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Parish Offers Alternative To Dogma

By Rene Romo
Copyright 2006 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Southern Bureau
    LAS CRUCES— Like her husband, Marlene Guganig considers herself genuinely Catholic.
    But while Guganig's husband attends Sunday services at the traditional Roman Catholic Holy Cross Church, she attends Holy Family Parish, which rejects the authority of the pope, ordains female, homosexual and married priests, and consecrates same-sex marriages.
    Holy Family, founded under a different name in 1995, is part of the Ecumenical Catholic Communion (ECC), a network of independent, and liberal, churches formally organized in 2003.
    The ECC now includes 25 churches serving several thousand people in 10 states and Puerto Rico. The Holy Family Parish in Las Cruces is the only ECC church in New Mexico.
    The Holy Family Parish is now made up of 120 adults and 60 children, and the congregation has doubled in size since 2004, said its pastor, the Rev. Jim Lehman.
    The ECC represents Catholics who want to remain faithful to their traditions but do not accept Roman Catholic edicts on key issues, such as female priests and same-sex unions, which have become touchstones of modern culture wars.
    Guganig, who said she sang in the Holy Cross choir for 10 years, says she was searching for a religious home that felt more inclusive.
    "I'm a feminist, and I just can't deal with the patriarchy of the (Roman Catholic) Church," Guganig said. "I did not feel spiritually nurtured. I'd go to Mass and come out feeling dry."
    The Ecumenical Catholic Communion differs from Roman Catholicism in other important ways. It accepts birth control and the remarriage of people who have been divorced. It holds "open communions"— open to anyone who wants to receive the host considered the body of Jesus Christ.
    The Ecumenical Catholic Communion has not taken a formal stance on the question of abortion, Lehman said.
    "It's a difficult issue, and we leave it up to people's consciences," Lehman said.
    "We have no theological position, but this is a question between a woman and her partner and her God," Guganig said. "There's no specific one-size-fits-all."
    Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of the Diocese of Las Cruces issued a statement to parishioners last November saying several groups in Luna, Grant and Doña Ana counties, including Holy Family Parish, are not Roman Catholic.
    Ramirez, however, did not strike a critical tone and declared the announcement was simply made "so that you may make informed choices."
    Leaders of the ECC say their church is rooted in the Old Catholic movement, which emerged in northern Europe in 1870 in response to the First Vatican Council's pronouncement of papal infallibility.
    "What's taking place in this country is there is something of a groundswell movement of people trying to reclaim their Catholic roots, and they are somewhat dissatisfied with what is going on in the Catholic Church," said Lehman, who works professionally as a therapist.
    "Some people are beginning to say this becomes an alternative to trying to reform the (Roman Catholic) institution."
    Roy Rivas, a Las Cruces resident who was raised in the Roman Catholic Church, said as an adult he felt alienated for being a homosexual Catholic. Rivas began attending Holy Family, he said, for the spiritual fellowship and to "ground myself here with the Catholic traditions that make me feel welcomed."
    Still, he said, "My mother says that they're not real Catholics."
    Louis Amezaga, an ordained Roman Catholic priest who left his Las Cruces church post in 1999 and occasionally assists Lehman, said, "This place offers a place of worship for people who are already alienated and are already Catholic."
    "Just because you have problems with Rome doesn't mean you have to be alienated from the way you worship God," Amezaga said.
    Like Amezaga, many of ECC's priests formerly served as Roman Catholic clergymen.
    The Ecumenical Catholic Communion gained attention last year when the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino, Calif., in a highly unusual move, tried an ECC priest for heresy. The priest, the Rev. Ned Reidy, had left the Roman Catholic clergy years earlier but went on to form a church affiliated with the ECC.
    In the Diocese of Las Cruces, Monsignor John Anderson said church officials bear no hostility toward the independent Catholics of the ECC.
    "We believe the fullness of the teachings of Christ subsist in the Roman Catholic Church, and then you look at us with Orthodox and Protestant Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and you say we are all children of God," Anderson said. "They (ECC members) are seeking consolation, and they are finding it somewhere else ... I'm certainly not going to condemn them for searching."