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'Old Catholic' Sect to Ordain Married Man as a Priest

July 10, 1988|LYNN SMITH | Times Staff Writer

Tonight at 7, Victor Ray, a lifelong Catholic, will be ordained as a priest, fulfilling a calling he first recognized in the second grade. But it hasn't happened the way he thought.

Unlike most priests, Ray has married, fathered a child and has another on the way; he condones birth control as an individual choice; he will not preach that divorce is a sin, and he will perform remarriages. He will also continue to work full time as regional sales manager for an aerospace electronics company.

Ray, 31, will be the first priest ordained under the ministry of St. Matthew's Old Catholic Mission Church in Huntington Beach.

The Old Catholic Church is a worldwide sect that broke off from the Roman Catholic Church in 1870 over the issue of papal infallibility proclaimed by the First Vatican Council. In the United States, there are nearly 100 jurisdictions of Old Catholics.

Like the controversial Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, Old Catholics have been excommunicated. "The Roman Catholic Church doesn't want to think about them," said UC Santa Barbara religion scholar Gordon Melton, author of "The Old Catholic Source Book."

Old Catholic priests perform all sacraments of the historic Catholic church: baptism, communion, confession, confir mation, Anointing of the Sick, marriage and holy orders.

But appealing to what its priests say is a "tremendous need"--especially in Orange County--the church includes divorced people who remarry in the sacrament and does not consider birth control a sin. (As with Roman Catholics, women are not allowed to be priests, and abortion is a sin.)

St. Matthew's was founded in 1985 for Roman Catholics turned away by their church over the issues of divorce, remarriage and birth control, Ray said. Its founder, the Rev. Peter Hickman, 33, a former student of the defunct Theological Seminary of Anaheim, had converted to Old Catholicism.

Hickman said he saw a "tremendous problem" in Orange County among Roman Catholics who wanted to obtain sacraments from their church but had been turned away. "It's important to receive the sacraments. Without the sacraments, they're cut off from God and the hope of salvation. It's a traumatic thing for Catholics."

"The church should not be the ones to turn them away when they're hurting," Ray said. "Who are we to say that a sacrament never took place?" he said, referring to a Roman Catholic condition of annulment of a marriage. "It's a fallacy to say God will never bless your marriage again." Ray said. "To me, annulments are exactly the same doctrine as the concept of selling indulgences," a practice in the Middle Ages in which people gave money to the church as a way of avoiding punishment after death for their sins.

Swamped With Calls

Hickman said that when he opened an office and began advertising, he was immediately "swamped and deluged" with calls from couples seeking a Catholic wedding. Now, he said, he receives nearly a dozen calls a day.

In two years, he said, he and two other priests officiated at 500 Old Catholic wedding ceremonies--some in parks and beaches, others in the German-style church they share with other denominations in the Old World Village shopping center. (Some relatives have attended Old Catholic weddings and not even realized the ceremony was not Roman Catholic, Melton said.)

They celebrate Mass on Sundays in the church which claims 150 members, Hickman said.

Their presence has elicited a mixed reaction. In 1985, a lawyer for the Diocese of Orange called to question their presence, but never took action, Hickman said. On the other hand, some Roman Catholic priests have invited them to participate in their church ceremonies, he said.

In the 1940s, Old Catholics established the first gay churches, Melton said.

Today, there are fewer than 10,000 U.S. members, he said. Basically, the Old Catholic movement in the United States has been a "fly-by-night" amateur movement of people who wanted to "play church," Melton said. In his research of the 100 jurisdictions, he said, the "great majority" had a bishop, a couple of priests and one congregation. "A bunch of them consist of no one but a bishop."

Amateur Reputation

The sect also includes "people trying to do their Christian thing and found this the best setting to do it in."

Hickman said the amateur reputation of Old Catholics discouraged him at first. "I'd go to visit a church, and it turned out to be a chapel in a back bedroom."

Now, he said he is setting the definition of what an Old Catholic church can be. His association with Archbishop Francisco Pagtakhan of the Philippines (a man with unquestioned credentials, Melton has said) and his church's membership in the European-based denomination called the Union of Utrecht, validates its standing, Hickman said.

Ray's ordination will be performed by Pagtakhan and Bishop Paul Schultz of the Church of the Angels in Glendale.

"It hurts me that I have to leave the (Roman Catholic) church to follow my calling," said Ray, whose Roman Catholic pastor had refused to officiate at his wedding. "Now I'm married with a family. I can't imagine my life without them."

"I'm not becoming an Old Catholic priest out of revenge against the Roman Catholic Church," he said. "I want to carry out the desire to serve the Lord. I'm excited about my ministry."

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