Vatican sources on March 23, 2001 confirmed to Inside the Vatican magazine that negotiations to end the Lefebvrist schism, which dates from 1988, are far advanced -- so far advanced that an accord of reunion, which is expected to grant the Lefebvrists a Personal Prelature within the Church (like the Prelature enjoyed by Opus Dei) could possibly be signed before Easter.
But these sources caution that there are a number of difficulties still to be worked out and so the signing of the accord -- if it is actually to be signed -- could still be far in the future.
These sources exclude the possibility -- aired in a number of recent internet transmissions -- that the accord would be signed on Tuesday, March 27.
But it is true, the sources say, that many months of negotiations between the leaders of the Society of St. Pius X (the name given by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre to the traditionalist group he established after the Second Vatican Council) and the Holy See have produced a framework of agreement which seems generally staisfactory to both sides.
The agreement foresees the granting to the Society the juridical status of a Personal Prelature within the Roman Catholic Church, allowing the four bishops consecrated by Lefebvre on June 30, 1988 (the act which led to Lefebvre's excommunication and separation from Rome) to be fully re-instated as Catholic bishops in communion with Rome.
A Personal Prelature is an unusual Church structure, currently enjoyed only by Opus Dei, which received it in 1982 from John Paul II (Pope Paul VI, temporizing, did not grant Opus Dei's request for a Personal Prelature during his 15-year pontificate, 1963-1978). A Personal Prelature is analogous to a "worldwide diocese" and is directly under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome (the Pope).
Efforts to include in the accord permission for all Catholic priests everywhere in the world to celebrate freely the Mass of St. Pius V (the so-called "Old Mass") -- a provision said to have been favored by Cardinal Jospeh Ratzinger, Prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and as such the Church's chief doctrinal officer after the Pope -- have reportedly not been successful and will not be part of the accord. Such a provision in the accord was reportedly set aside after negative reactions from a number of bishops, especially those in France.
The imminent accord seems principally to be the result of a decision by Pope John Paul II in mid-2000 to entrust the Ecclesia Dei Commission in Rome -- the Commission charged with dealing with traditionalist Catholics who were in sympathy with Lefebvre and his positions -- to the energetic Colombian Cardinal Dario Castrillon-Hoyos, with the specific task of moving quickly to reach an agreement with the Lefebvrists.
Castrillon Hoyos, known in Rome for his decisive character, immediately sent out feelers to the Lefbvrist leadership and a series of meetings took place during the last six months.
One factor of considerable significance in Rome's decision to move on this matter, in addition to John Paul's advancing age and his desire to find a solution to the sole schism that has arisen during his pontificate before his death, was a remarkable pilgrimage of Lefebvrist Catholics to Rome in August 2000. More than 5,000 entered St. Peter's Basilica together on August 8. Their comportment that day was so evidently devout -- including the pious behavior of many young people and children -- that Vatican cardinals who observed the passage of the pilgrims were deeply moved. The pilgrimage created an emotional undercurrent in Rome in favor of an accord with such devout people.
It became clear in February that the situation was developing rapidly. On February 24 (as reported in the latest issue of Inside the Vatican magazine) the Pope added four prestigious members to the Ecclesia Dei Commission:
(1) Ratzinger of the doctrinal office
(2) Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez of the Vatican's liturgy congregation
(3) Cardinal Louis-Marie Bille, archbishop of Lyon and president of the French bishops' conference, and
(4) Archbishop Julian Herranz, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts (the Vatican's equivalent of a Supreme Court)
Four more important and relevant names to deal with the doctrinal, liturgical and canonical (legal) issues related to the Lefebvrist schism could not have been found. The stature of the new members signaled the Pope's great interest in overcoming the schism.
In Rome it was rumored that the four were instructed to assist Castrillon Hoyos in preparing the final document of agreement.
Now it appears that a draft agreement is finished.
However, Vatican sources caution, there may be further difficulties, especially on the Lefebvrist side.
In particular, given that there are four Lefebvrist bishops, all four will have to agree to the accord. Otherwise, there could be a "schism within the schism," with one or more of the four bishops agreeing to return to communion with Rome, and one or more refusing to do so.
The entire effort fits within an overall design during this phase of the pontificate of Karol Wojtyla: to facilitate a deeper communion within Roman Catholicism, and to move forward toward full reunion with the major non-Catholic Christian groups (the Orthodox and the Protestants).
Thus, these two words -- "communion" and "reunion" -- have become the watchwords of the pontificate.
The reunion of some 300 Lefebvrist priests, many hundreds of parishes, monasteries and convents and perhaps 1 million faithful with the Roman Catholic Church would also signal to the Orthodox -- many of whom fear that Rome has grown too "liberal" since the Second Vatican Council -- that Rome is willing to embrace the most traditional elements of western Christendom. This could be seen as a positive step by some Orthodox leaders who have been hesitant up to now to engage in a dialogue with Rome.
For the moment, the ball seems to be in the court of the four Lefebvrist bishops, who must weigh the Vatican proposal.
"The only thing we can do right now is pray," one Vatican official said.