July 18, 1988 12:00 PM

Heresy, if such it was, could not have been committed in a lovelier setting. In a sun-dappled alpine meadow near the Swiss hamlet of Ecône, rebellious Roman Catholic Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre brought his long-running feud with the Vatican to a dramatic climax. Beneath a huge white tent and before 6,000 worshipers, the 82-year-old ultraconservative archbishop consecrated four bishops—and, by so doing, got himself excommunicated. Banished from the church with him were the four new bishops: Richard Williamson, 48, of Ridgefield, Conn., spiritual leader of Lefebvre’s 12,000 American followers; Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, 43, Secretary General of his religious order in France; Bernard Fellay, 30, top administrator of the order; and Alfonso de Galarreta, 31, who runs Lefebvre’s seminary in Argentina.

There was no thunder and lightning in the heavens that day, as one of the French dailies wryly observed. The thunder had in fact been loosed by Rome in the weeks before, when the Vatican warned Lefebvre of dire consequences if he created new bishops. He would be guilty, said Rome, of a “schismatic act”—the first such schism in Roman Catholicism since 1870, when many members left the church in opposition to the first Vatican Council’s doctrine of papal infallibility.

Lefebvre’s quarrel with Rome dates back to 1965 and Vatican II Council, whose underlying purpose was to reform and modernize the Catholic church. The prelate, a traditionalist who believes all doctrines to be immutable, denounced the council’s work as “poisoned,” adding, “It comes out of heresy and leads to heresy.” He condemned the ecumenical effort to reconcile Catholicism with other faiths. Defying the Vatican’s ruling that priests should conduct services in the common languages of their congregations, Lefebvre insisted that Mass be said, as it has been for hundreds of years, in Latin. Additionally, but not incidentally, he has attacked Pope John Paul II as “a father of lies” and an “Antichrist” who is leading the church to destruction.

Long known for his religious ardor, Lefebvre—one of eight children born to a French textile manufacturer—acquired the nickname Angel when he studied for the priesthood in Rome. Pictures of him as a missionary in Africa show him in a beard and pith helmet, brandishing a crucifix and missal. After a brief return to France, he was made a bishop in 1947 by Pope Pius XII and went to Dakar, Senegal, where he soon became archbishop and papal delegate for all of West Africa. Returning to France to stay in 1962, he was called to participate in Vatican II, and there the trouble began.

As the Vatican II reforms were gradually introduced from 1965 to 1969, Lefebvre registered his dissent by founding his own order, the Fraternity of St. Pius X, and by establishing a seminary in Ecône. In 1976, in defiance of a Vatican order, he ordained 14 priests. He was immediately suspended a divinis by Paul VI, banning him from publicly celebrating Mass and administering the sacraments. Lefebvre ignored the edict. In the ensuing years there were countless attempts to mediate a compromise between Rome and the black-sheep archbishop, but all failed, and gradually Vatican officials seemed to avert their gaze from the Ecône insurrection, calculating perhaps that the troublesome cleric was advancing in age and that they could afford to wait for time and nature to bring about a resolution. After all, he had made no bishops; without bishops his order would be unable to ordain priests after his death and would inevitably die out.

If delay was their strategy, the authorities in Rome underestimated Lefebvre’s devotion to his cause. In the past he has invoked the prophecy of the Virgin Mary, relayed through a 16th-century Ecuadorian nun who predicted that, in the 20th century, the church would be beset by error and loss of faith, but that a prelate would stand fast in opposition. He was ordaining bishops, he told his followers during the ceremony, so as not to “leave you orphans when God calls me back.”

The Sunday after Lefebvre consecrated his bishops, Rome authorized Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger, the Archbishop of Paris, to hold the first Latin Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral in two decades, hoping the gesture would win back some of Lefebvre’s kindred spirits. A congregation of five thousand worshipers, twice the usual number, crowded into the 12th-century church to hear the Cardinal implore traditionalists not to follow those who have broken with the Holy See. Bishop Williamson, Lefebvre’s American emissary, was not persuaded. “Our faith is firmly anchored,” he said. “We shall not be subdued or cajoled back into the fold of Rome by hypocritical schemes.”

—By William Plummer, with Cathy Nolan in Paris

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