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Pope Francis winds up special Lefebvre commission

Francis issued Thursday an apostolic letter, distributed on Saturday, that officially terminates the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei.

Pope Francis. Picture: United Nations Photo.

VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis has wound up a commission which engaged in dialogue with a traditionalist Catholic fraternity founded by French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, as relations with the splinter group stabilise.

Francis issued Thursday an apostolic letter, distributed on Saturday, that officially terminates the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, established by pope John Paul II in July 1988 to manage relations with the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X, or FSSPX.

Lefebvre founded FSSPX in 1970 and it quickly distanced itself from so-called Vatican II reforms, notably continuing to say mass in Latin and maintaining the practice of priests keeping their backs to the congregation.

Ecclesia Dei was tasked with preserving dialogue with FSSPX in the aim of bringing the group back into the fold at some point.

Relations hit a low in June 1988 when Lefebvre ordained four bishops without the pope's authorisation, which led to the controversial archbishop and the four bishops being excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.

Lefebvre died three years later, but Pope Benedict XVI reinstated the banished bishops in 2009.

Pope Francis has now assigned the commission's duties to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), a section of which is to pursue dialogue that "is now focused primarily on questions of a doctrinal nature".

The CDF will thus "continue the work of vigilance, promotion, and protection" previously handled by Ecclesia Dei.

Meanwhile, Francis noted that the number of "institutes and religious communities which habitually celebrate in the extraordinary form" of Lefebvre-style worship has stabilised.

FSSPX currently comprises around 600 priests, compared with the Catholic church's worldwide total of 400,000.