Why is a French Catholic archdiocese expelling the FSSP?

The Basilica of Fontaine-lès-Dijon, France The Basilica of Fontaine-lès-Dijon, France./ Michel Foucher via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

After 23 years in the Archdiocese of Dijon, in eastern France, the priests of the Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) will be dismissed at the end of summer, leaving behind around 300 dismayed parishioners.

Following a decision by Archbishop Roland Minnerath of Dijon, the community will leave the Basilica of Fontaine-lès-Dijon -- the site of St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s birthplace -- in September.

The extraordinary form of the Roman Rite, offered every day by the FSSP priests, will henceforth be celebrated by diocesan priests.

The news of the expulsion prompted an outcry. The archdiocese responded with a communique suggesting that the decision to entrust the ministry to the diocese was motivated by organizational reasons and followed the Fraternity’s decision to transfer one of its two priests to another diocese.

But Fr. Roch Perrel, superior of the FSSP in Dijon, expressed his incomprehension at the decision. He told CNA that FSSP District Superior Fr. Benoît Paul-Joseph wrote to Minnerath May 8 announcing that the priest who was being transferred would be replaced by another from the Fraternity.

“The archbishop answered that it was not necessary to appoint anyone since, from September, he would ask diocesan priests to say the Mass of St. Pius V for the faithful of the parish,” he said.

Perrel added that Paul-Joseph asked for an appointment with the archbishop to discuss the decision, but that his request went unheeded.

He claimed that, meanwhile, the archbishop had told a delegation of Catholics that the reason he was expelling the FSSP -- a society of apostolic life founded in 1988 -- was that its priests don’t concelebrate Mass.

“He wanted to concelebrate for the Chrism Mass during Holy Week, but we haven’t done it for years, as we have reservations on the New Mass and we don’t celebrate at the same pace,” Perrel said.

The priest emphasized that Canon 902 of the Code of Canon Law provides that no one can be forced to concelebrate.

“The archbishop had first accepted it, although he didn’t like it, but now he is kicking us out for this motive, and he is abusing his authority in this sense,” Perrel suggested.

Contacted by CNA to discuss the claim, the archdiocese’s communication office lamented that, as the Fraternity is committed exclusively to celebrating the extraordinary form, its priests refuse to “occasionally concelebrate with other priests in the ordinary form.”

The diocesan priests providing this service in future will thus allow, according to the archdiocese, “a permanent exchange between people of both rites.”

While asserting that the community’s priests never asked to meet with the archbishop, the archdiocese denounced a media campaign against Minnerath that, it said, was “very revealing of the spirit of a part of the people who refer to the Fraternity.”

The controversy erupted a few months after the emergence of a memorandum drafted by the French bishops’ conference in response to a 2020 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith questionnaire regarding the extraordinary form, sent to bishops worldwide.

The bishops’ conference text treated the refusal by priests of the FSSP to concelebrate as problematic. It also called for steps to “induce the faithful of the extraordinary form to participate more in diocesan life,” to avoid the creation of a “parallel Church.”

While some commentators saw the Dijon decision as a consequence of the bishops’ conference report, Perrel said that there was no evidence of a connection and that tensions between the Fraternity and Minnerath go back further.

More in Europe

According to the priest, the archbishop tried to transfer the community to another parish a year ago, to install a new community at the Basilica of Fontaine-lès-Dijon, ultimately abandoning the idea after dissension emerged between him and the other community.

Minnerath, who has served as archbishop of Dijon since 2004, will celebrate his 75th birthday on Nov. 27. That is the age that bishops are expected to submit their resignations to the pope.

“We knew that he had in mind to send us away, but his mandate at the head of the archdiocese is drawing to a close, so we thought we just had to wait one more year and that the situation would have probably improved with his successor, but he expelled us before leaving office,” Perrel said.

Asked about possible remedies, Perrel said that the FSSP had raised the case with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. But since there is no contract between the Fraternity and the diocese, it will be difficult for the FSSP to challenge the decision.

“Our presence was never officialized and we were kept in precarious conditions all along,” he said.

Members of the parish, for their part, have spared no effort in seeking to convince the archbishop to reverse his decision. After gathering a delegation -- through the Association des Amis de la Basilique de Fontaine-lès-Dijon -- to meet with Minnerath May 28, they launched a Facebook page and online petition in support of the Fraternity.

The petition has gathered almost 2,500 signatures in a week. The diocese, however, told CNA that the initiative “will not change anything” because a majority of the signatures come from outside of Dijon archdiocese.

(Story continues below)

While saying that he felt “really hurt” by what he considered to be “contempt” on the archbishop’s part, Perrel argued that the faithful were the ones suffering most from the situation since the community is currently offering 12 Masses a week.

He said that from September diocesan priests would celebrate only one extraordinary form Mass a week, on Sundays.

“Not to mention visits to the sick and the poor, catechism classes for children and adults, sacramental preparation, the parish youth group…We’re destroying something that was working well, and it is a great loss for the local population,” he said.