Feb 15

Lent 2015: In the Beginning . . .

Lent, for me, is more a time of reflection than is New Year. I tend to undertake activities that inspire or hold my own sense of reflection. One of those is a complete read of Scripture. In previous years I have started with Genesis and worked my way through. This year, however, I decided to start with the Gospels, while wondering why I’d not done it before! Lent for me is not about sitting still, rather it is all about engaging with things in a new way, and thinking about how I might do that. This year, I undertook a pottery class, timed to coincide with Lent. Building, moulding, getting “stuck in” (literally), these are things worth reflecting on. And it is these actions that Lent, indeed the period before all of our major feasts, is all about.

Dec 14

Christmas! I am so not ready.

Yesterday was the feast of St. Nicholas. The traditional signpost telling us that Christmas is coming. All day I reflected on how I am not ready for Christmas. The house is not ready for decorating. I have not even begun baking and cooking. My calendar is filling up fast and I am not ready for that either. Yes these are the plesant (or stressful) distractions from the substance of the feast, but they are real, and we all experience them. And, on this occasion, thinking about these very distractions made me ask a question I’d never really considered before: Can we ever be ready for God?

My honest response to this year’s arrival of St. Nicholas day is: “I’m not ready”. If the inhabitants of Bethleham had been ready for the arrival of Emmanuel I doubt Jesus would have been born in a cave. He would have been born in the centre of a stadium packed with crowds wearing T-shirts declaring that they were there at the moment of God’s coming! O.K. Maybe not so much with the T-Shirts, but you get the idea. If we are “ready” for God’s activity, we change the story, and perhaps because of that, we radically alter the effect of the key elements.

Not being ready, not being able to “plan” all of our interactions with Christ, means that we have less control, and more opportunities to experience and celebrate alterations of our own narrative arc.

Sep 14

This Is Vilatte? No, Not So Much.


This photo has been circulating in Independent Catholic sources for as long as I can remember. It is traditionally labelled as a photo taken in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) after Vilatte’s consecration in 1892. While such a photo might exist – and indeed if it does I would very much like to get my hands on a copy – this is not it. Indeed, Vilatte is nowhere in this photo. Exploring why this is not what many of us have long thought it is, raises more questions than answers. Most of them about the nature of Indie source material. Few photos of Independent Catholic historical figures circulate with relevant data that situates the image, and fills in the story. Knowing where the image comes from, when it was taken, and who is who can sometimes lead to very interesting lines of thought, relevant to a research project. I think that part of the problem in the case of the Indie movement is that there are too few of us doing research, and so not enough of us are raising the issue.


Knowing the source of an image can prevent embarrassing mistakes like that of the uppermost photo, which is often attributed as an image of Vilatte, including in an article in the Church Times in 2000. Compared with the photo below it, depicting bishops Kaminski (left), Vilatte (centre), and Miraglia-Gulotti (right), it is easy to see that there has been an error. Like the supposed consecration photo, one wonders, how the error occurred, and what that might tell us about how the source material we have lands on our desks.

Back to the supposed consecration photo (above). The figure on the far right is correctly identified as Mar St. Alvares, Vilatte’s principle consecrator. The figure in question, however, is the large, heavy set, thickly bearded man on the far left. I have always been suspicious of this identification. Of all the photos I have seen of Vilatte, he has always been clean shaven.That impressive beard took many years to grow, so even if, Vilatte chose to grow a beard for his consecration, it would not have been anywhere near as long and bushy as that shown on the man in the photo.

The photo apppears to have been originally published in W. J. Richards’ 1908 edition of The Indian Christians of St. Thomas (see page 63). Here, the mystery figure is identified as Mar Abd’Esa. In modern transliteration Mar Abdisho (Thondanat), the Chaldean Metropolitan; consecrated in 1862 and died in 1900. The book was published in 1908, Richards’ source material mostly pre-dates Vilatte’s consecration in 1892. Of other photos in the book Richards comments when they are “more recent” and gives a date.

While it is easy to see that the mystery figure is not Vilatte – though on comparison alone one might reserve a degree of skepticism to be safe. The question remains, when was this picture taken? Richards notes on the sub title to the photo that priests wore black cassocks ever since the visit of the Patriarch. I think I’m right that this refers to Patriarch Ignatius Bedros IV visit to India in 1875. Beyond this, Richards does not help. Unless you know that Abdisho was consecrated in 1862, and that Mar St. Alvares (far right) was not consecrated until 1889. 

The photo was therefore taken sometime between 1889 and 1900. However, M. Kurien Thomas has argued that the photo dates to 1882 before Alvares was consecrated. I doubt that this is the case. Mar Alvares is shown wearing a metropolitan’s pectoral cross, which suggests that the picture dates to sometime after his consecration. Furthermore, he is seated in the front row with the other metropolitans – rather than in the (two?) back rows with lower ranking clergy. I therefore, believe that the photo must have been taken sometime after 1889.  Alone this does not rule out the occasion of Vilatte’s consecration either (if one wishes to question the identity of the heavy set bearded Metropolitan).

