One day, while waiting in the front office for a client to come in, I was outed as being a pastor. She said there was something in my voice that affirmed for her that I either was in the past or am in the present someone who preaches. I smiled back and made a statement similar to being careful about the questions we ask and if we really want to know the answers. Of course, whenever someone uses that line, you know for the most part they’re already giving you the answer you want to hear. Another person in the office asked me which church I belonged to. When I mentioned the Old Catholic Churches International, they asked me as to the difference between old and what everyone else seems to think is the only branch of Catholicism in existence.
It dawned on me that few people actually know there are many different catholic churches in the world today, and fewer still understand the little difference between them – the main one being that in the Old Catholic formation we hold Jesus as our leader and not the Bishop of Rome (Pope).
My coworker grilled me a bit more as to why the term “old”. I said, “because we have returned to the original teachings, the old teachings, of the Christ – love, compassion, forgiveness, lack of judgment, etcetera.” Then, innocently enough, my coworker said, “Why don’t you call it the ‘New’ Catholic church rather than ‘Old’. Without hesitation I told her that if we called it new, there wouldn’t be the opportunity to engage in discussion about the difference between the two. My coworker smiled at me and said, “but you’d get more people.”
I should have used that moment to pause, but out of my mouth flew, “it’s not about the numbers – it’s never about the numbers. It’s always about being a right fit for the right person. Rome holds equal value to all the world’s religions as much as my church does. The difference is in our own thinking – how we choose to view the world and interact within its’ boundaries.” She smiled and said, “now we really have to have a talk”, then walked away.
Maybe she’s right – maybe Old is not the name to use, but it is accurate and it is a clear separation from the other entity with the man in the white cassock.
What’s Old Is New
The history of the Old branch of Catholicism goes way back to when the Bishop of Rome, Honorius II, died and a closed election was held – one in which none other than those who supported the current bishop were allowed to vote. From that vote came a new Bishop of Rome, Innocent the II, who took control of the church. However, no one outside the secret meeting knew a vote was even taking place. The only thing people knew was that Honorius had passed. So the rest of the church did what the rules and rubrics of the day required – they held a vote for Pope, not knowing some secluded bishops had already voted in Innocent II. Because the then emperor of Rome favored Innocent II – a new era in the church was born and power and control was seized by a small group of men that expanded into what is today the Holy Catholic Church under the current Bishop of Rome – the Pope.
But at the same time, another bishop had been voted as primate – Anacletus II, but not long after his own death, his successor bowed to the will of the Bishop of Rome. But the schism was still new and Anacletus’ brother, Giordano, continued the opposition of the group who stole the church away from the entire people. It was Giordano who continued to grow the fractioned church under what was then called the Commune of Rome.
Today, the Old Catholic Churches International, and other churches of like mind, have returned to the old teachings espoused by the early church fathers (those who existed before the great schisms) – the teachings of the one who came to show us a new life, our Lord and Savior, Jesus. Doctrine still exists, but it is tamed and kept in check by theologians and biblical scholars who live by the teachings of Love, compassion, and forgiveness. The dogmata, as understood through the various creeds, are upheld as primary to salvation, as opposed to the firm belief in a man who claims to speak for the God.
In Old Catholic tradition – the Eucharist is the core of our church. From the Eucharist extends the grace and peace of our Creator and Brother. From the Eucharist, we receive the love our Christ offers us as we celebrate life and are present to our Sisters and Brothers as the Christ is to us.
Speaking personally, I’ve been involved in the Independent Catholic Movement for most of my own ministry. I was taught under the Roman authority and then walked away due to having witnessed too many abuses and pedestal pushing. Within the Independent Movement I’ve also seen so many abuses that I began to wonder if my own calling was just a sick joke perpetrated by an ancient being bent on destroying everything I held dear. I’ve encountered bishops who charge for their services, who charge priests for being part of their church, and who bad-mouth everyone else around them if they don’t agree with their position. I’ve been threatened by the thing I hold most dear – the Eucharist – by a man who thinks himself the savior of his own group of followers, and who makes up degrees from places that have never existed so he can seem greater than he is. I’ve encountered leaders who actively engage in drawing people into questionable ethical practices and others who are so medicated they can’t even think straight. In recent years I’ve even known new Jim Joneses who lead their flocks down twisted paths of ego and psychological abuse while they are free to do whatever their hearts content.
The Old Catholic Churches International has offered me an opportunity to step back and view the world through the eyes of the Christ we claim to follow and whose teachings we allegedly espouse. It allowed me the freedom to re-explore who I was as a priest and allowed me the freedom to grow in Spirit and humanity. It humbled me and reminded me I was a servant first and foremost. It also reminded me that those who seek high places are often not those with whom I choose to walk a sacred path.
The Old Catholic Churches International is a family of women and men who journey together towards health and wellness, stopping along the way to pick up stragglers and help out weary travelers. It is a place of service and a place of discovery – an oasis in the desert waiting for those who are ready to let go of ego and avarice.
I apologize if this article has seemed a bit more scattered than usual. It’s difficult for me to put into words how I feel about a church that has taken me in at my worst, helped me see there is far worse in the world than my own myopic world, and then let me breathe new life into my own ministry. What’s different in the Old Catholic Churches International – apart from being independent of Rome – is that it is not an independent catholic movement. It is an opportunity for deep interpersonal change and a chance to grow in unity with like-minded people in a truly democratic process. It is one where healing not only begins, but is encouraged throughout one’s lifetime. Maybe that’s why I’ve stayed – because finally I have found a home that values me for who and what I am – a servant.
The Rev. Father Kenneth Nelan is the pastor of the Sacred Wandering Pastoral Center in Milwaukee Wisconsin. He is also the celebrant of the Sunday Mass broadcast on Facebook.