ROME – In a seemingly unprecedented move, the Vatican has asked a flourishing diocese in France to put a halt on priestly ordinations scheduled for the end of the month but gave no formal reason for the decision.

Dominique Rey, the bishop of the Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon where the ordinations were set to take place on the June 29 Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, announced the decision in a June 2 communique published on the diocesan website.

In the note, Rey said that over the past few months Archbishop Jean-Marc Aveline of Marseille, the metropolitan overseeing the province, conducted a “fraternal visit” of the Fréjus-Toulon diocese at Rome’s specific request.

It is unclear why the Vatican requested the apostolic visitation of the diocese conducted by Aveline, who recently concluded his work there and is among the 21 new cardinals named by Pope Francis.

When he gets the red hat in August, Aveline will be the first French residential prelate to be made a cardinal during Francis’s pontificate.

“Alongside the many beautiful fruits of the proclamation of the Gospel and the mission of committed Christians – clerics, consecrated persons, and laity – in our diocese, it was possible to discuss the questions that certain Roman dicasteries were asking about the restructuring of the seminary and the policy of welcoming people to the diocese,” Rey said, speaking of the visitation.

Fréjus-Toulon, considered to be among the most flourishing dioceses in France which annually yields numerous vocations, is widely known for its generous welcome of new movements and priests from other areas.

Rey said a meeting was recently held with Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, which yielded “useful information” regarding the situation.

“Pending the outcome of these ongoing exchanges with the Roman dicasteries, it has been requested that the diaconal and priestly ordinations scheduled for the end of June be postponed,” he said, saying the decision has been met with both “sorrow and trust,” and is a trial for everyone involved, especially the men who were to be ordained.

“We will be committed to carrying them in prayer and to continue accompanying them on their journey,” he said, and urged faithful to pray for the diocese, “until the situation can be clarified for the good of all.”

Rey provided no further information on the reason behind the Vatican’s unusual request, but some observers believe the decision was made due to Rey’s conservative stance on issues such as the Traditional Latin Mass, and the diocese’s embrace of priests who prefer to celebrate according to the Old Rite.

Last year, Pope Francis tightened permissions for celebration of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass, the use of which had been liberalized under his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.

According to the papal decree Traditionis Custodes, which enforces the restrictions, priests who wish to celebrate the 1962 liturgy must now get permission from their bishop to continue doing so. Any priest ordained after the issuance of the new norms who wishes to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass must submit a formal request to their bishop, and the bishop in turn will consult with the Vatican before granting permission.

Francis also charged bishops with determining specific times and locations where the Latin Mass can be celebrated and prohibited the designation of new parishes exclusively dedicated to the Old Rite liturgy.

Rey, who was appointed to Fréjus-Toulon by Pope John Paul II in May 2000, has frequently been hailed as a leading figure in the so-called New Evangelization due to the number of vocations his diocese yields each year, and he is a known advocate of the Traditional Latin Mass.

This year, four priests and six deacons were set to be ordained June 29, and last year, according to French publication La Vie, the diocese ordained 10 priests and eight deacons.

Fréjus-Toulon currently has around 250 active priests – which is significant considering that Paris, one of France’s largest dioceses, has 500 – most of whom are young. Roughly 75 percent of priests in Fréjus-Toulon are under 64, and about 30 percent are under 44 – a relatively rare demographic amid Europe’s rapidly aging society.

According to French newspaper La Croix, only 126 priests were ordained throughout France in 2020, with more than 60 percent of the country’s dioceses having no ordinations at all, making Fréjus-Toulon’s situation stand out.

The diocesan seminary of the Immaculate Conception in La Castille, where the young men who were to be ordained at the end of the month are studying, is the third largest in France in terms of numbers and is celebrating its centenary anniversary this year.

In the past, Rey has ordained priests for Fréjus-Toulon using the 1962 missal and has also used the Old Rite for ordinations within religious communities, including the Institute of the Good Shepherd.

After the promulgation of Traditionis Custodes last year, Rey voiced concern over the move, specifically about its impact on priests and communities in his diocese who celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass.

Fréjus-Toulon has also been the site of a recent controversy involving a monastery which celebrates according to the Old Rite.

Liturgical scholar Dom Alcuin Reid is the founding prior of the Saint-Benoit monastery in Brignoles, a Benedictine community which uses the Traditional Latin Mass, and which recently had several of its members ordained according to the Old Rite outside of France by an undisclosed bishop.

Reid, who has been a vocal critic of Pope Francis’s decision to restrict the Traditional Latin Mass, was apparently one of those ordained, and chose to do so outside of France given the scrutiny Fréjus-Toulone is currently facing.

After the clandestine ordinations, Rey suspended Reid, and has prevented him from celebrating the sacraments.

Critics of the Vatican’s decision to postpone the ordinations have argued that the interference from Rome in a bishop’s ordinary governing of his diocese is ironic, given Pope Francis’s push for a decentralized church in which many important decisions are left to individual bishops and ecclesial conferences who better understand the local situation. However, others have defended the move as a bid to ensure unity.

In an interview with French-language site, Famille Chretienne, the rector of the Fréjus-Toluon seminary, Father Benoît Moradei, said Rey conveyed the news to the seminarians in the context of a moment of prayer, and gave them time to ask questions.

“They received this news with courage, with many questions of course, but also with a lot of trust in the church and in the Lord,” he said, saying the young men “did not ask for deadlines, but for the reasons.”

Speaking of the restructuring of the diocesan seminary, Moradei said the process began three years ago and is being done “hand in hand” with Rey and Aveline.

“I say this because I am sad to read here or there that some people question the work of the Archbishop of Marseille,” Moradei said, insisting that Aveline’s visitation “did not harm us. On the contrary, his support was truly fatherly and encouraging.”

Without going into detail, Moradei said the restructuring of the seminary “raised some questions in the diocese, and in particular among some priests. It was therefore necessary to calm the situation.”

In this sense, the visitation performed by Aveline, with the help of Bishop Sylvain Bataille of Saint-Etienne, was “very positive,” he said. “We have tried to put their advice and recommendations into practice.”

Moradei said the visitation by Aveline and Bataille began in the Spring of 2021, and highlighted “many positive points in the general functioning of the seminary, but also some points of progress and challenges to overcome.”

Specifically, Moradei said recommendations were made regarding intellectual formation, and the seminary was asked to publish a booklet outlining the church’s teachings. They were also encouraged to continue collaboration with the Catholic University of Lyon.

Of special interest in the visitation was the presence of men from different areas and backgrounds in the seminary, and emphasis was placed “on the need to improve the integration of these seminarians in the diocese,” Moradei said. “That’s what I try to do.”

“I can say, in any case, that the boys that come to this seminary sincerely seek to fit in and serve our diocese,” he said.

Referring to the ample presence of young men who prefer to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass, Moradei said Old Rite enthusiasts make up “about a quarter to a third of our total membership.”

“One of the specificities of our seminary is to make the different sensitivities coexist in a fraternal communion where everyone respects each other,” he said, insisting that he works to ensure seminarians work and pray together “regardless of their sensitivities.”

“This aspect is one of the things that stood out, not as an impediment, but as a challenge to meet,” he said.

No new date has been announced for when this year’s ordinations can take place.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen