Last spring, Catholic news media exploded across the world announcing that the ordination of diocesan priests from the seminary of La Castille in France was indefinitely suspended. That was June 2nd. Five months later, after announcing reforms implemented according to the Vatican’s request, the diocese of Fréjus-Toulon is still awaiting word on when the ordinations can take place.
Seminarians denied ordination
Bishop Dominique Rey, the Bishop of Fréjus-Toulon in the province of Marseille in southern France, announced that ordinations had been suspended at the request of the Vatican. The Apostolic See had intervened due to concerns about the “restructuring of the seminary” and the diocese’s policy of admitting a wide variety of seminarians and religious communities—groups of priests, monks, nuns, etc. The Vatican’s request was preceded by a fraternal visitation in 2021 by Cardinal Jean-Marc Aveline, Archbishop of Marseille, stemming from the controversial ‘restructuring’ of the seminary.
This restructuring consisted of the removal of the seminary rector in 2020—which was, according to some, an ordinary change of the guard; according to others, a forced removal. Either way, this priest left disgruntled and wrote to the Vatican concerning his grievances, among them, an alleged drift towards traditionalism in the seminary. His concerns were shared by a wider sector of priests in the diocese, which according to the present seminary rector, the Vatican intervention served to quell.
“The restructuring of the seminary raised questions in the diocese, and in particular on the part of certain priests,” Father Benoît Moradei, present rector of the seminary of La Castille, told the French Catholic newspaper Le Famille Chrétienne in an interview. “It was therefore necessary to calm the situation. On this point, the visits of Mgr. Aveline … were very positive and very encouraging. We have tried to implement [his] advice and recommendations.”
“I have the sadness to read here or there that some question the work of the Archbishop of Marseilles. His work did not harm us. On the contrary! His support was truly paternal and encouraging,” he added.
According to the French Catholic newspaper La Croix, the decision to suspend ordinations was the result of both the recent Vatican inquiry and long-standing issues. The Vatican had been asking Bishop Rey for years to rethink his open-door ordination policy.
“The fact that the Holy See does not explain the sanction is deplorable,” a local priest, described as a “staunch traditionalist,” told the newspaper. “But to say that it comes from nowhere is a lie.”
Permissive diocese of Bishop Rey
Bishop Rey has long been known for accepting men from outside the diocese, whether as students at the seminary or as priests for the diocese. According to priests cited by La Croix, for years Bishop Rey has also been ordaining men who were not students at La Castile, as well as men who were pointedly not recommended for ordination, leading to consternation among some priests.
“At each ordination here, we see candidates arrive who we had never seen before,” a priest from the diocese told La Croix. “They become priests without us really knowing where they were trained … or if they were really trained.”
Another said: “You can’t make generalisations. There are some odd balls, it’s true, but for some, it goes very well. For others … their file ends up in Rome.”
La Croix reports that of the four candidates whose ordination was suspended only one had actually studied at the diocesan seminary, a seminarian who transferred from a diocese in Paraguay. (There, ordinations were suspended in 2014; the seminary closed when the Opus Dei bishop was accused of financial malpractice and covering up pedocriminality.) According to La Croix, the Paraguayan seminarian is a much-appreciated figure at one of the local parishes in Fréjus-Toulon, but the other three candidates had only recently arrived in the diocese. Two are members of a traditionalist Italian Franciscan order and the other is a former member of Christ the King Institute, which exclusively celebrates the Tridentine Mass.
Regarding the files that have landed in Rome, the paper cites three cases of new communities—approved by Bishop Rey—that have been under investigation either by Rome or the civil prosecutor’s office for abuses ranging from psychological to sexual, or for serious canonical irregularities.
- In 2021, the Vatican concluded an investigation of the Eucharistein Fraternity, a 40-strong community of consecrated members which was under the responsibility of Bishop Rey for over a decade. He approved its status as a “diocesan ecclesial family of consecrated life” in 2008. The Vatican report of the investigation, seen by La Croix, cited the community as having “a pyramidal, abusive, infantilizing system that has annihilated people in the various dimensions of their being, especially their psychology.”
It also blamed the diocese for an “absence of more frequent and more perceptive follow-ups.” Additionally, it noted, “some priests had insufficient formation for ordination or little in-depth discernment (and even once a lack of sufficient conditions to be ordained).” Bishop Rey ordained all the priests in the community.
- The civil prosecutor’s office is investigating a complaint of sexual abuse of a minor by a priest ordained by Bishop Rey in 2010. The diocese acknowledged the situation in a statement earlier this year. According to La Croix, he is a member of a new monastic community whose constitutions were approved by Bishop Rey in 2018, and the diocese has received some dozen complaints of various psychological and spiritual abuses in the last two years about the community and its founder. Some took their complaints about the founder to the civil prosecutor’s office, which the priest acknowledged publicly, according to La Croix. In May 2022, Bishop Rey put the community “on break” to correct its functioning.
- La Croix cites the case of the Groupil brothers, two blood brothers who were trained by the traditionalist Institute of Christ the King and then allowed by Bishop Rey to establish the ‘Chapter of Saint-Remi’ in 2018. In 2020, the diocese made a public statement that the fledgling monastic community was no longer under the jurisdiction of the diocese but now the responsibility of ‘Monsignor Maximilian of Sozan, prince-abbot nullius of the territorial abbey of St. Michael the Archangel of Sozan.’ According to La Croix, no one at the Vatican or in France knows who the monsignor is. The “territorial abbey” cited is in Ukraine, closed during the communist era, never re-established, and today functions as a neuropsychiatric hospital. The Groupil brothers themselves told the newspaper that their situation was being studied by Rome.
