ROME— Confirming reports in the Italian press, the Vatican acknowledged Monday that Pope Francis held a 40-minute meeting on Friday with Bishop Bernard Fellay, leader of a group of traditionalist Catholics known as the Society of St. Pius X that broke with Rome a quarter-century ago.
The meeting took place in the pope’s personal residence in the Vatican.
The Society of St. Pius X said Monday that the 40-minute meeting with Francis was “cordial”, and that it had taken place because the pope wanted a “private and informal meeting” with Fellay.
The society, often called the “Lefebvrists” after the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre who founded it in 1970, has been in rupture with Rome since 1989, after Lefebvre ordained four new bishops without papal approval.
Since 2000 there have been repeated efforts at reunification, but so far to no avail.
The Vatican also confirmed the information, through a one-sentence statement saying: “The Press Office confirms that Friday, April 1, a meeting took place in the Vatican between Pope Francis and Bishop Bernard, Fellay, Superior General of the St. Pius X Fraternity.”
The statement released by the society added additional details, saying that the canonical status of the society hadn’t been directly addressed by Fellay and the pope, with both having determined that the exchanges have to continue “without haste.”
The reference to canonical status was likely prompted that Francis might be on the brink of offering the traditionalist society the designation of a “personal prelature” under Church law, meaning basically a non-geographic diocese, a status currently held only by the Catholic organization Opus Dei.
For a moment during the pontificate of Benedict XVI it seemed an agreement between Rome and the society was close, but so far every attempt collapsed.
Last year, Francis extended an olive branch by saying that during the Holy Year of Mercy, which began last December and will come to a close in November, Catholics could go to confession with priests of the group and receive forgiveness, and the Catholic Church would consider the sacrament valid.
In a letter concerning special concessions during the Jubilee Year, Pope Francis expressed hope that “in the near future solutions may be found to recover full communion with the priests and superiors of the fraternity.”
In 1995, the Vatican issued a document saying that while priests of the Society of St. Pius X have been validly ordained, they are considered suspended a divinis, meaning legally prohibited from exercising ministries such as the sacrament of confession, because they were ordained without papal authorization.
In an interview last March, Fellay said that the discussions towards regularization of the society are still ongoing, and with the support of the pope. However, he warned, “There is no hurry, that’s for sure.”
“Are we really moving forward? I think so. I think so, but it is certainly slow going,” he told the society’s Dici.org site last March.
Benedict had made reconciliation a priority, liberalizing permission for celebration of the older Latin Mass, which the society celebrates, and lifting the excommunications of four of its bishops imposed after the original break, including Bishop Richard Williamson, who has sparked controversy for his views minimizing the Holocaust.
Fellay seems to have changed his assessment of a possible agreement with the Vatican under Pope Francis, since not long ago he appeared decidedly pessimistic.
According to Catholic Family News, in October of 2013, the year Francis was elected, Fellay said, “When we see what is happening now [under Pope Francis] we thank God, we thank God, we have been preserved from any kind of agreement from last year.”
“To imagine that some people continue to pretend we are decided [still] to get an agreement with Rome,” he continued. “Poor people. I really challenge them to prove they mean. They pretend that I think something else from what I do. They are not in my head.”