Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre

In the thirteen years of my pontificate, this is the biggest cross.”
—Pope Paul VI to Jean Guitton,
concerning Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre
and a potential schism

In response to the crisis within the Church following in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, Swiss Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre took certain actions that questioned his canonical standing with the Church. The most controversial was the consecration in 1988 of four new bishops without a papal mandate. Lefebvre has become the figurehead of what is called the “traditionalist movement” within the Church.

During the pontificate of Paul VI (1963-1978), deep concerns were raised about the possibility of Lefebvre causing a schism. Lefebvre’s differences with Paul VI were recently raised for discussion in the light of new historical disclosures and the impending canonization of Paul VI. In light of that ongoing discussion, I am providing a first-ever English translation of a forgotten conversation of Paul VI on Archbishop Lefebvre. First, however, a quick background on the recent developments.

Paul VI and Recent Developments

Typically accompanying a canonization is a heightened interest in the one to be canonized. In Paul VI and the Liturgical Reform. He Approved It, But Didn’t Like It Much published April 19, 2018 in Chiesa Espresso, Italian journalist Sandro Magister discusses some facts about Paul VI and the liturgical reform after the Second Vatican Council. This discussion is based upon Fr. Leonardo Sapienza’s book entitled Paolo VI. Una storia minima (2018).

As the title of Magister’s article suggests, Sapienza reveals Paul VI’s dissatisfaction with at least some elements of the liturgical reform. The web site Rorate Caeli expressed its disagreement in a post about some claims in Sapienza’s book,[i] largely revolving around how Paul VI was being painted as a “victim” of a “revolution,” as opposed to being its “driving force” as some Catholics have long-maintained.[ii]

On May 16, 2018, Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli published an article for the Italian web site La Stampa (Vatican Insider) entitled Ecco il verbale segreto dell’incontro fra Paolo VI e Lefebvre (A look at the secret transcript of the encounter between Paul VI and Lefebvre). This article was also based upon another new book from Fr. Leonardo Sapienza entitled La barca di Paolo (2018) containing unedited documents from Paul’s pontificate, among them being a written record of the meeting between Archbishop Lefebvre and Paul VI on September 11, 1976.

This meeting was already well-known to the public. Archbishop Lefebvre himself discussed it in conferences shortly after the meeting took place. However, what was not available was an account of the meeting from the Holy See. Fr. Sapienza’s La barca di Paolo provided this missing piece of the historical documentation.[iii] As the account was not available in English, Fr. John Zuhlsdorf provided an English translation (with personal commentary) of the account from Tornielli’s article.[iv]

On a personal note, I had decided in the summer of 2017 to engage in a modest study of Paul’s pontificate in order to understand better his rather turbulent times. This study led me to a 1979 book entitled Paul VI Secret.[v] Written in French by Pope Paul’s friend Jean Guitton, Paul VI Secret provides accounts of some of their conversations.

Forgotten Discourses of Paul VI on Archbishop Lefebvre

While going through the book, I was quite surprised to find a lengthy section wherein Guitton spoke with Paul VI about Archbishop Lefebvre.[vi] As I spot-read the French, there were some disclosures concerning the mind of Paul VI on what Guitton called the “Ecône Affair.”[vii] The thought occurred to me at the time to make an English translation of this text. Time-constraints did not permit me to do so and I shelved the idea. The recent discussions about Paul VI and Archbishop Lefebvre brought back to my mind Guitton’s book. It seemed fitting to make a translation with a friend, Camille de Kok, of Impeccable Business English.

First, it is important to note that the meetings between Paul VI and Guitton took place between September 8-9, 1976—just two to three days before Paul’s meeting with Lefebvre. Guitton’s account of his interview provides some necessary context that was available in the Francophone world, but not the Anglophone. Thus far, the available documentation in the latter has spoken of what took place during the meeting.[viii] Guitton’s account provides the public with a window onto events preceding the meeting between Paul VI and Lefebvre.

