Empty Hats: The Silent and Ever Pervasive Scourge of the Old Catholic/ISM Movement

A few years ago, about midstream in our growth as a parish, I was interviewed at our Blue Bell location by Father Rick Romero. Sometime during the interview, Father asked me about why I didn’t work harder to promote or identify with the ISM movement. I said very directly that I really could care less about the ISM Movement. I qualified my comment with, “I truly believe that if I continue to build a great parish, and reach a level of success that I intend, it will reflect far more kindly on the movement in ways that my lip service could ever offer.” I still feel that way to this day. 

After almost thirteen years, Saint Miriam Parish & Friary has continued to flourish. We operate a vibrant parish, a progressive STEAM school, a hospitable Friary, a historic cemetery, and soon we will announce another acquisition to our corporate structure as well as two additional direct outreach centers. Through our many outreaches, including our Award-winning Blessing Bag Program that has reached well over 5,000 persons experiencing homelessness, as of this writing, including their pet companions, with food, warm socks, scarves, we offer hope. We always strive to look outward to find where God will lead us next; our mission truly begins at the dismissal. 

Saint Miriam may be located within one of the richest counties in Pennsylvania, but our mission extends to the some of the poorest and most in need regions of our greater SMSA. As of this writing, we own and care for, as good stewards, 12.5 acres and will soon develop our last 3-acre parcel into an outreach like no other in the county. Our budget this year is just shy of 1 million dollars with all entities combined. This is nothing short of a minor miracle since we have only been around since the spring of 2008 and we also reside within one of the most conservative Roman Catholic Dioceses in the country. Since our founding, in a small chapel within a Jewish Reconstructionist Synagogue in Philadelphia, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has tried to thwart our mission many times, directly and indirectly, even once sending out a ‘pastoral letter’ from Archbishop Chaput to be read from the pulpit in each of their 233 parishes informing them of ‘our false catholicity’! Despite these efforts, we have continued to strengthen because we have never once strayed from our mission.

I will be the first to admit that it has not been easy; we have invested a lot, lost a lot, and made voluminous mistakes on the journey, some by own hand as pastor, but we have surpassed every goal and we are proud of what we have created. I pray there is much more to come, but that will be in God’s hand. And, I am sure that one day my position as pastor will yield to a life elsewhere. I regret none of it. We have built a wonderful place.

It is also no secret that I can be rather demanding, exacting in nature, and some might say a ‘real ass’. I ordain very few as Bishop of our diocese, I do ‘transition’ (if you read this as fire or let go and you’d be correct) many a priest and deacon, and I like things a certain way. I say I am exacting; others might argue that’s nice for please do it my way or get out! I was once asked at bishop’s conference how we did it; how did we grow to what we are and all that we have? I replied, and stated clearly, that it was a lot of God, sacrifice by everyone, including ordained and lay ministry team members, and clean restrooms. In my worldview, everyone must work and work hard, everyone must tithe and give to the ministry of the church, and if the bathrooms smell, we are aren’t paying good enough attention. That outlook has resulted in a higher turnover, perhaps, but we’ve kept our mission sound. I am well aware of my limitations and my emotional outbursts, but I know, too, that I have become a better leader and softened over the years, and that some of what makes me good at my job is also what makes people tire of me, as well. It is as if my gifts have a double-edged sword. I pray I become even better before my time as pastor ends, but to change me would be to disregard all we built; it is an enigma in many ways, but aren’t we all?

Saint Miriam isn’t meant to be for everyone, though all are welcome here. It is meant to be a place where we look outwardly, and not inwardly and where we actually work to welcome the marginalized, the rejected, the foreigner and refugee, the seeker and the maligned. Everyone – gay, straight, bi, rich, poor, Transgender, Black, Asian, and White, former inmate, ex-offender, and divorced, male, female, and happily married, too. Everyone is welcome, without pretext or reservation or any qualification, save one: you cannot hate. This should include without saying, but I will to be clear, that you must not reject, you must love (not always like) and you have to be willing to stand for our causes or people will literally die. 

In the past year we have harbored refugees, hired undocumented workers, and literally walked out completed marriage paperwork to the hands of waiting ICE officers to stave off a deportation. We are a ‘Sanctuary Parish’ and proud of it and I personally would die to grant another human being asylum. I am, too, what one might call liturgically conservative and that goes to the sacraments, as well. In fact, a point in order would be if any of my priests failed to do the same, or violated the sanctity of the confessional, or dared harm another person – child, vulnerable adult, or other – they would be immediately removed from active ministry, and I would cooperate in any way with whatever authorities, report any abuse or maleficence, and do everything in my power to ensure that not another soul would be harmed by their pretending to be clergy, because that is what they would be: pretend clergy. 

It saddens me to see so many of our clergy dress in fancy attire, or liturgically inappropriate clerical garb, or willfully misusing their office or status to harm another or to pretend they are better than others. I see it all the time with the wonders of social media: A lay person today, if they find the ‘right bishop’, can be ordained deacon, priest, bishop and patriarch all within a year! Another can be made a Religious without any observance to the Rule that is to govern their lives. The knots on their rope, as meaningless and as hollow as the words spoken over them by the empty hat that had the audacity of nothing more than what amounts to treason. Treason against the church, treason against the ordained, treason against the religious who prayed and worked for their habit, only to give it all away – their life and their labor – for something greater, and treason against logic and reality. 