Richards identifies the figure, third from the right, as Mar Dionysios V, a Metropolitan. Comparing this with other photos of him I think that Richards is correct. If this is a picture of Vilatte’s consecration, why was Mar Dionysios not one of Vilatte’s consecrators – if not his principle consecrator, given Dionysios’ relationship with, and his seniority over Alvares? It seems to me that this raises a significant doubt as to the authenticity of identifying this photo with Vilatte, and his consecration in 1892. But it does not mean that the photo can not be dated to 1892 – commemorating another occasion.

Somewhere between 1908 and a date unknown within the last forty years the picture became an image of Vilatte’s consecration. Though Brandreth notes that he too doubts the attribution. When, and why this happened can only be answered if we can trace the original source making the claim. This picture still has value, even though it is not of Vilatte. It is, I think, one of the few commonly circulated photographs of Mar Alvares, whose influence on and relationship with Vilatte has yet to be fully explored.

*This post has also been cross posted to my thesis blog Project Vilatte.

Mar 13

Episcopi Vagantes – Birds Of A Feather Tarred Together

You may have seen an article in your news feed about Ralph Napierski crashing the party at the Vatican as Cardinals arrive for the conclave to elect the next Pope. If not, have a look at the entry over at Get Religion, it includes a number of links to various takes on the story. When I first saw the story about a week ago – I wondered how long it would be before someone made the link between Napierski and the “infamous” Episcopi Vagantes. It took longer than I thought. It must be a slow news cycle.

Over the past three weeks I’ve been working on a section of my thesis looking at the history and development of the label “episcopi vagantes”. It has been an eye opener. It turns out that Church of England officials coined the term around 1910 to describe Abp. Mathew and his successors. Brandreth, and later Anson then popularised the term and “filled in” the picture for their readers. The result of course has been that Independent Catholics have all been “tarrred” as vile, scheming “fake” bishops ever since – as the collection of articles in the above link demonstrate. Not everyone is buying it however, some people are asking more probing questions – such as the author of the Get Religion piece.

The fact is that the exercise in what we would now call “branding” was effective. Now all Independent Catholics are percieved to be scheming nutters, not just in popular media, but in published scholarship as well. A journal article published in 2009, describes Abp. Vilatte as “the notorius French schismatic”, and Bp. Henry Carmel Carfora as “a notorious Italian schismatic”. Another, published in 1988, describes Abp. Vilatte as “a schismatic priest masquerading as a bishop in good standing”. The reality of what is now commonly referrred to as “episcopi vagantes” is much more complicated – and therefore, more interesting than is the “branding”.

Sadly, Napierski represents the very thing that many of us in the Indie movement find offensive. He’s a “wanna-be”, investing huge amounts of effort asserting his link to the Independent Catholic movement, while in the same breath arguing that he is in union with the Bishop of Rome. My less than charitable response to this is, if that were true, then there would not have been a media storm over his recent gate-crashing. My other less than charatible response is – “Go Home!” You want to be Roman Catholic, then BE a Roman Catholic.

The important thing here is that the branding fromt he early 20th century is still settled in the popular mindset. We cannot deny that there are nutters in the movement. Likewise the Big-Tent Churches have more than their fair share. What we can do, is to speak up, to challenge the popular branding. We can do this by blogging, by writing letters to media outlets, and more importantly, by researching the history of the movement, and publishing our findings – so that when scholars come across an Indie historical figure they are not forced to rely solely on Brandreth, Anson, and ill-informed editorials such as this.

Dec 12

Historical Puzzles – Connecting The Dots With Contemporary Indie Issues

Some of you know I have been embarking on “Thesis 2.0″ – this time looking at Independent Catholic history during the lifetimes of Abp. Vilatte and Abp. Mathew. Thus far, I’m enjoying it thoroughly, and have been playing “connect the dots” left and right. It is truly amazing to me how easy it is to become myopic – to have a disconnected view of where and how our tradition fits into the “big picture”. The proverbial scales are fast falling away from my eyes – and I’m really enjoying it.

One of the many “connect the dots” moments I’ve been having thus far is in relation to Independent Catholics being “half in” and “half out” of the movement. I have railed against this problem on more than one occasion, and you can read some of my reasoning here, here, here, and here. I’m a firm believer that it is wrong – it damages the development of the movement, and it disrespects other traditions. But, this is a modern perspective, one grounded in a belief that the Indie movement has spent too much time looking over its shoulder, and comparing itself to “the other churches”.

What I’m finding is that the problem of individuals in the Indie movement being “half in, and half out” of the movement – overlapping with their involvement in the Anglican or Roman Catholic or “other” community is not a new one – indeed it is a historic problem, borne out of the very origins of the movement in the 19th century, when Indie bishops, functioned as clergy in the Roman and Anglican communions (until they were caught and expelled). Then there are those who were ordained or consecrated members of the Order of Corporate Reunion who, again, functioned in Anglican or Roman Catholic parishes with varying degrees of openness. Thus it is not “just” Independent clergy doing this – it seems that it was much more widespread.

This raises a number of interesting questions about our history, and our identity. The first of course is – looking at this, in its context, can we trace key moments of development of a unique “independent catholic” identity and ethos? Or, is this a process that is still going on – now that many Independent clergy and communities are far enough removed from the shadow of Rome or Canterbury to think about such things?


Oct 12

Oops: Running Behind

This week’sBlessed Bulletin is going to be a day or two late I’m afraid. I’m re-learning a “print deadline”, something I’ve not had to do since I published MALCHUS back in the days of Zines.