A West Long Branch Catholic church's decision to separate from Diocese of Trenton causes controversy
Published: Saturday, June 25, 2011, 6:00 PM Updated: Saturday, June 25, 2011, 6:18 PM
TRENTON — The Diocese of Trenton says a new Catholic church striking out on its own is illegitimate and fractures the institution.
But leaders of independent churches say they are providing a worthy alternative to parishioners unified with the same faith, but the feeling that the traditional Roman Catholic church is too hypocritical, selective in its acceptance and set in its ways.
Now it remains to be whether the American National Catholic Church - a band of six parishes that preaches a more modern form of Catholicism - will become a major movement.
"For us, it’s not about taking people away from their heart’s desire," said Most Rev. George Lucey, residing bishop of the ANCC and pastor of the independent St. Francis of Assisi in Glen Ridge.
"It’s about our belief that when God changed water into wine, he didn’t say, ‘You can have it, but you can’t."
A spotlight was drawn to rogue Catholic churches on Friday when the Most Rev. David M. O’Connell, bishop of the Diocese of Trenton, released a 1,500-word statement chastising the Our Lady of Guadalupe church in West Long Branch for separating from the diocese.
The church is made up mostly of Hispanic and Portuguese members who felt displaced when the diocese consolidated three parishes into one Long Branch-based church called Christ the King in 2009.
In seeking its independence, Our Lady of Guadalupe became one of six parishes to join the ANCC. The others are in Maryland, Missouri, Connecticut and Virginia. O’Connell called members of the church "schismatics" who refuse or reject the unity of the Roman Catholic Church.
"Although claiming legitimacy as an ‘alternative’ or ‘independent’ Catholic Church, this group and the individuals leading or promoting it are not in communion with the Roman Catholic Church," O’Connell said. "No Catholic Church is independent."
Rev. Anthony Testa, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, was officiating a wedding yesterday, according to parish administrator Joyce Sprague, and could not be reached for comment. Sprague referred all calls to Lucey.
O’Connell maintained that the Christ the King parish actually did extend a "warm welcome" to all members of the merged parishes and offered ministry in Spanish and Portuguese. The bishop said his greatest fear is that the church and the ANCC will "take other well-intentioned Catholics down with them, leading them away from the true practice of their faith under the pretense of legitimacy."
But Lucey said domination is the not the goal and his organization doesn’t "relish the schism." It only wants to offer an alternative for Catholics who find fault with some of the Vatican’s rules and methods.
Specifically, Lucey cited large issues like the church’s handling of sexual abuse cases, refusal to remarry parishioners who have already been divorced, refusal to allow priests to marry and stance against gay marriage.
Lucey said his parish currently has about 500 members, 100 who are "active."
"We’re trying to extend to the people of God, that Christ called everybody, not just some of us," he said. "The greatest number of unaffiliated Christians are now Catholics who are leaving the church. We just want to find a way to say, ‘You don’t have to.’
But O’Connell said that Christianity is a "comfort and challenge" and the thousands of years of belief and tradition cannot be splintered.
"When we decide that we can privately discern the teaching of Christ without the guidance of the church and her experience, we separate ourselves from the community of Christ’s faithful people."
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