It is true that in this current crisis, the human side of Rome has never seemed more human than at present. As a result, the possession of a true Roman spirit may be more difficult to fully obtain and understand. All of today’s prominent errors from Modernism to Sedevacantism only impede the development of this Romanitas. This is an immense tragedy, for no Catholic can ever be fully sustained without it.
Bp. Tissier de Mallerais properly defines the term Romanitas and tells of how Archbishop Lefebvre instilled in his spiritual sons this genuine Catholic spirit. Thanks be to God, the priests and bishops of Tradition continue to pass down Romanitas to the next generation of religious and faithful.
Dyed-in-the- Wool Roman!(originally published in the February 2015 issue of The Angelus)
The Angelus: Your Excellency, how do you understand the term Romanitas?
Bishop Tissier de Mallerais: The word conveys the idea of Christian Rome while not excluding pagan Rome, which established the unity of the future Christendom through the Latin language and the organization of Imperial Rome; after all, the first Christian princes were Roman emperors. That’s why we don’t neglect pagan Rome or even pagan Latin authors in our studies. It is true that Providence willed that pagan Rome become Christian, and this is the transformation that we celebrate with the Feast of St. Peter on the 29th of June. It’s what Pope Leo I expressed in this beautiful passage in which he praises the conversion of Rome: “From a master of error, thou hast become a disciple of truth.”
The Angelus: You are suggesting first a pagan Rome and then…?
Bishop Tissier de Mallerais: Then Rome became the Rome of the Popes. Once the emperors relocated to Byzantium, Rome became entirely the Rome of the Popes, together with the Papal States. It was Rome, through the popes, that was to illumine Christendom and organize it against its enemies.
The Angelus: What were the circumstances that led Marcel Lefebvre to discover Rome?
Bishop Tissier de Mallerais: Young Marcel was sent to Rome by his father, Mr. Lefebvre, since his brother René was already attending the French Seminary, then under the direction of Father Le Floch, whom he held in high regard. His father obliged his son to go there: “You are going to Rome, no discussion. There’s no way you are going to stay in the diocese of Lille, where there are already liberal, modernist influences. At Rome you’ll be under the direction of Father Le Floch,” whom he saw as a director who would hand on the doctrine of the popes.
The Angelus: What did Romanitas mean for the young seminarian?
Bishop Tissier de Mallerais: For him it meant continuity of papal doctrine. So, for instance, during meals at the seminary, by order of Father Le Floch, the papal encyclicals on the important topics of Christian politics were read aloud. And Father Le Floch himself was to give lectures on the papal encyclicals of the last two centuries, beginning with those of the popes who condemned Freemasonry up to the French Revolution. The two popes Pius VI and Pius VII were its victims. Pius VI was to condemn the principles of the French Revolution. Pius VII was to cosign the Concordat with Napoleon so as to revive the Church in France. There was also the encyclical letter of Pius VII to the Bishop of Troyes lamenting that Louis XVIII recognized the Catholic religion, not as the religion of the kingdom, but only as that of the majority of the French. It was already the apostasy of a head of a Catholic State. Then came the great encyclicals of Gregory XVI, Pius IX, Leo XIII, St. Pius X, and Pius XI, all of which, in an admirable continuity, condemned liberal errors in politics and taught the doctrine of the social and political kingship of Christ the King.
The Angelus: Would it be correct to say that Archbishop Lefebvre would not have been the traditionalist bishop we knew had he not attended the French Seminary at Rome?
Bishop Tissier de Mallerais: Quite right, even if the expression “traditionalist bishop” was not his language. He told us seminarians: “My life was completely changed by my stay at Rome. If I had not gone to the seminary at Rome, I would have become an ordinary diocesan priest without the heritage of St. Pius X that I received at Rome from Father Le Floch, Father Voegtli, Father Le Rohellec, Father Frey and Father Haegy.” These five teachers transmitted to him the spirit of St. Pius X. When he first arrived at Rome, the odor of sanctity, the virtues and the doctrine of St. Pius X were still in the air, for he had died just nine years before. Archbishop Lefebvre’s life was completely changed thanks to the grace of going to Rome.
The Angelus: Was this grace an illumination? a conviction? the idyllic vision of the Church in its essence?
Bishop Tissier de Mallerais: The Archbishop told us that during his schooldays he had been rather liberal. They thought that the separation of Church and State was a good thing—not in his family, though! Nonetheless, at school he had not learned the principles of the Catholic City. It was at Rome that he learned that the State ought to publicly profess the Catholic religion and defend it. So by going to the seminary, he underwent an intellectual conversion that he often spoke to us about. He would say: “I was very glad to be made aware that I was mistaken when I used to think that the separation of Church and State is a good thing. I was a liberal!” When we heard that from his own lips, we laughed and clapped. Though it was a bit troubling, for they say that “once a liberal, always a liberal”—maybe the Archbishop had kept some vestiges of liberalism. But we did not think so.
The Angelus: How did Archbishop Lefebvre intend to instill an attachment to Rome, this Roman spirit, in his seminarians?
