Some Catholics think the old ways are best
The state's first Old Roman Catholic church celebrates its 40th anniversary.
By M.E. BAKER, Times Correspondent
Published December 15, 2007
Years ago, the Rev. John J. Humphreys took the road less traveled.
When the Roman Catholic Church denied him a parish because the priest was married, he found one with the lesser-known Old Roman Catholic Church of North America.
When he couldn't find a church building in bustling downtown St. Petersburg, he created one on a straight and narrow two-lane section of 62nd Avenue N in Pinellas Park.
Four decades later, Humphreys says he is happy with his choice. The ride perhaps hasn't been as exciting as it might have been, but there have been a lot fewer doctrinal clashes.
"The church is in quite a state of flux everywhere," he says. He mentions the controversy over same-sex marriages and the ordination of gay priests that has split an Episcopal diocese in Central Florida.
"I tell you, I hate to see that kind of breakup. I understand where they're coming from, though. Either you're going to preach what it is we've been ordained to preach," he said, "or you're going to go by the way. Christ says you're either for me or against me; there's nothing in between. There's too many people today who are choosing that middle road."
Humphreys has made a point to stay off that middle road. The parish he founded in 1967, Our Lady of Good Hope, was the first Old Roman Catholic church in Florida, and it recently began marking its 40th anniversary. Humphreys says the church and he have been able to make the long journey because neither ventured off the path of canonical tradition.
The Old Roman Catholic Church came about in 1739 when a bishop consecrated another bishop to fill the vacant see in the Netherlands without authorization of the pope.
Like the mainstream church, the ORC adheres to established church laws and considers the pope the head of the church. But it maintains its independence by ordaining priests and consecrating church leaders without approval from Rome.
The ORC began celebrating the Mass in the vernacular in 1909, decades ahead of Vatican edicts. Yet, unlike its larger relative, the ORC never stopped celebrating the Mass in Latin. Our Lady of Good Hope offers a Latin Mass and two English Masses every Sunday.
The ORC is obviously not about change.
"The Church is called 'Old' because she rejects Modernism and every recent innovation, while adhering faithfully to the doctrine and discipline of the Church of Apostolic Times," states a handbook prepared by the parish.
The congregation has grown from about 50 members to around 300. The church sponsors a preschool program, and a large social hall now occupies the rear of the former 5-acre farm property.
The local parish seeded four other churches sprinkled across Florida. A seminary started in 1998 in St. Petersburg is training five priests-to-be. And Humphreys is now archbishop of the Diocese of Florida.
Not all the changes have been positive. Humphreys said about 150 children once regularly attended Our Lady of Good Hope. Now there's just a handful. Winter residents, primarily elderly, are the church's mainstay.
Humphreys said the ORC has grown while mainstream Catholics have fled the pews. He said he thinks 50-million parishioners have walked away because of changes in church theology and practices that resulted from Vatican Council II in the mid 1960s. Other controversies, such as the priest sex scandals, have further disenchanted worshipers, he said.
Such problems in the larger church have pushed the faithful into the ORC because there was nowhere else for them to go, Humphreys said.
"The people who leave this church, if we scandalize them in any way, are not going to find another church. This was their last resort."
Humphreys says the growth of theological liberalism will continue to fragment the Christian faithful, and that the Old Roman Catholic Church offers a respite from those changes. The future, he said, is with "those who still think in a traditional fashion."
The parish plans several events to mark its successes. A banquet at which several other bishops will be guests is scheduled for January. The "most talented and active" church members will be honored with an awards ceremony in March.
"We've accomplished a small missionary progression. We do it quietly, and I think we've made a difference in people's lives," Humphreys said.