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Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, defying the Vatican power structure he...

ECONE, Switzerland -- Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, defying the Vatican power structure he says is led by 'the anti-Christ,' consecrated four bishops Thursday in a ceremony that meant automatic excommunication and marked the first split in the Roman Catholic Church in more than 100 years.

The controversial consecration, carried out in defiance of orders from Pope John Paul II, took place before a crowd of 8,000 in a tent erected near Lefebvre's Swiss seminary.

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A Vatican spokesman confirmed the excommunications of the iron-willed archbishop and the four bishops from his ultra-conservative Saint Pius X fraternity.

Lefebvre, an 82-year-old French prelate who has refused to recognize the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, declared in an open letter 'the throne of Peter and the posts of authority in Rome (are) occupied by the anti-Christ.'

The four bishops consecrated by Lefebvre were Bernard Tissier, 42, the French secretary-general of the Pius X brotherhood; Bernard Fellay, 42, the brotherhood's Swiss administrator; Richard Williamson, 48, a British-born former Anglican who head's the St. Pius fraternity's seminary in Ridgefield, Conn.; and Alfonso de Gallereta, 30, head of a seminary in Buenos Aires.

In an exchange of letters with Lefebvre earlier in June, the pope made it clear that the five would be automatically excommunicated if the ceremony went ahead.

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Lefebvre asked an assisting priest in Latin whether he had an 'apostolic mandate' to carry out the ceremony. 'Habemus,' replied the assistant, meaning, 'We have.'

'We have this mandate because the church at this present time is in the grip of modernism,' he said.

All four, together with Lefebvre himself, are automatically excommunicated according to the text of a Vatican 'monitum' published the week before.

Lefebvre went ahead with plans to consecrate the bishops, ignoring a final appeal from the Catholic pontiff not 'to create a dangerous situation of schism' within the church.

Shortly after the unauthorized consecration, chief Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro Valls confirmed the validity of the formal warning the Holy See sent to Lefebvre June 17, saying Lefebvre and the others involved would be automatically excommunicated if the unauthorized act took place.

The spokesman also confirmed the action marked the first schism, or split, in the Roman Catholic Church in 115 years. In 1873, a dissident Catholic leader opposed to changes approved by the First Vatican Council in 1869-70 consecrated a bishop without papal authority.

In a speech before the ceremony Lefebvre denied that he and his colleagues sought to divide the church.

'There is a great difference between the current situation and previous schisms in the church,' Lefebvre said. 'We have done everything we possibly could to tell Rome that the ecumenical movement does not conform with the church of today,' he said.

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'In carrying out this consecration today we are showing our attachment to Rome. We are faced with a case of necessity, the necessity of coming to the aid of our souls. We do not want, for anything in the world, such a church,' Lefebvre said amid cheers from the crowd.

About 500 priests and nuns were among the crowd gathered in the tent along the main highway between Martigny and Sion in the southern Swiss province of Valais,police said.

They were among the most enthusiastic as Lefebvre told the crowd he considered he had the right to go ahead with the ordination.

Lefebvre said the pope had cabled him the previous day urging him to reconsider his decision. A car had been put at his disposal, he said, to take him to Rome for urgent talks with the pontiff.

'You can judge for yourself the opportunity and wisdom of this move,' he told the crowd. 'I was two weeks in Rome and the pope never received me once.'

Lefebvre said he was going ahead with the consecration 'because I cannot abandon the members of my seminary.'

The rebel archbishop claims millions of followers in Europe and the Americas. He had been suspended from the church -- by Pope Paul VI in 1976 -- but until Thursday had not been excommunicated.

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The Vatican canceled a planned concert of Beethoven's 'Missa Solemnis,' planned for Thursday night, 'to express the profound sadness of the universal church in this particularly painful moment.'

The pope spoke directly to Lefebvre and his followers during Tuesday's ceremonies creating the new cardinals. 'We pray to them and exhort them from bottom of our heart to remain in the paternal house,' John Paul said.

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