A rare moratorium on priestly ordinations could be lifted after Pope Francis named a coadjutor bishop to a troubled French diocese.
Pope Francis appointed Bishop François Touvet Nov. 21 as the coadjutor bishop of Fréjus-Toulon, a diocese in southeastern France where the Vatican suspended ordinations in June 2022.
Rome reportedly took the step because of concerns that vetting procedures were too lax in the diocese, which became known worldwide for its abundant vocations and as a refuge for traditionalist communities under its Bishop Dominique Rey.
The diocese said Tuesday that Touvet would have the power of governance over the formation of seminarians and priests, administration, clergy management, and support for religious communities.
Touvet, until now Bishop of Châlons in northeastern France, has the right to succeed Rey when the incumbent turns 75 in September 2027.
Rey, who faced the possibility of removal after an apostolic visitation earlier this year, expressed delight at Touvet’s appointment.
“I thank God for seeing our diocese emerge from the turmoil it has been in since June 2022,” Rey said in a message to his flock.
“This year and a half of waiting has been particularly difficult and painful for all of us, priests, religious, faithful, and especially seminarians.”
“Despite the temptation to anger or incomprehension in the face of this collective sanction, thanks to prayer and the grace of God, we have not given in to discouragement.”
“That’s why I’d like to thank you for joining me in trusting and praying through this time of trial. Our diocesan Church will emerge strengthened by humility, forgiveness, questioning, trust in God, and in the Church.”
Touvet told local Catholics that he looked forward to working with Rey within the framework defined by the pope.
The bishop, described by France’s Libération newspaper as “a staunch conservative from a military family,” said he hoped the collaboration would help “bring the necessary peace and continue to nourish your pastoral and missionary dynamism, recognized by all.”
He said: “The special powers conferred on me by the pope will see me working more closely with priests and deacons, the Castille [diocesan] seminary, and all communities, whatever their canonical status.”
“I’ll also be keeping a close eye on the administration of the diocese: finances, real estate and human resources.”
“On the strength of my experience of almost eight years as bishop of Châlons, including a year when I was simultaneously administrator of the Word of Life Community, I will give the best of myself according to the new motto I have chosen: misericordia et veritas, ‘love and truth meet’ (Psalm 84:11).”
Since Rey’s appointment to Fréjus-Toulon in the year 2000, the diocese has gained a reputation for welcoming communities from across the ecclesiastical spectrum, including some that struggled to gain acceptance elsewhere.
While the bishop does not come from a traditionalist background, he is said to believe that the French Church’s future lies in a reconciliation of traditionalist and charismatic elements, sometimes described as a “tradismatic” vision.
Although he has detractors within the French Catholic world, Rey also has significant support. An appeal to Pope Francis, reputedly signed by more than 10,000 people, described the bishop as “creative” and “daring.”
In a Nov. 21 interview with Le Figaro newspaper, Rey said that he never thought of resigning but would have done so if asked by the pope.
"The pope’s decision seems to me to be positive for the good of the diocese, as it ensures continuity and offers a good opportunity to improve governance,” he said.
After becoming increasingly concerned about the diocese’s governance, Rome initially turned to the local metropolitan Archbishop Jean-Marc Aveline of Marseilles. Aveline, who has since been made a cardinal, undertook a “fraternal visit” to the diocese beginning in November 2020.
Bishop Sylvain Bataille of Saint-Etienne, meanwhile, reportedly visited the diocesan seminary.
Rey met with Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the then prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops, shortly before Rome took the unusual step of suspending diaconal and priestly ordinations in the diocese — a move described as “a bombshell” by the French media.
For months, there were rumors that the pope would name Touvet as the coadjutor bishop of the diocese, which serves around 645,000 Catholics.
Cardinal Aveline will preside at a Dec. 10 welcome Mass for Touvet at Toulon Cathedral.
In a joint interview published Nov. 22 by the weekly magazine Famille chrétienne, Touvet and Rey said that they looked forward to working together.
“We have different temperaments; we’re not from the same generation, we didn’t receive the same training. Is that so grave?” asked Touvet, who at 58 years of age is more than a decade younger than Rey.
“In my opinion, this difference is a guarantee of complementarity, just as it was between the apostles.”
Rey said: “The division of responsibilities is clear between us. Rome has entrusted some specific tasks to Bishop Touvet. This will enable me to be closer to the people and to redeploy myself in other ways. This situation allows me to envisage new missionary commitments that were not possible due to lack of availability.”
Asked what will happen to ordination candidates, Touvet said: “This is obviously a priority for me as a pastor. I’m going to look into this matter with determination, to move forward and break the deadlock. It’s gone on too long.”
“My aim is to see that these young men who are waiting — God’s people are waiting for them too — are ordained. As far as possible, of course. In fact, I’ve been in contact with the formators at the Castille seminary and I feel I have great confidence in them. I’m going to rely on their discernment.”
Editor’s note: This report was updated November 22, 2023, with quotations from the Famille chrétienne interview with Bishops Touvet and Rey.