Popes in the wings
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Reaching Pope Pius XIII involves first communicating with Robert Cardinal Lyons, whose telephone was answered, to my great surprise, by the cardinal's wife.
The self-styled "His Holiness Pope Pius XIII."
"He should be home around 4," she said.
It was already 4 p.m. where I was.
"Where, exactly, are you?" I asked.
"We're in Texas," she said.
I went ahead and phoned the pope, who, as it turns out, lives in Springdale, Wash., 1,500 miles from his only cardinal.
Pius XIII, once known as Fr. Lucian Pulvermacher, a Capuchin priest, turns 87 this Wednesday. The cardinals of the other Roman Catholic Church, an establishment located in Rome, will gather five days later to select a successor to John Paul II, who died eight days ago. Pius XIII views himself as the successor to Pius XII, who died 47 years ago. Pulvermacher never accepted the changes of Vatican II, which brought the church into the 20th century, a venue in which he and an uncertain but sometimes noisy number of coreligionists find inhospitable for an eternal faith.
"All the teachings the church had up to that time became irrelevant. They would say 'you're old-fashioned. That's negative thinking,' " he said.
Pulvermacher, who was a missionary in Japan at the time, fled to Australia where he connected with the sedevacantist movement. The word is from the Latin sede vacante -- vacant seat. The group holds that John XXIII, in convening Vatican II, erred against church truths. Because the pope is infallible, an error could only mean one thing: John XXIII was not the pope.
To some, this would seem to be the ultimate undistributed middle term in a syllogism. To men such as Hutton Gibson, the conspiracy-brained father of the schismatic movie director, it became the basis for an entire movement away from Rome and back to the Tridentine Mass, with its older wording, Latin language and abhorrence of the errors of ecumenism and modern thought. The unacceptable break was the Novus Ordo, or "New Order" Mass, said in vernacular languages, with the priest facing the congregation.
"You would almost have to expect by the logic of history that it was going to happen," said the Rev. Thomas Bokenkotter, a theologian and retired professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati. "These people who swallowed the teachings whole hog had to wander when these rules they thought were permanent proved to be so changeable. There were many priests who left in the '70s, in fact thousands, and one of the comments you often heard was 'this wasn't the church I was ordained for.' "
For a church in which religion is, in itself, worship, change can frighten.
Bokenkotter is the author of a church history and if his studies have shown him anything, it is that the 2,000-year survival of the Catholic Church is a study in improbability. Most religious movements, he said, splinter. Tertullian, a church father of the third century, even wandered off into schism. Given that he gave the church such concepts as trinity and sacrament, his departure was akin to John Cardinal Newman, the quintessential high church Catholic, joining the Salvation Army.
Little wonder Pulvermacher's own "true Catholic Church," as he styles it, found itself splintering even as it formed. Initially, he was one of two candidates in a conclave organized in Kalispell, Mont. At the time, Pulvermacher was ministering to a parish that held Mass in a machine shop in Antigo, Wisc., and finding disaffected traditionalists by word of mouth and, often, from the readership of the ultra-right Catholic publication "The Wanderer." The future pope traveled in a leaky Chevrolet Bel Air sedan, moved from home to home and was once evicted from his mobile home because it was not up to code.
When Pulvermacher discovered the other candidate still answered to a bishop in the church based at the Vatican -- what he calls the "Novus Ordo Church" -- he refused to run against him. His congregation walked away from him.
In 1998, with the help of Lyons and another traditionalist, an Australian named Gordon Bateman, followers from around the world -- we are not talking large numbers, just miles -- e-mailed their votes to Kalispell. Pulvermacher's Web site even includes a photograph of white smoke rising out of a cabin chimney. Pulvermacher immediately donned papal robes and posed for his official portrait, set against a chicken wire fence in the back yard of a follower. He took the name Pius XIII and, as it turns out, joined a list of two dozen who claim to be pope.
"From day to day one keeps popping up," Pulvermacher said. "It's a joke, Take that Michael -- do you know it must be 25 or 30 years since he's had that election and he still isn't a priest. He can't say Mass."
That Michael is David Bawden, also known as Pope Michael I. He lives near St. Marys, Kan., home of a seminary founded by the late Marcel Lefevbre, a French archbishop whom Paul II excommunicated in 1988 for his defiance of Vatican II changes.
Michael I was "elected" in fact in 1990, and has since then ordained himself a priest and lured away Bateman, whom Pulvermacher had made a cardinal in his own church. Michael I joined a lengthening list of papal claimants ranging from Michael Collin, who was Pope Clement XV, since deceased; Gaston Tremblay, Pope Gregory XVII, of Canada; Clemente Dominguez y Gomez, the other Pope Gregory XVII, who founded his own order, The Carmelites of the Holy Face.
There is even a Pope Peter Romanus II, who intends to take over as the pope-in-waiting now that John Paul II is dead.
That is more than Pius XIII aspires to. The Vatican holds no allure because, as apostates, the cardinals who lock themselves inside the Sistine Chapel next Monday are no more Catholic than a cord of wood. Even if they call, he's not going to Rome.
"To me they are just laymen without baptism. The baptism of Novus Ordo is invalid," he said. "They'd have to convert, become Catholics, first. They have to convert to me."
First Published April 10, 2005 12:00 am