What was Paul VI thinking? How did he view the matter of Archbishop Lefebvre? How would he speak of it to a long-time friend? What influence, if any, would Guitton exert on Paul VI’s mind? Was the later meeting between Paul VI and Lefebvre influenced by the meetings of Paul VI and Guitton? These questions can now be studied in greater depth by people in the Anglophone world with the introduction of the present English translation.

The Meetings of Paul VI and Guitton—Introduction

Guitton begins his account in Paul VI Secret with an article that appeared in the French periodical Le Figaro entitled The Future of the Council. This article, which he himself had written, had been published on August 27, 1976.[ix] Guitton begins with his article because a notable portion of it frames his meetings with Paul VI.

The article itself provides a window onto Guitton’s thinking with respect to several matters of importance. These matters include the Church, Archbishop Lefebvre, Ecumenism, Mass in Latin, the Second Vatican Council, the thinking of Paul VI, and others.[x] Guitton states that the Pope had the article in front of him and he “found it good.” From there, Guitton begins his recounting of his meeting with Paul VI on September 8, 1976.

The two men begin, according to Guitton, by discussing various matters of importance, including the question of a Pope resigning, some famous and/or influential people, and the French language (very much beloved by Paul VI). They conclude their meeting on a note about the bad application of the liturgical reform in France and then a question about some other influential French figures (Charles de Gaulle, Mauriac, Maupassant and Mallarme).

Paul VI and Guitton on Lefebvre—A Summary of the Conversation

The next day, September 9, the conversation about Archbishop Lefebvre takes place.[xi] Guitton begins by describing the conversation as “touching” (pathétique). He notes that the face of Paul VI was rather severe-looking, and that “for the first time, I hear him speak as a Pope.” The Holy Father’s demeanor, wrote Guitton, made him “afraid.” They begin the meeting by talking about some correspondence between them going back twenty years. They then discuss a book about John Henry Cardinal Newman written by Lucie-Faure Goyau.[xii]

Guitton writes that there was an “exchange of views” between himself and Paul VI on Newman. He then writes that the conversation quickly escalated to “higher problems” and Guitton states that these problems are the same that Newman had experienced. Guitton defines the problems in the form of a question: “how to define the identity of the Church at the time?” He does this, he explains, because the “Ecône affair” (as he labeled the matter with Archbishop Lefebvre) had no interest to him unless he framed it in terms of the identity of the Church in the present.

At this point, Guitton reminds Paul VI about a promise made in 1950 that he (Guitton) would always tell Paul all of his thoughts. After doing so, Guitton raises the matter of Lefebvre, explaining his thought to Paul in terms of schism. Guitton then made a parallel between Lefebvre and Newman, saying that the latter did not accept some changes from Rome but that he also understood the meaning of development (which Guitton calls the “true Tradition”).

Paul VI then raises the matter of the possibility of his receiving Archbishop Lefebvre in audience. Guitton, favorable to the possibility, questions the consistency of Paul VI’s own actions. The observation is made that Paul will not receive the Archbishop in audience but yet receives “schismatics, heretics, unbelievers.” Guitton furthers his point by saying that “many are surprised that you are so hard on Archbishop Lefebvre when you are so gentle to those who are much more disobedient than he, since, under the cover of the Council, they break down the Church.”

Paul VI responds to the observation by revealing that he sent messengers to Lefebvre who turned down the gesture. Guitton reiterates that messengers are not the same as a one-on-one meeting. Paul replies that he is not sure he can receive Lefebvre after a recent statement the Archbishop made in Besançon (France), “I will kneel before the Pope on the condition that he does not ask me to be a Protestant.”[xiii] Paul VI elaborates to say that Lefebvre called him a modernist, a heretic. The Holy Father states that he feels abused by Lefebvre.

Guitton continues his discussion with Paul VI and reiterates the importance of avoiding a schism. He points out that the “whole problem of Tradition…is posed symbolically” with Lefebvre. Paul VI says that he was well aware of the problem and refers to the matter of a potential schism as being the “biggest cross of my pontificate.”

