It is exactly 30 years since a gaunt French archbishop stood in front of thousands of worshippers and – in a speech punctuated by bursts of applause – explained why he was about to take a step that would lead to his excommunication.

You can find it on you YouTube. On June 30, 1988, followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre gathered in a huge white tent pitched outside his seminary at Écône in Switzerland. They were there to watch him consecrate four new bishops in defiance of Pope John Paul II, who had been desperately seeking to reconcile Lefebvre’s Society of St Pius X (SSPX) with Rome.

The 82-year-old prelate – formerly the Archbishop of Dakar, Senegal – had brushed aside the Pope’s overtures. As he told the congregation, reintegration on John Paul’s terms would have been “Operation Suicide”. His society was being offered the freedom to continue celebrating the Tridentine Mass. But the price – quiet acceptance of Vatican II, with its (as he saw it) repulsive gestures to non-Christians, and the “Protestant” Order of Mass it created – was spiritual death.

The archbishop surveyed the bowed heads of his seminarians. “When God calls me, no doubt before long, from whom would these seminarians receive the sacrament of Holy Orders? I cannot, in good conscience leave them orphaned.”

And so Lefebvre, his gold chasuble illuminated by the white panels of the tent, entered the sanctuary to raise four men to the episcopacy: Fathers Bernard Fellay, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Richard Williamson and Alfonso de Galarreta.

This was a step that Lefebvre had once insisted he would never take. It would turn him into Martin Luther, he reportedly said in 1974, “and I would lose the Holy Ghost”.

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