Like a thunderbolt across the skies of Provence, the diocese of Fréjus-Toulon—headed by Bishop Dominique Rey, one of the most dynamic dioceses in France and one of the richest in vocations—has just been brutally informed by the Vatican that it must suspend the priestly and diaconate ordinations planned for the end of June.
This is a rare decision which has deeply disturbed a large part of France’s Catholic community because of its character and violence. For observers of the French Catholic world, the Vatican’s orders come down like a punishment—presumably for the diocese’s excessive benevolence towards traditional communities.
With less than three weeks to go before the planned ceremony, six deacons and four priests now find themselves deprived of holy orders—without a new date for future ordinations in sight. For them, the news is merciless.
Bishop Dominique Rey explained the decision in an official statement on Thursday, June 2nd. Since the candidates for the priesthood were in no way to blame, the diocese has been keen to make the reasons for the cancellation clear from the outset in order to avoid any speculation and rumours. The pontifical decision, Bishop Rey explains, comes after a “fraternal visit” made to his diocese, at the request of Rome, by Archbishop Aveline of Marseille, who is to be created a cardinal at the next consistory on August 27th.
The decision has shocked French Catholics. For several years, the seminary of Toulon had been the seminary in France with the second highest number of priestly vocations (the one exception belonging to the Saint Martin Community). Concern for priestly vocations has been one of the constants of Bishop Rey’s episcopate since his nomination, and he has devoted all of his energy to it. His strategy was innovative: to open wide the doors of new communities, of all devotions, French or foreign, in order to encourage dialogue and imitation among them.
The figures are impressive, as Jean-Marie Guénois, the specialist in Catholic issues at Le Figaro, reminds us: the diocese of Toulon has 250 active priests in this diocese, while Paris has only 500, a poor showing by the capital city, given its population. Another peculiarity can be found in the age pyramid of this diocese compared with other dioceses in France: 75% of the priests are under 64 years old; 30% are under 44.
Bishop Rey’s policy had borne fruit and gave hope to those who believed the renewal of an increasingly ageing clergy possible. In this diocese, it is not uncommon, for instance, to see the young Missionaries of Divine Mercy walking along the beaches in the middle of August to talk about Christ to sunbathing tourists, offering to swap, for a tube of sun cream, a picture of the Blessed Virgin. The candidates under Bishop’s Rey’s tutelage can often be seen inviting strangers to an encounter with a living and vibrant Christianity. Only when observed, can one begin to understand the power of what is happening there.
A choice on behalf of diversity and openness—to use concepts that should be in vogue—has worked to reverse the ageing trend in apostolic vocations. But the decision from Rome proves that the Pope alone determines what passes for diversity and openness.
One of the accusations being brought against the diocese of Toulon is that it has been too complacent towards communities attached to the traditional liturgy. Among the reasons given to justify the suspension of ordinations is “the restructuring of the seminary,” which is less of a restructuring and more of a consequence of a forced removal of a particular priest. This priest, who was dismissed as director of the Seminary of La Castille, tried to denounce the ‘trad’ drift of his bishop to Rome. The accusations stuck.
The other alleged reason is the diocese’s “welcome policy.” Bishop Rey is accused of accepting too many “atypical profiles” in the recruitment of his priests, including seminarians who had been rejected from a community or another diocese. It remains to be seen what exactly the term “atypical profile” covers, since the term is subject to multiple interpretations.
In any case, Rome’s decision is clearly in line with the policy pursued since the publication of the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes, which delineates the cessation of the traditional liturgy, and teaches that young people who commit themselves to this path are going astray.
At the same time as the suspension of ordinations in Toulon was made public, another decision—apparently anecdotal—also aroused the indignation of some French Catholics. Archbishop of Toulouse, Mgr. de Kerimel, just informed the seminarians of his diocese that they are henceforth forbidden to wear the cassock.
The convergence of the two decisions, if unrelated, nevertheless work to reinforce each other. The Church is making it increasingly difficult for young men to choose the priesthood. Those who would take this courageous path are being stigmatised, prevented from pursuing their vocation, on the one hand, and on the other, they are deprived of the outward sign of what makes them special, what distinguishes them and allows them to dignify their full commitment to the service of Christ in visible form to the world.
These two decisions come as many faithful prepare for the Notre-Dame de Chrétienté pilgrimage, which traditionally takes place on the weekend of Pentecost along the ancient roads leading from Paris to Chartres. This year, the Chartres pilgrimage celebrates its 40th anniversary. Nearly 15,000 pilgrims are expected to attend, from France and all over the world. This not-to-be-missed event—for those especially attached to the traditional liturgy—takes on a new colour this year: it is the first to be organised after the publication of the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes. The profile of the pilgrims is often young and extremely varied. Those who respond to the call of the bells of Chartres Cathedral have no problem attending a Mass in the vernacular, participating in the forums of Paray-le-Monial, or even the World Youth Days.
When future priests rise up in their ranks, it is sad to see the door shut so violently in their faces. We’d instead like to hear the words pronounced by Saint John Paul II in 1980, as he passed by the Church of Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet in Paris, occupied by some faithful followers of Archbishop Lefebvre: “Let them pray!”
Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).