Additionally, this past summer, the Monastery of Saint-Benoît, a budding monastic community following the Benedictine tradition and celebrating the Tridentine Mass, was quietly suppressed: it had no canonically legitimate leader. Like the cancelled ordinations, the suppression of this community also looked like a targeted attack on traditionalists. What is not so widely known is that Bishop Rey dissolved the community after it was revealed that the leading figure there, the liturgical scholar Dom Alcuin Reid, had been illicitly ordained. Reid had been ordained a priest “according to the extraordinary form of the Roman rite” at a location outside of France by an unnamed “high-ranking prelate … enjoying an unimpeded communion with the apostolic see.”
Canon law may admit Reid’s ordination to be valid, but it also maintains it to be illicit. Reid did not have the necessary approval from Bishop Rey to be ordained in another diocese and refused to disclose to Bishop Rey who had ordained him, a seriously problematic situation both canonically and in regard to order and unity in the diocese.
On June 26th, Bishop Rey issued an open letter to his diocese further explaining the circumstances of the cancelled ordinations. “It is indeed the origin of the vocations and the plurality of the paths of formation … the diversified composition of all the priests of the diocese,” and the acceptance “of many communities with whom it is sometimes difficult for the diocese to accompany and integrate” that the Vatican wanted addressed, he explained. He acknowledged that “the place of the traditionalist world in our seminary and in the diocese also constitutes one of the sensitive points” raised by Rome.
He recognized that “the weaknesses, the failures, the difficulties observed in some of these communities” required greater vigilance by the diocese and acknowledged that he could have “made errors of discernment regarding their reception or the accompaniment of their members, as in that of certain priests of the diocese.”
“To all those who have had to suffer, I sincerely ask for forgiveness,” he said.
“The next few weeks will be used to think about improving various areas of governance,” he also stated.
Welcome policy and traditionalists
Under the leadership of Bishop Rey, the diocesan seminary was indeed very successful. The diocese is second only to Paris, a much larger diocese, in its number of ordinations.
Part of this success lay in the diocese functioning as a kind of open laboratory for new religious communities—groups of priests, sisters, monks, and nuns. Under the bishop’s ‘reception policy,’ numerous and varied religious communities were welcomed into the diocese and brand-new ones were allowed to start. Everyone was given a chance. The diocese now counts 50 different religious communities, 20 of them new and coming from within France, others as far away as Brazil and Africa. Spiritually, they range from those that celebrate the Tridentine rite to those with a charismatic complexion and everything in between. Approximately one-third of the seminarians come from religious communities such as orders of priests and monks; another third can be characterised as having a ‘traditionalist’ bent.
Recently, Pope Francis’ placed restrictions on the Tridentine Mass and also put measures in place regarding the establishment of new communities of priests and nuns. Diocesan bishops are now required to submit to greater Vatican supervision in establishing new religious communities, a decision made considering the proliferation of new communities in recent decades and the myriad abuses found within them.
Reaction in the pews
Some Catholics in the diocese understand the Vatican’s intervention in light of long-standing underlying issues regarding Bishop Rey’s open-door policy to both seminarians and religious communities such as the Monastery of Saint-Benoît.
According to one Catholic, reported La Vie:
The ideological question is, in my opinion, only the tip of the iceberg. Today, we speak of ‘tradis,’ and it is true that the reception of these seminarians and these communities has been the subject of debate for some time in the diocese. It is also true that the diocese is known to have been very ‘discreet’ in applying Pope Francis’ motu proprio on the Latin Mass. But before that, the reception of certain communities, charismatic ones in particular, already raised questions!
“There again,” another Catholic told La Vie “how could we let the situation degenerate to this point? If you add up all the problems, it’s likely that Rome started to think that was a lot.”
A petition to Pope Francis in defence of Bishop Rey also quickly emerged, garnering some ten thousand signatures. Part of the petition read:
Of course, Bishop Rey is not perfect, no one is. But he is creative and daring. Through his actions, Msgr. Dominique Rey tries to serve the unity of the Church and makes sure that everyone finds a place in it. Many of us have felt his benevolence. They can testify to this: the poor, the marginalised, the citizens of the peripheries of the world, they are his friends. He was the one who, close to his neighbour, went to look for the lost sheep, to welcome the prodigal son.
The petition also voiced concern that Rome’s actions towards Bishop Rey and the diocese might alienate French Catholics from Rome: “We are seriously concerned about the lasting consequences on the relations between Rome and the Christian people of France, who are already brutally shaken.”
Reforms in Place, Vatican Silent
On September 14th, at a meeting with priests, Bishop Rey announced the measures he had taken to improve the diocese and appease the Vatican. They included taking an inventory of the varied religious groups in the diocese and creating a list of expert advisors in different areas, from theology to canon law; not accepting more new communities into the diocese; surveying traditionalist groups that celebrate the Tridentine Mass to ensure they are following the prescriptions Pope Francis promulgated last year in Traditionis Custodis, and subjecting the acceptance of new priests into the diocese to the decision of the presbyteral council—the wider community of priests in the diocese.
Bishop Rey also noted that he had yet to hear from Rome on when the suspended ordinations could take place and hinted that he would appreciate more transparency.
In a statement, the diocese said: “While some [priests] expressed ‘demotivation’ or ‘discouragement,’ many gave their support to the bishop and expressed their wish to evolve together.”
“Many also agree that this ordeal is an opportunity to be lucid about difficulties, and the will to remedy them,” the diocesan statement read.