ECONE, Switzerland — Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre today defied the Vatican and consecrated four bishops of his traditionalist movement, provoking the first major split in the Roman Catholic Church since 1870.
The Vatican responded shortly afterward by excommunicating Lefebvre and the four new bishops. Rome had warned that consecrations without the approval of Pope John Paul II would bring automatic ejection from the church.
"We are convinced we are following the call of God," the French-born Lefebvre told about 10,000 supporters in a half-hour homily before the ceremony.
The prelate accused the church of accepting "modernism, liberalism, communism, Zionism" and said the changes are "not Catholic."
John Paul urged Lefebvre in a telegram Wednesday to refrain from his plans "for the love of Christ and his church."
Lefebvre said the Pope sent him a car Wednesday night to take him to Rome. He said he was surprised at this effort to make him cancel the elevation.
Today, the rebel prelate placed his hands over each of the new bishops to complete the consecrations. The ceremony was held in a tent on a meadow in front of the traditionalist seminary in this Swiss hamlet surrounded by vineyards and Alpine peaks.
In Rome, a statement read by Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro said the consecrations were a schismatic act carried out against the wishes of the Pope.
A schism is a formal rupture with the Holy See. Excommunication means Lefebvre and the four bishops are excluded from the rights, sacraments and privileges of the church.
'Church of All Times'
"This is not a schism, we are not schismatic," Lefebvre said. " . . . On the contrary, we are here to manifest our attachment to the church of all times."
Rome has followed a course of "grave errors" since the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in 1962-65 that is "about to destroy the church," Lefebvre said.
He said he had to go ahead with the consecrations because "we have tried everything to make Rome return to the traditions, but it was in vain."
About 180 traditionalist priests and 150 seminarians were among the faithful assembled under bright sunshine today.
Econe is the birthplace of Lefebvre's St. Pius X Fraternity, founded in 1970 for clerics opposed to the Second Vatican Council, whose reforms included modernizing the liturgy.
Lefebvre continues to celebrate Mass in Latin, dismissing the "bastard rites" in the vernacular that took its place.
Named after a Pope who condemned "modernist" trends in the church in a 1907 encyclical, Lefebvre's movement claims to have millions of sympathizers.
The four newly consecrated bishops were Richard Williamson, 48, English-born head of the Ridgefield, Conn., seminary; Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, 43, secretary general of the fraternity; Alfonso de Galarreta, 31, Spanish-born head of the seminary in Argentina, and Bernard Fellay, 30, administrator of the Fraternity, a Swiss.
The last split in the church occurred when the Old Catholics broke with the Vatican because they opposed the doctrine of papal infallibility proclaimed at the First Vatican Council in 1870.
Defying earlier Vatican sanctions, Lefebvre has ordained about 220 traditionalist priests, including 16 on Wednesday.