VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican formally warned dissident French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre that he faces excommunication if he defies Pope John Paul II and carries out his announced plans to consecrate four bishops.
The Vatican warning came one day after Lefebvre held a news conference in Econe, Switzerland, to announce that he intends to consecrate four bishops June 30 in defiance of church bylaws making the selection and consecration of Catholic bishops the sole prerogative of the pope.
Among documents released by the Vatican press office was a June 9 letter in which the pope personally appealed to Lefebvre to give up his plan.
'With a paternal heart, but with all the gravity that the present circumstances require, I exhort you, Venerable Brother, to renounce your plan which, if it takes place, could only appear as a schismatic act whose theological consequences and inevitable Canon Law penalties are known to you,' the pope wrote.
'I ardently invite you to return, in humility, to full obedience of the Vicar of Christ,' he wrote.
The French archbishop's wrangle with the Holy See began in 1976, when Pope Paul VI suspended Lefebvre from his duties for ordaining 13 priests he had chosen.
Lefebvre -- who is fiercely opposed to changes in Catholic liturgy and other reforms adopted by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s - said Wednesday that a papal warning would not deter him.
'Excommunication is indifferent to us,' he said. 'It is not we who have changed. We would be condemned by those who would themselves have been excommunicated by previous popes.'
In a June 2 letter to the pope, Lefebvre said 'it is to keep intact the faith into which we were baptized that we have had to oppose the spirit of the Second Vatican Council and the reforms it inspired.'
The Vatican statement Thursday appealed to members and followers of Lefebvre's dissident St. Pius X Fraternity, founded in 1970, to 'rethink their position and decide to remain united to the Vicar of Christ.'
Lefebvre is supported by several thousand followers around the world, including 187 priests.
The statement outlined the pope's 8-month effort, through meetings and letters, to bring the 82-year-old French Archbishop back into the fold.
'In the event that Monsignor Lefebevre should effectively proceed with the episcopal ordinations he has announced, thus sealing his rupture with the Apostolic See, grave canonical consequences would follow,' the statement said.
'In this connection a 'monitum' (warning) has been sent to the interested parties, as required by ecclesiastical legislation.'
The statement indicated that the four bishops would also face excommunication if they are ordained by Lefebvre.
Excommunication deprives Catholics of the right to attend divine service and receive the holy sacraments. Excommunicated priests are forbidden to administer the sacraments or take part in public masses.
Lefebvre told the pope his movement was 'radically opposed to this destruction of our faith' and that his followers 'will continue to pray that modern Rome, infested with modernism, may become once again Catholic Rome and rediscover its 2,000-year tradition.'
A 'protocol of agreement' signed by the Vatican and Lefebvre on May 5 appeared to indicate that the two sides had settled their differences.
But church sources in Switzerland said protests from the Catholic episcopates in that country and France promted a hardening of the Vatican's position.