New interest in 'Old Catholic'

A small St. Paul church is part of a nationwide movement to create a Catholic church with fewer restrictions on believers.


Pamela Miller, Star Tribune

Last update: July 28, 2006 5:38 PM

In the chapel of a United Methodist church in St. Paul, a familiar but unusual worship service unfolded on a recent Sunday night.

A cluster of prayerful men and women read from a traditional Roman Catholic liturgy, sang hymns from a Catholic hymnal and shared the ritual of the holy eucharist.

But they are not Catholics, at least not in the Roman sense. The small congregation, Cornerstone Ecumenical Catholic Church, is part of the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, a breakaway denomination that embraces the "Old Catholic" tradition, which defines several diverse denominations that reject papal supremacy. Most Old Catholic denominations in Europe belong to a coalition of churches called the Union of Utrecht, while most U.S. denominations are independent. The Ecumenical Catholic Communion is made up largely of people who have left the Roman Catholic church because of the clergy sex-abuse scandal or because they question Roman Catholic practices, said Cornerstone's priest, the Rev. Robert Caruso, 29. The biggest obvious difference is that the communion ordains women, married people and gays in committed relationships.

Member Anita Kangas, 46, of St. Paul, said Cornerstone is the only church of many she's attended "where there aren't any politics that make me want to walk away."

"You feel safe and welcome here," she said.

Members' first priority is pure worship, Caruso said. Second is "broad inclusivity," he said. "When we say all are welcome, we mean all. Our unity is in the eucharist. In that, all of our differences dissipate."

A national movement

Cornerstone is one of three small Minnesota worship groups associated with the Ecumenical Catholic Communion. The other two, ministered to by the Rev. Zilvinas Jakstas, are the Lithuanian-language Ramove Catholic Church in St. Paul and an English-language group attached to it, Living Hope, Faith and Freedom church.

The Ecumenical Catholic Communion's Minnesota presence is small compared with that in other states, especially New York and California. Formed in 2003, the denomination has more than 3,000 members in 23 parishes in California, Colorado, New Mexico, Missouri, Minnesota, Florida and New York. It's one of the largest of several Old Catholic groups in the United States.

Ecumenical Catholic Communion communities are formed by lay people who are provided with priests by the denomination, Caruso said. Many of its clerics are former Roman Catholic priests who left the church when they married.

The communion hopes to form closer ties with Europe's Union of Utrecht as well as with the U.S. Episcopal Church, with which it shares many beliefs and practices, Caruso said.

Why not just become Episcopalian, then?

"We who grew up Catholic and love Catholicism want to remain in that tradition," Caruso said. "We feel ourselves to be Catholic," embracing the liturgy and theology but not what members believe are Rome's rigid views on relationships and personal morality.

A faith haven

Cornerstone, Caruso said, is so small -- 12 to 15 people -- that the Ecumenical Catholic Communion calls it a "mission community" rather than a parish. The congregation pays him a small salary, but Caruso earns his primary livelihood working at a SuperTarget in Roseville.

Members worship (and hold their book club, which currently is discussing C.S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity") in chapel space provided by St. Anthony Park United Methodist Church in St. Paul and rely on donated services and items needed for worship. But Cornerstone doesn't need much because it's a simple community, members say.

For Caruso, it's a godsend. The Chicago native, a graduate of Hamline University in St. Paul who was ordained last month at United Theological Seminary in New Brighton, spent three years in the Roman Catholic order of Crosiers before leaving it in 2002.

"I love the Crosiers, but all the [clergy abuse] scandals were taking a toll on me," he said. In addition, he said, he had to decide if he wanted to live as a celibate priest or as an openly gay man in a committed relationship.

"I felt I had a vocation, a calling to be a priest, but I loved my partner too," he said. Leaving Roman Catholicism freed him to live and worship honestly, he said.

"The spirit of this church is always inclusive," he said, adding that many communion members left the Roman Catholic church because it excludes women and married people from the priesthood.

Will Beauchemin, 42, of Minneapolis, said he defected because he was "weary of scandals and bureaucracy."

Interest in Cornerstone goes well beyond attendance at its Sunday gatherings, he said. As the church's webmaster, he's fielded hundreds of prayer requests, a surprising number of them from "unchurched" believers who feel drawn to the Catholic tradition but are shy of the institution, he said.

"It's like people are using us as an oracle," he said.

Will Cornerstone grow beyond its family-like setting?

"I'm not worried about that," said Kangas, echoing the sentiment of many in the group. "I've found my worship and fellowship space here, and that, not recruiting others, is the main thing for me. Growth is good, yes, but it's not the main thing."

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.

Pamela Miller 612-673-4290