Guitton then makes a further observation about making distinctions with Lefebvre. He says that “Archbishop Lefebvre disobeys insolently, whereas other bishops disobey subtly.” Guitton is interrupted by Paul VI who indicates that he is aware of the distinction, but that people did not know that he had taken private action against abuses. Paul points out that “In the case of Archbishop Lefebvre, this is an open, senseless, damaging revolt: the revolt of a bishop, who trains priests against me. If I receive him, there is risk that he can damage me; afterwards, by distorting my words.”

It is at this point of the account that there is some confusion. Guitton provides a paragraph with a summative narration of part of his meeting with Paul VI. This summary is then followed by a discourse from Guitton to Paul indicated by the European-style quotation marks « and ». Was this passage meant to summarize the discourse in quotation marks, or was it a section of dialogue that is not recorded? A definitive reading is not clear.

Guitton’s discourse after the summary narrative frames the “Ecône affair” in terms of Ecumenism. Guitton tells the Holy Father that various Christian groups “assume implicitly that the Pope is actually the true schismatic, that they represent the truth. This is the same position as that sometimes expressed by Archbishop Lefebvre.” Guitton essentially reiterates his previous observation about the consistency of Paul VI receiving in audience these various Christian groups but not Lefebvre. Guitton rests his case on the fact that “the ecumenism defined at Vatican II brings a new spirit” one that promotes openness and willingness to listen in order to resolve difficulties.

Paul VI’s response to Guitton distinguishes between the past and the future. He then asks Guitton about solutions to what he calls “the crisis of faith in the Church of France.” Guitton provides the Holy Father with some “proposals,” the exact number of which is not specified by Guitton. From the discourse between the two men, there were at least three as the first and third are named and discussed. Much of this discussion surrounds the liturgy.

The third of Guitton’s propositions was that the “Mass of St. Pius V be allowed, during a probationary and provisional period.” This would effectively end an interdiction on this liturgy which was then in force in France. Paul VI’s response to this proposal was unequivocal: “It will never happen because it is an unfounded argument [mauvaise querelle]! I have kept the canon of St. Pius V in the four canons of the new liturgy, where it holds the first place.” Guitton clarified to Paul VI that the issue is not about the canon, but rather the offertory wherein the notion of sacrifice “appears restrained.” Paul believed the differences were minimal.

The Holy Father then expresses another reason for rejecting Guitton’s third proposal:

[T]his so-called Mass of St. Pius V, as seen in Ecône, becomes the symbol of the condemnation of the Council. I will, however, not accept under any circumstances that which condemns the Council with a symbol. If this exception was accepted, the entire Council would be shaken. And, consequently the apostolic authority of the Council.

Guitton presses the case with Paul VI, arguing that the concession would avoid a schism. This train of thought ends on the above note and the two men move to discuss the forgiveness of insults.

The dialogue here reveals that Paul VI is willing to forgive Archbishop Lefebvre, but that his repentance must be sincere, although Paul does not hold out much hope for such sincerity. Guitton reminds the Holy Father of the infirmity of mankind and not to expect mathematical precision. Paul VI acknowledges the point but tells Guitton that “in a mind as inconsistent as that of Archbishop Lefebvre, [one statement] will be followed tomorrow by an opposite statement.”

Guitton admits that he is not exactly a friend of Lefebvre, even referring to himself as having “occupied against [his will] this Ecône affair.” He then speaks about his own formation:

I have no sympathy for fundamentalism. I was formed by minds condemned to silence by St. Pius X, Pouget, Portal, Lagrange, Bergson, Blondel. You saved me from the claws of Monseigneur Parente, who in 1948, wanted to blacklist my book on Mary; this was the origin of your benevolence towards me.

Guitton then relays some impressions of his about Lefebvre:

I have all the imaginable reasons to beware of Archbishop Lefebvre. I saw him twice for two hours, I found in him a spirit so contrary to mine that it is almost impossible to conceive it. But the more Archbishop Lefebvre is opposed, the more I want to be fair with him, according to the method that can be summed up in these words of Lacordaire: ‘I do not seek to convince my opponent of error, but to unite myself to him in a higher truth.’ And in this actual crisis, I have the impression that I am for Ecône a valid interlocutor, because I am a layman, and thus not an enemy a priori. Now, I would have more authority if I could say you authorize me to come to Ecône, if I could explain to Archbishop Lefebvre what you tell me about the proofs of his sincerity.

