Fernand Portal was born in 1855 in the South of France and after school he entered the seminary, being ordained a priest of St. Vincent de Paul’s Congregation of the Mission, also known as Lazarists or Vincentians, at the age of 25. The Lazarists are a congregation of secular priests with religious vows, with a vocation to work among the poorest and most under-privileged, who also became the inspiration for the Society of the Holy Cross in the Anglican Church, to which many of today’s Ordinariate priests belonged.
Father Portal had originally hoped to go to China as a missionary but unfortunately his poor health prevented that. As a result of tuberculosis he had to make a prolonged stay on the Portuguese island of Madeira, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It was there that in 1890 Fr. Fernand made the acquaintance of Charles Lindley Wood, Viscount Halifax, whose son was also suffering from tuberculosis.
Lord Halifax, a prominent Anglo-Catholic, dreamt of a greater rapprochement between the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches and this was an idea which he shared with Fernand Portal. It was thus that the two men became lifelong friends and worked together on this ecumenical project.
Father Portal even obtained permission from Pope Leo XIII to approach leading figures in the Anglican Church and begin preliminary conversations. This led to a discussion on the validity of Anglican orders, on which Fernand Portal and Lord Halifax hoped that some kind of agreement might be possible. In 1993 Fr. Portal wrote a brochure called “Les Ordinations Anglicanes” and Lord Halifax succeeded in getting together a group of leading Anglican theologians to respond to this brochure.
Soon the press got wind of this first ecumenical debate and some lively reactions ensued, not least from those in the Catholic Church who feared modernism, especially Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val. Father Portal founded a periodical which he called the “Revue Anglo-Romaine” and which aimed to present the Anglican Church favourably to French Catholics.
Leo XIII himself held true and set up a commission to study the question of the validity of Anglican orders, in which Cardinal Merry del Val played a fundamental part and which sadly led to the promulgation in 1896 of the Papal Bull Apostolicae Curae, declaring Anglican orders to be “absolutely null and utterly void”.
Immediately the Revue Anglo-Romaine had to be discontinued and Fernand Portal was transferred by his superior general, being given a position at the major seminary at Châlons-sur-Marne. However, it was not long before he was called to Paris as director of the newly-founded St. Vincent de Paul seminary, to which Fr. Portal, who was a fervent disciple of John Henry Newman, did not hesitate to invite Anglican and other Protestant guests. He founded a new journal, called the “Revue Catholique des Églises”, which in turn led in 1908 to a severe reprimand by Cardinal Merry del Val, who in the meantime had become Secretary of State.
The Revue was discontinued, Portal was accused of modernism, relieved of his post at the seminary and forbidden either to publish or to speak in public.
Father Portal was exiled and continued his priestly work among children from poorest neighbourhoods, which he had never given up during all the time as seminary professor and director. However, he was not to be deterred in his mission, so that, when he returned to Paris some time later, still forbidden to speak in public, he opened his home to students, priests and leading Anglican and other figures.
During the second decade of the twentieth century the general climate became more conducive to dialogue with other Christians, especially after Lambeth launched the idea of a union of churches, and so with his friend Lord Halifax, Fernand Portal approached another friend, Cardinal Désiré-Joseph Mercier, Archbishop of Brussels and Malines in Belgium, and together they were able to initiate the famous Malines Conversations in 1921, which developed into a serious dialogue tacitly approved by both sides and brought forth, among other things, the highly regarded paper “L’église anglicane unie, mais non absorbée” (The Anglican Church, united but not absorbed) by Dom Lambert Beauduin in 1925.
These conversations continued until the deaths in 1926, only months apart, of Cardinal Mercier and Father Fernand Portal and formed the basis of what later became ARCIC after Vatican II. One can also fairly say that Fernand Portal was among the fathers of “Anglicanorum Coetibus”, as he had always been a protagonist of the “Uniate” solution for the Anglican Church, and so it is perhaps not insignificant, although probably unintentional, that the Ordinariates’ monthly journal is entitled “The PORTAL”.
Father Fernand Portal is buried in the crypt of the monastery church of Our Lady of Unity (Notre-Dame de l’Unité) in the village of Pugny-Chatenôd near Aix-les-Bains in the Alpine region of eastern France. Today the monastery is the home of twenty contemplative sisters of the Communauté de Bethléem, whose apostolate is to pray for Church Unity.
Next Tuesday I plan to visit Fr. Fernand’s tomb and the Sister Prioress has accorded me the privilege of talking to the assembled sisters about the Ordinariates. The Ordinariate Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Birmingham will be accompanying me with their prayers and I have been sent a note of greeting from Mother Winsome and the sisters which I shall be able to hand over to the French sisters during my visit.
The monastery church was deliberately built in the style of an Orthodox church to stress the universality of the sisters’ apostolate.
I have in fact been invited to take part on Wednesday 23 July in a Day of Spiritual Reflection (“Halte spirituelle”) in the Catholic parish of Aix-les-Bains, to which Pugny-Chatenôd belongs. I shall be giving a talk on the Holy Spirit in the Anglican tradition and on the Personal Ordinariates. The event will take place in a former Anglican Church, St. Swithun’s, which was built for the English community in this thermal spa town in the 1870′s. Queen Victoria was a frequent worshiper there and actually donated the reredos for the church. In the morning we will be doing a walking tour of Aix in Queen Victoria’s footsteps, and at the end of the afternoon our priest affiliate from Grenoble will celebrate a Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit in the Ordinariate Use with special permission of the Ordinary and his bishop.
This is the first Ordinariate event which is to take place in France. It will be followed on the Feast of the Assumption by a Friends of the Ordinariate day in the parish of another of our priests affiliate, at Grimaud near Saint-Tropez on the Côte d’Azur. Father Scott Anderson, our spiritual director, will be celebrating mass and preaching at all the services, so we should both be grateful for your thoughts and prayers on these two occasions.