Why Has the Vatican Ordered an Apostolic Visitation of the Diocese of Toulon?

At first glance, a pair of direct interventions by Rome into the administration of a French diocese known for its flourishing vocations seems puzzling.

Fréjus Cathedral in Provence.
Fréjus Cathedral in Provence. (photo: François de Dijon / CC BY-SA 4.0)

This week saw a new blow for the Diocese of Toulon-Fréjus, France’s greatest pole of attraction for priestly vocations today.

In a Feb. 7 statement, the apostolic nunciature to France announced the decision of the Dicastery for Bishops “by mandate of Pope Francis,” to order an apostolic visitation of the diocese, which is located in the Var region of southeastern France. 

The brief statement advised the Vatican intervention follows from the observation of “a certain number” of unspecified difficulties, and is an extension of the November 2020 fraternal visit conducted by Metropolitan Archbishop Jean-Marc Aveline of Marseille. 

Different from that earlier pastoral visit, the apostolic visitation is defined as “extraordinary” because it is carried out by an authority outside the norms of the community or diocese, in the framework of a temporary mission focused on the resolution of specific problems. It will be led by Bishop Antoine Hérouard of Dijon.

This announcement also follows the unprecedented decision by the Vatican, in June 2022, to suspend priestly and diaconal ordinations in the diocese until further notice.

At first glance, this pair of direct interventions by Rome into the administration of a French diocese known for its flourishing vocations might seem puzzling, especially given the dearth of vocations elsewhere in France. So why did the Vatican judge it necessary to intervene so forcefully?

Sources close to the case point in turn to problems of ecclesiastical management linked to the “logic of numbers” followed by Bishop Dominique Rey since he took office in Toulon-Fréjus during the 2000s, and to an excessive permissiveness towards traditionalist communities following Pope Francis’ 2021 motu proprio Traditionis Custodes (Guardians of the Tradition), which imposed new restrictions on celebration of the traditional Latin Mass.


Discernment Issues 

According to the last figures issued on the 2022 Pontifical Yearbook quoted by the Swiss website Cath.ch, at the end of 2021, the diocese had 215 incardinated priests, which represents an increase compared to the year 2000 (187) and even exceeding the number 1950 (210).

But questions are associated with these seemingly impressive figures in a time of overwhelming crisis of priestly vocations in France — especially in light of the fact that a high number of abandonments of the priestly ministry have also been observed in the diocese, according to the Swiss Catholic website. 

Bishop Rey, who comes from the charismatic Emmanuel Community, has sometimes been accused of indiscriminately welcoming priests and Church communities from many different countries, leading in some cases to failures attributed to a “lack of discernment” and a “lack of follow-up” on the part of the bishop, as the Vatican expert Jean-Marie Guénois pointed out in the French newspaper Le Figaro.

One emblematic example is that of Father Thierry De Roucy, founder of the Catholic organization Points-Coeur, who was incardinated by Bishop Rey in 2008 and returned to the lay state by Rome in 2018 for abuse of ecclesiastical power and sexual abuse.

It was these questions surrounding the policy of welcoming priests and communities to the diocese that led the Holy See to order Archbishop Aveline’s fraternal visit in 2020, as well as the special visit of Bishop Sylvain Bataille of Saint-Etienne in central France to the diocese’s seminary, which eventually resulted in the decision to suspend priestly and diaconal ordinations in June 2022.

This suspension measure remains in effect, despite the announcement by Bishop Rey in September of a series of measures taken to remedy what he himself describes as “errors of appreciation and discernment.” 

In that September announcement, the diocese advised “that no new information has been received from Rome,” and was moving forward with the changes despite this “lack of visibility.”


A Different Approach

The measures taken against the diocese have provoked strong reactions among many of its faithful and priests, who rallied behind a petition in which they ask Pope Francis to reconsider his decision to suspend ordinations. The petition quickly collected more than 10,000 signatures during the summer of 2022. 

The petitioners highlighted the success of the numerous initiatives launched in this diocese and the average age of 55 years of the priests (Le Figaro reported in 2015 the median age of priests in France was estimated to be 75), expressing their “serious concern about the lasting consequences on the relations between Rome and the Christian people of France.” 

Another key element of the tensions,  as the Register reported last June, is Bishop Rey’s flexibility regarding the various traditionalist communities in the diocese, even following the publication of apostolic letter Traditionis Custodes restricting the traditional Latin Mass. This approach is seen by many as a triggering factor of the complaints sent to Rome by critics of Bishop Rey’s actions.

But according to a parish priest in a neighboring diocese, who worked with Bishop Rey for many years and wished to remain anonymous, the roots of this crisis run deeper. 

“[Bishop] Rey understood very early on that France, where the number of vocations has been in free fall for years, had become a land of mission and that it was necessary to turn to other countries, in particular to certain charismatic and traditionalist communities, which have a strong evangelizing power,” he told the Register, emphasizing that this change in the landscape of the Church in France worried and disturbed many of its leaders, who were reluctant to similarly change their own episcopal “software.”

“Yet, good fruits are not lacking, I can personally testify of many conversions of local people, who had moved away from the Church, because [Bishop] Rey occupied and covered the territory,” he said, also pointing out that Toulon-Fréjus is one of the only dioceses in France which has a priest for each parish. 

“I believe, contrary to what is being said, that this innovative approach pleased Pope Francis and that he appreciates Bishop Rey, but that he was forced to take things in hand because of the dysfunctions brought to his attention.”

In this light, he believes that Bishop Rey’s approach, once readjusted, will eventually become an example for the re-evangelization of historic Christian regions, and that the outcome of the audit conducted by Bishop Hérouard, who is known for his diplomacy and flexibility, will be positive.

The Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon also manifested its optimism by declaring in a Feb. 7 press release that it welcomes the news of the apostolic visit “in a climate of confidence.”


‘Delicate Mission’ 

For his part Bishop Hérouard expressed the hope that his visit — which he will make together with the former secretary of the Dicastery for the Clergy, Bishop Joël Mercier — will not exceed a few weeks. 

In a statement directed to the faithful of his own diocese, Bishop Hérouard stated that a “delicate mission for the service of the Church” awaited him, and outlined that he planned to conduct the Toulon visit in two stages, from Feb. 13-24 and March 6-10.

At the end of their mission, the two visitors will submit a report to the Vatican, in which they will propose measures to restore the normal functioning of the diocese.