Most Holy Trinity, which is precisely such a virtue that it naturally gives rise to all the sorts of detachment that we find in the vows, in the evangelical counsels. Naturally, detachment from the world, or poverty, the detachment that we find in chastity, detachment from one’s own will in obedience.
It seems to me that today, on this feast of the Immaculate Conception, in looking at the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, we have the most beautiful model of this practice of the virtues.
The spiritual combat of the Society of St. Pius X
When we salute the Blessed Virgin and her virtues, we do not think of it immediately, but the Church reminds us that it is not only a very beautiful perfection, but also at the same time a victory. And to say victory is also to say combat, struggle. If the Society wants to tend toward that sanctity, it must struggle. Its members must struggle. Against themselves, to be sure, but they must also struggle against the world, and that about sums up our whole project. Here we discover something quite mysterious: the era in which we are living. By a great mystery, God has allowed the spirit of the world to try to enter into the Church. And one must fight not only against external enemies, but also against a non-Catholic spirit that has come back into the Church. Plainly we see that with all the recent changes, the introduction of this spirit happened at the time of the Second Vatican Council. This is an inexpressible tragedy. This evil is a great mystery. Paul VI spoke about the “smoke of Satan”. It is as though the devil had set foot in the sanctuary. And we find this reality chilling. It is radically the opposite of what the Church is. In the Credo we sing that she is holy, and we believe that she is holy. And then some prelates, bishops, cardinals, even popes turn around and invite the faithful to do what the Church has always forbidden, with grave interdicts, with the threat of sanctions that could extend even to excommunication. That is why Archbishop Lefebvre said, “I cannot.” And you yourselves: if you are here, it is for the same reason: No, you cannot, because those things offend God.
This is a great mystery because at the same time that we see these things and have to say “no” to them, we must also continue to say that Good Lord has promised the Church: “The gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18). On the one hand it is necessary to insist that it is the Church of Christ, the Church that God founded, and on the other hand we see plenty of elements that are not the Church, that are the contrary of the Church but are inside the Church. Consider an exact image that can help us understand this: it is like a sickness that is introduced into a body. This sickness is like a foreign body, but this foreign body is inside. How do the cells react when they find themselves in the presence of these foreign bodies? Obviously, they try to defend themselves! And then, what is worse, the organs in control tell us, “You must not defend yourselves. You have to swallow everything, accept everything.” And for forty years—fifty years soon—we have been in that state. Because so far we haven’t seen any great change.
The recent proposals by Rome
You have all heard that there was a proposal from Rome, a proposal that said, “We are ready to recognize you [canonically].” The problem is that there is always a condition. This condition may have varied a bit in its formulation, but basically it is always the same. This condition is: you must accept the Council. One could sum up the current situation by saying: “Yes, you can criticize the Council, but on one condition: it is necessary to accept it first.” Which leaves us saying, “What can we criticize afterwards?”
I think that this is an honest summary of the present situation. And it is not difficult to describe for you our response.
Obviously, the formulas are more and more interesting, closer and closer to what we say. We have arrived by now at a point that clearly shows the depth of the problem. In that famous proposal this is what they tell us: “You commit yourselves to acknowledging that with regard to points from the Council that cause difficulties, the only way to understand those points is to understand them in light of the continuous, perpetual Tradition, in light of the preceding Magisterium.” The light of Tradition is the only way by which one can understand the dubious points. They even go further: “Any proposition and any interpretation of the dubious texts that was opposed to that perpetual Magisterium, that continual Magisterium of the Church must be rejected.” That is what we have always said. But there is a tiny little incidental clause that adds, “as the New Catechism says”. Now the New Catechism adopts the Council.
In other words, concerning the principle we can only agree. As for the application, it is completely the opposite. They claim that they are applying the principle by saying: everything that was done at the Council is faithful to Tradition, is consistent with Tradition, whether it be ecumenism or religious liberty. That shows you the seriousness of the problem. There is a problem somewhere. It is not possible otherwise. The problem is based on the understanding of certain words. And these words are of course “Tradition” and “Magisterium”. Their way of understanding these words is subjective. Certainly there are cases in which one can understand “tradition” in the sense of “transmit”: the act of transmitting is a transmission. But the usual way of understanding this word has bearing on its content. What is transmitted? What is transmitted from generation to generation? The classical definition of Tradition is “that which has always been believed by all, everywhere and at all times” (Commonitorium by St. Vincent of Lerins). Here the expression “That which” designates the object. But nowadays, it is as though we went from the object to the subject, so as to consider only the one who transmits.
