For years, the French Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon defied the downward trend in priestly vocations.
But that came to an abrupt halt in 2022. And now, for the second year running, no ordinations will take place in the diocese in southeastern France.
The reason why is no mystery: The Vatican has imposed a moratorium on ordinations as it investigates concerns that the diocese’s admissions policy is too lax.
The moratorium has left the once thriving diocese — and its charismatic Bishop Dominique Rey — in a peculiar limbo.
The latest indication of the paralysis within the diocese came June 1, when Rey withdrew permission for three members of one of the 50 communities resident in the diocese to take their final vows.
The trio — two sisters and a brother — had been due to take their final vows June 10 in the Fraternité Eucharistein, a community founded in 1996.
The group had undergone a canonical visitation in 2021, after which its governance and formation process were reformed, and its founder asked to abstain from public ministry and live at a monastery. The three candidates had been fully vetted and approved to take the step.
Cyrille Jacquot, the community’s moderator, told the Swiss Catholic website cath.ch that the indefinite postponement of the final vows was not “a question of cancelation or sanction.”
“Bishop Rey explained to me that the ecclesial context is tense with regard to new communities,” he said.
Boom to bust
After Rey took charge of the diocese in the year 2000, it gained a reputation as a sanctuary for communities attached to the Traditional Latin Mass.
But the bishop, who belongs to the Catholic Charismatic Renewal-inspired Emmanuel Community, welcomed groups from across the ecclesiastical spectrum.
Communities that have found a home in the diocese include Brazil’s Canção Nova and Shalom Catholic Community, Argentina’s Institute of the Incarnate Word, and Ecclesiola, a French private association of the faithful.
Rey reportedly believes that the French Church’s future lies in a reconciliation of traditionalist and charismatic elements, sometimes described as a “tradismatic” vision.
By 2012, the diocese’s soaring ordinations were gaining international attention. That year, Rey ordained 12 priests, out of the national total of 96 — more than any other diocese except Paris.
Even then, observers suggested that the bishop’s approach to ordinations was too laissez-faire. But he defended his policy.
“People are always suspicious of anything that upsets their habits and right-thinking ways,” he told the French newspaper Le Monde. “Time will tell, give us 20 or 30 years!”
“There has been a sharp decline in religious vocations in Europe. If we want to create a new impetus, we need new resources. Installing a new community in a parish can inject life into it, on condition that it’s not perceived as something forced on people.”
But in 2020, the Vatican began to act on its concerns. Rome asked the then Archbishop Jean-Marc Aveline of Marseilles to conduct a “fraternal visit” in November of that year, while Bishop Sylvain Bataille of Saint-Étienne reportedly looked into the diocesan seminary.
In June 2022, Rey said that, in the wake of the fraternal visit, he had begun to address questions raised by the Vatican about “the restructuring of the seminary and the diocese’s welcome policy.”
He explained that he had discussed the problems with Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the then prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops, and had been “asked to postpone the diaconal and priestly ordinations” scheduled for the end of that month.
French media described the ordination moratorium — a rare move — as “a bombshell.”
Commentators said that the apostolic visitation was inspired not just by Rey’s willingness to accept seminarians, priests, and communities rejected by other dioceses.
Other factors included his openness to Catholics with traditionalist sensibilities at a time when the Vatican was clamping down worldwide on the Old Mass and his allegedly abrupt management style, which was said to have offended some clergy.
Hérouard told AFP that he had conducted 110 hour-long listening sessions during the apostolic visitation and received a total of 600 testimonies via a dedicated email address.
His final report, containing documents weighing “more than 20 kilograms” (44 pounds), was dispatched to Rome, where he traveled at the end of May to meet with the heads of the Vatican dicasteries for bishops and the clergy.
“We are now awaiting the pope’s decision,” he said, according to a June 7 report.
The apostolic visitation’s conclusions have not been made public, leaving the diocese in a strange state of suspended animation. The French Catholic daily La Croix reported that “no major decisions seem likely to be taken until the bishop’s fate has been decided.”
In recent years, the French hierarchy has seen a high attrition rate, with notable departures including that of Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit. One bishop-elect even resigned before his episcopal ordination, citing burnout.
Since the Vatican investigation began, Rey has seemed determined to show he can respond to the concerns and prudently adapt his admissions policy.
Resignation is not the only possible outcome. The pope could decide to appoint an auxiliary bishop to the diocese, which serves approximately 645,000 Catholics out of a total population of around 1 million, or a coadjutor with the right of succession when Rey turns 75 in 2027. Either way, Rey would likely receive strict instructions regarding future ordinations.
But if the 70-year-old bishop is asked to step down, the French Church will lose yet another prominent leader at a time when it is struggling to emerge from an abuse crisis that has deeply shaken the country’s Catholics.