Bishop Tissier de Mallerais: Once the Society had been founded, first at Fribourg and then Ecône, the first thing he wanted to do was inaugurate a year of spirituality, which he had not received at Rome but later experienced in the novitiate of the Holy Ghost Fathers at Orly. Among the planned curriculum was a special course entitled “The Acts of the Magisterium.” It entailed reflection and engagement in the battle against modern errors. The goal was to enlist the seminarians, so to speak, in the fray of the popes against liberalism and modernism.
But some of his colleagues did not really grasp the purpose of the course. For them, it was a matter of discussion, intellectual jousting and defeating of liberalism and modernism. But that was not the Archbishop’s idea. For him it was a matter of comprehending the spirit with which the popes had condemned error. Now, this spirit is the spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ. He always connected the intellectual combat against error with the supernatural combat at the level of grace, and therefore with Christ the King. It was for the reign of Christ the King that all of these popes had condemned modernism. So, it did not simply involve a course on modern errors, but a commentary on the very text of the encyclicals of the Roman popes on these magnificent subjects. For, despite some weakness in their politics, their doctrine was absolutely splendid and in perfect continuity with the Church’s constant teaching.
The Angelus: Rome is the see of the successor of St. Peter. When the supreme teaching authority pronounces something seriously as in these encyclicals…
Bishop Tissier de Mallerais: In principle, it is the truth! Even if all these pontifical writings are not infallible, nevertheless the teaching of the pope was obeyed, received with piety and devotion, with obedience. But let us be careful! For Archbishop Lefebvre, Romanitas is not merely: “The Pope has spoken in an encyclical, and one must follow it and obey.” Romanitas is a tradition. A rupture would be the end of Romanitas. In that sense, the Second Vatican Council was the death of Romanitas. Thus the early death of two excellent Roman priests and theologians: Msgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton, who had fought for years and years against the modernist theologians in the fifties in the American Ecclesiastical Review and had written his explosive manuscript diary of the four years of the Council; and Fr. Alain Berto, a classmate of the Archbishop at the French Seminary in Rome, who had been the secretary of the “Coetus” during the Council. Both of them could not bear the death of Romanitas.
The Angelus: The Society has a house at Albano, near Rome. How did this come about?
Bishop Tissier de Mallerais: The Archbishop bought the property at Albano, which was waiting for him and fell into his hands thanks to an unexpected donation. The evening of his first visit to Albano he was lamenting that he didn’t have enough money for the purchase. His chauffeur, Rémy Borgeat, said to him: “Monseigneur, go ahead and buy it! Write the check and St. Joseph will sign it.” And lo and behold! a benefactor invited him to dinner, and he had the million and a half he needed to buy the property.
The Angelus: What did he intend the Albano property to be used for?
Bishop Tissier de Mallerais: What did he want to do with it? He wanted the SSPX to have a presence in Rome, in the same way that the Congregation of the Holy Ghost did. He wanted to have a Roman year for all his priests. The priests, after their ordination, would come to Albano to soak up the Roman spirit. They would have classes about Rome, the Roman spirit, the archaeology and history of Rome. And they would visit the monuments, the churches, the relics, and the popes at Rome.
The Angelus: So, then, the priests of the SSPX are not anti-pope or sedevacantist?
Bishop Tissier de Mallerais: Far from it! It’s just the opposite. Archbishop Lefebvre had a great devotion toward the popes, even for Pius XI, who had condemned Action Française. Even for Paul VI, the pope of the New Mass, who suspended Archbishop Lefebvre, the Archbishop had a great respect.
The Angelus: What in fact became of Albano?
Bishop Tissier de Mallerais: The priests’ year only existed a few months. In 1976, a small group of priests, in which I did not have the good fortune to participate, spent six months and then were launched into the ministry. And finally the priests’ year did not last. In its place, we had a month at Rome. The theology seminarians would spend a whole month at Albano and each day would visit Rome.
The Angelus: There was also a seminary that was established there for a while, wasn’t there?
Bishop Tissier de Mallerais: Oh, yes! I forgot! Between 1978 and 1982, under the direction of Father Bonneterre, there were two years of philosophy at Rome between the year of spirituality and theology at Ecône. For them, it was very rewarding.
The Angelus: Was the Roman month beneficial?
Bishop Tissier de Mallerais: I did it myself just before the pontificate of Benedict XVI, and I have very good memories of it. We lodged at Albano and we got up every morning, but not too early. (The Germans, more energetic, got up an hour before us.) We Frenchmen took things a little easier, and went by train to the Termini station, then went to visit the great Roman basilicas. We visited many practically unknown churches with Father Boivin for the French and Father Klaus Wodsack for the Germans. Obviously, we did not follow the same itineraries since we did not have the same interests. For Father Wodsack, the object was to show the influence of the Holy Roman emperors, and for Father Boivin, it was to show the role of the kings of France.
The Angelus: Did the seminarians derive any benefit?
Bishop Tissier de Mallerais: Yes, indeed. Now our young priests are able to lead our faithful in pilgrimage to Rome and hand on to them something of the Roman spirit—Romanitas.
~ Steven C.