Pope Francis held a private and informal meeting with the superior general of the Society of St. Pius X at the weekend, fueling expectations that an agreement on canonical status for the Society could be achieved soon.

In a statement, the SSPX said the Holy Father received Bishop Bernard Fellay and the Society’s second general assistant, Father Alain-Marc Nély, at the Pope’s Domus Sanctae Marthae’s residence on April 1.

It added that Pope Francis “had wanted a private and informal meeting, without the formality of an official audience”. The meeting lasted 40 minutes and “took place under a cordial atmosphere,” the statement said.

“After the meeting, it was decided that the current exchanges would continue,” the statement continued, but added that “the canonical status of the Society was not directly addressed, Pope Francis and Bishop Fellay having determined that these exchanges ought to continue without haste.”

The Vatican later confirmed the news with just a one line statement, but said the date was Saturday, not Friday. “The Press Office confirms that Saturday, 2 April, a meeting took place in the Vatican between Pope Francis and Bishop Bernard, Fellay, Superior General of the St. Pius X Fraternity," it said. 

The Society of St. Pius X was founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1970 to form priests, as a response to what he described as errors that had crept into the Church following the Second Vatican Council. Its relations with the Holy See became strained in 1988, when Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated four bishops without the permission of Pope John Paul II.

Saturday’s meeting was the first significant encounter between the Pope and Bishop Fellay. The only other time they have met was in December 2013 when they greeted each other briefly in the Domus Sanctae Marthae residence.

The Pope has received some priests of the Society before to discuss administrative difficulties in the SSPX's district of Argentina.

Bishop Fellay was in Rome at the weekend to continue talks with Archbishop Guido Pozzo, secretary of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei — the Vatican body charged with bringing the SSPX back into full communion.

In 2014, discussions resumed between the Society and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith after they broke off in 2011. The talks aimed to achieve “full communion with the Church” after Benedict XVI lifted the excommunications on the bishops in 2009.

Benedict stated that “doctrinal questions obviously remain, and until they are clarified, the society has no canonical status in the Church, and its ministers cannot legitimately exercise any ministry.”

The main obstacle for the Society’s reconciliation has been the teaching on religious liberty in Vatican II, which it claims contradicts previous Catholic teaching. The SSPX also questions the Council’s teaching on collegiality, ecumenism, the new Mass and new rites of the sacraments.

The Pope’s reticence towards traditional Catholicism has meant that his recent overtures have come as a welcome surprise to the SSPX. Last year, he declared that the Society's priests would be able to hear confessions of Catholics during the current Jubilee Year of Mercy. 

In a recent in-house interview, Bishop Fellay gave two possible reasons for this improvement in relations: that the Pope sees the SSPX as on the “peripheries” and in need of inclusion; and that the Pope possibly views the SSPX as sympathetic to his concerns about a self-satisfied, established Church that no longer looks for the lost sheep.

The Society’s superior general said the SSPX is also heartened by the fact that his Vatican interlocutors consider them Catholics, not schismatics. More importantly, he welcomes the fact that the Vatican now views the stumbling blocks of the past — religious freedom, collegiality, ecumenism, the new Mass and new rites of the sacraments — as “open questions.” Before they appeared closed, as officials had insisted on the SSPX “accepting the Council”. Total submission to Vatican II was not something the Society could ever accept.

The signs are therefore genuinely hopeful, but much will depend on overcoming a lack of trust.

“Both sides need to come around to appreciating persons and their intentions correctly,” Bishop Fellay said. “I think that this will take time.” As long as the suspicion prevails that the Vatican intends to disintegrate rather than integrate the Society, “we can’t expect anything,” he said.