The Pope refuses to name Guitton as an interlocutor in the matter but does not forbid him to go to Ecône. He asks only that Guitton speak not in his name, but “in the name of the Church.”

This part of the meeting then ends and a third part begins. Guitton returns to discussing the danger of schism and the long-lasting consequences that could result from it. The Pope’s reply indicates that he is well-aware of the problem and reiterates that the potential schism is the “first true cross, for the last thirteen years, of my pontificate.” Paul VI indicates that he does not see how in a few months he “will not be obliged to transform this non-communion into excommunication.”

Guitton replies that if Paul does so, he would be obliged also to excommunicate “those who alter the essence of the faith. The condemnation of the right will follow a condemnation of the left.” Paul states that he is also aware of this fact, saying that it “might be the cross of my life, my way of dying a martyr.” A knock on the door interrupts the conversation and both men go to eat. Afterward, they go to the chapel of St. Gregory for a prayer of thanksgiving. Paul ends the conversation on a hopeful note and Guitton adds some concluding thoughts.


Guitton’s discussion with Paul VI on Archbishop Lefebvre was a prelude, if not a preparation, for the Holy Father’s September 11, 1976 meeting with Lefebvre and should be seen in that context. I have avoided commentary, except to facilitate the text, in order to allow Guitton’s text to speak for itself and to permit people to draw their own conclusions. It is hoped that this article and the English translation will provide another window onto an otherwise difficult subject.

Click Here to read the Translation!

Article Notes:

[i] The article was entitled Don’t whitewash history: Paul VI was front and center the creator of the New Mass of Paul VI. Written under the pseudonym “New Catholic,” the editor of Rorate Caeli, the article disagreed with the presentation in Sapienza’s book that characterizes Paul VI as “almost a victim of the liturgical revolution” that followed the Second Vatican Council. New Catholic argued that there was a “whitewashing of history” owing to the impending canonization of Paul VI.

[ii] The liturgical reform following the Second Vatican Council is questioned by many adherents of the traditionalist movement. Many within it largely prefer the celebration of the Rite of Mass according to the liturgical books as they stood in 1962. The reforms following the Second Vatican Council were formalized and promulgated in Advent, 1969 by Pope Paul VI. They became known in popular speech as the Novus Ordo Missæ (New Order of Mass) or the Missæ Pauli VI (Mass of Paul VI).

[iii] The conversation between Paul VI and Archbishop Lefebvre was in Italian and French. The text in Vatican Insider, however, is entirely in Italian.

[iv] Fr. Zuhlsdorf does not clarify if he verified the Italian translation of the French texts in the transcript.

[v] Jean Guitton, Paul VI Secret (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1979). Hereafter Paul VI Secret followed by page number.

[vi] Ibid, 147-162.

[vii] Ecône is a city in Switzerland where Archbishop Lefebvre had established his main seminary. It remains the primary seminary for the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX)—the organization founded by the Archbishop that continues his work.

[viii] Given the news reports and subsequent statements either from Lefebvre or the Holy See, it could be argued that what took place after the meeting was also known.

[ix] A photo of the first page of this particular edition of Le Figaro is available online. About a month later, Guitton published in Le Figaro another article entitled The Two Masses (Les deux messes) on September 21, 1976.

[x] It is here unnecessary to expound upon Guitton’s thinking in these areas. Instead, the reader is encouraged to read Guitton’s article which is provided in the English translation of his encounter with Paul VI.

[xi] Their meeting took place in three parts, as Guitton notes in his account.

[xii] The book is unnamed by Guitton, but a modest search indicates that it is likely Newman, sa vie et ses oeuvres (Paris: Perrin et Compagnie Libraires-Éditeurs, 1901). A digital copy of this book has been made available by the University of Toronto.

[xiii] A digital recording of this particular speech is available on YouTube: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lQtLFCEV6s) <Accessed 27 June, 2018>.