That is why they talk to you about “living tradition”, because the one who transmits, when he transmits, is alive. Now life moves, it changes. The popes change… and therefore tradition changes, but it remains tradition. It is the same tradition, but one that changes. The Church has also taken this sense into consideration, but in an altogether secondary way. That is not what she is talking about when she talks about Tradition; what we call the deposit of the faith, the set of truths that the Good Lord has entrusted to the Church so that she might transmit it from generation to generation, so that souls might be saved. This content is what she means. And this is the reason why, with the definition of infallibility at the First Vatican Council, the Church teaches that the Holy Ghost has effectively been promised to St. Peter and to his successors, therefore to the popes. But He was not promised in such a way that the popes might teach something new by a new revelation. He was promised so that, with the help of the Holy Ghost, Saint Peter and the popes might preserve holily and transmit faithfully that which does not change, the revealed deposit.
Where is the real problem in the Church?
That is where we are. That is what we are trying to do, since there is in fact a gesture made by Rome toward us, we must recognize it, a surprising gesture after these doctrinal discussions in which we determined that we were not in agreement. In effect it is a situation similar to that of two persons who meet, discuss something and arrive at the conclusion that they do not agree. What do you do then? Rome tells us: “You accept nevertheless!” And we reply: “It is not possible.” And so what we decide to do, besides answering that it is not possible, is to tell them: Wouldn’t you like to look at things a bit differently? Wouldn’t you like to try to understand that the Society is not the one that is a problem. There is indeed a problem in the Church, but it is not the Society; we are not a problem because we are saying that there is a problem. Then we ask them to deal with the real problem. We are ready; we want only one thing and it is precisely to attack the real problem.
You understand very well that humanly speaking there is no great hope that they will agree to change such a position. Maybe the disappointments that the Church has experienced will move them? The fact that currently the disaster, the sterility is more clearly evident: there are no more vocations. It is frightening. I saw, a few moments ago, the statistics for the Sisters of Charity, the nuns who used to be everywhere in France: between thirty and forty years of age I think that there are still three left in all of France. Between the ages of 40 and 50, likewise three. The majority, in other words almost 200, are between 70 and 80 or between 80 and 90. Some of them are more than 100 years old, and they are more numerous than those who are 20, 30, 40 or 50 years old. If you take the ones from 20 to 50 years of age, you have one more than the group of those who are 100 years old or more: 9 as opposed to 8. Those nuns who used to do all sorts of charitable works in all the rural areas! And it is over. That is one example among thousands. Take the priests. Take instances from whatever area you want: it is a Church that is dying, disappearing. Nevertheless that ought to make people reflect. We think, we hope that some are beginning to reflect. People do get the impression that that is just not enough. Of course, grace is needed. It is necessary to pray.
Pray! Pray that the Good Lord will truly deliver the Church, that the Blessed Virgin will do something. She is the one who promised that her Immaculate Heart would triumph at the end to get the Church out of this disaster. For us who are involved in this great battle for the Church, it is an extraordinary honor to be able to be members of this Society today. And so let us ask the Most Blessed Virgin Mary that we might be worthy members of this Society. Let us live faithfully according to its statutes. Follow the seminary rules, as it is expected of you, with all your heart, while practicing the great charity that the Statutes of the Society require of us. Let us request it from the Most Blessed Virgin Mary so that really, every day, we might please God, that we might sanctify ourselves and thereby might be able to win souls for the Good Lord, those souls that are entrusted to us, for the greater glory of God, for the honor of the Most Blessed Virgin and that of the Church. Amen.
In order to preserve the distinctive character of this sermon, the spoken style has been kept. (Source: SSPX/Ecône; Transcription and subheadings by DICI, December 14, 2011)