These empty hats live to do one thing: create more empty hats and then those hats create more and soon we are made of entire churches and orders filled with empty hats and hearts that could care less about real mission or ministry. It is a noted and recognized plague, if we are honest with ourselves, and the lack of seminary training, educational norms, and clinical support or experience at the feet of a mentor with proficiency is deafening and maddening to those of us who did the real deal. Why? Not because we are obnoxious about it, but because we deal with its repercussions and negativity to our actual ministry and mission. The empty hat gets to retreat to the safety of broadcasting an imperfect and non-efficacious mass from the sanctity of their kitchen while we deal with the bad publicity and harm to reaching even more in need. 

Say what you might about all the things wrong with the Roman Catholic Church, but despite their imperfections they train good priests and ensure that the rules are the rules, like them or not. Now, before you slay me with your contempt, I would remind you that we are all Catholic. And, all of us as Catholics have been taught that the word “catholic” means “universal,” and arguably one of the hallmarks of our shared Catholic faith is that it recognizes no borders; while there are many rites, of which the Latin is the predominant one, there is one truth, one set of dogma, and being catholic doesn’t mean you reinvent all that makes us, well Catholics! Like it or not, the ‘big dog on the porch’ is still the one many despise, but for all their wicked imperfections, and there are many, they know how to discern and to train clergy very well. If only they knew how not to protect the evil ones among them, the broken ones, the pederast and the pedophile, we might not be where we are today. But, again, say what you will: they can train a solidly educated and ready clergy person. Yes, their greatest adversary has always been themselves, and the arrogance that led them to think they would never be discovered, I purport is also ours, too; just by way of a separate set of follies, but just as harmful. 

What happens when we allow for such things to happen within the OCC/ISM movement? What happens when we allow empty hats to collect regalia, post fancy images that self-aggrandize, but not follow the normative rules of formation and ordination? What happens when we amass greater libraries and more clothing and liturgical vessels, and try to engage in bigger and better organizations while never fixing the plague that is within? We all fail, and we give ammunition and fodder to those who know better and can cause us all hurt and stifle our mission and ministries. 

Many of us consider ourselves to be an “Independent Catholic Church,” or part of the “Synodal” Catholic Church, or “Old Catholic Tradition” Church, et al. Some try and own those very words as if they invented them and would rather control them out of their own broken extreme egotism. We group ourselves against the disdain and obstructionist found in many within the Latin Rite who see us merely posing to be Catholic, while embracing the wrong side of so many battles the Church is facing, especially those related to discussions of sex and gender. It’s what one might call, in the euphemism of the day, ‘a welcoming parish’ but these ardent haters see our welcoming dissident celebrities, gay clergy, and women priests while we subvert the assemblance of most normative church life. They see us rather focusing on joining the local annual gay pride parade, than doing any real ministry to make us a church of all persons. We are but freaks to them; something to be abhorred and ridiculed and then eradicated. And, a lack of protocol, training, education, and adhered to canons of normal ecclesiastical polity – as well as our inability to police ourselves from empty hats – lends itself to abuses of other sorts and a failure to do the work we proport to do. 

As a pastor, and seated bishop ordinary (yes, Saint Miriam may be in fact a ‘Cathedral parish’ but we never adopted that place. In fact, to this day, the Pro-Cathedral of Saint Miriam only exists when the Episcopal Seat is occupied for a mandated liturgical function. Then, afterwards, she quietly returns to her roots as a humble and vibrant parish, and I, as her self-admittedly broken pastor) I have watched in silent horror for years as clergy commit the most heinous of crimes both liturgically and missional. I have grasped ecclesiastical nightmares occurring as ill-trained clergy take the helm of ships heading for proverbial icebergs of their own making. I have witnessed those who seek the ordained life shy away from those who would train them, and train them well; matching their desire and their perceived ‘call’, while simultaneously attending to real formation and educational requirements to make them solidly good clergy. And most heartrending, and perhaps most disturbing of all, I have watched as empty hats with not the right, nor the proper consecration, commit acts of barbarism to our holy Mother, as they again and again ‘ordain’ the unqualified at their whim to boast a ‘church of more hats’, when what they have created is little more than a brothel.

Yes, admittedly and sinfully, I have been, like many of you, sitting silent and allowed this all to occur as we rather rail against the ‘other Catholics’ for doing the very same thing. No more. Silence equals death, as they say, and it’s true. No, not as a knife might slide silently between the intercostal rib space to pierce the organ so vital, but I assure you, just as deadly in time; and perhaps more painful in its longevity.

In the end, if we aren’t trained, if we have no valid oversight, if we reject the Ordinary and his admonishments based on experience and education, if our orders not valid and our succession not veritable, and if we call ourselves independent and then actually are to a fault, then we all fail. Every jurisdiction, every parish, every mission; the entire Church…fails. And, the deep sadness is that the world needs us! The world needs the Independent and the Old and the Syndol and the other Catholics! It may not know it, and it may not recognize or validate us, but the world none-the-less needs us and our voice and our inclusion. But we destroy that voice by our own poor choices and prancing around in clerical garb while never doing real ministry, but rather seeking the easy life of fancy attire and social media ministry. The life of a cleric is meant to be hard; it is sacrificial by its very nature based on the One who sacrificed it all so that we might live in persona Christi. Shame on us if we seek the easy path. If it were truly easy, many would be called, and many would be available.  

So, let me end by my being perfectly clear: our job isn’t to fill the church with more clergy and more hats, our job is to work in the fields and labor for those seeking new life. If your hands aren’t full, your fingers calloused, and your knees dirty from kneeling in weeping prayer and sacrificial labor, you’re not working hard enough. Anything less is one of the vices of the day that allows for the creation of more evil through perhaps the greatest sin of all: our own pride and malevolence and indifference. 

Yes, empty hats are the silent and ever pervasive scourge of the movement that once promised a different kind of church.

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