HICKORY, N.C. — The first reading comes from the Book of Kings, with an angel nudging an exhausted and distraught Elijah, telling him to get up and leave.
The Rev. Tom Sanford and his congregation have done just that.
Sanford left the Catholic priesthood more than a quarter- century ago. But now he’s back behind the altar. He’s pastor of a new spiritual community, born out of his frustration with what he believes is the philosophical backsliding of the Catholic Church.
Sanford started Blessed John XXIII Ecumenical Church around Easter, and he’s starting small. When he walks down the aisle to “We Gather Together,” three worshippers stand and sing along.
Yet Sanford and his flock say there’s a larger point beyond their small numbers: They have left the Catholic Church to become better Catholics.
While millions of followers of the worldwide church vigorously debate Vatican positions on birth control, women, liturgy and the balance of priest-lay authority, the members of the Pope John Church have taken the added step of breaking with Catholic leaders.
“This is a pretty grave act, setting yourself apart from the rest of the Catholic community,” says the Rev. James Martin, author of “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.”
Plenty of Catholics disagree with church teachings, he says, “but they don’t leave.”
Sanford says he couldn’t stay. He believes church traditionalists are trying to undermine 50 years of church reforms set in motion by the worldwide councils known as Vatican I and Vatican II.
The final straw came early this year: the church’s decision to reinstate the original 1963 English translation of the Mass. Supporters say the wording better reflects the beauty of the traditional Latin liturgy. Critics call it clunky. More important, Sanford believes, it springs from a philosophical retrenchment, “and I couldn’t abide by it.”
So in March he ran a notice in area newspapers announcing a new ecumenical house of faith that would use the previous post-Vatican II liturgy for its Catholic Mass.
Right around Easter, the church opened.
Sanford, after a month of cramming, performed his first public mass in 28 years. Thirteen worshippers attended.
“I had one more than Jesus did for the Last Supper,” he says.
But is this really a Mass?
No, says the Diocese of Charlotte, which serves 500,000 Catholics in western North Carolina.
Under church rules, Sanford, who left the priesthood in 1984 to marry, cannot perform the Mass, says David Hains, a spokesman for the diocese. To do so publicly, after giving up his priestly duties, Hains said, is “a grave error.”
It is also sinful for Catholics who “knowingly go to a Mass that’s celebrated by someone who doesn’t have the authority,” Hains says. Nor would that worship fulfill the Sunday obligation for attending Mass.
Jackie Mate says that’s the problem: The church “has become so much more concerned with rules rather than deep spirituality.”
Mate says she agonized over the changes in the church, even as she continued to attend Mass at St. Aloysius in Hickory, her parish for more than 25 years.
“I’d come home sobbing. No one in their heart could be more Catholic than I am,” she says. “It still tears me apart. I still feel very conflicted. I don’t know if I’ve done the right thing. And I still don’t know.”
If she needed a push, it came when Vatican leaders harshly criticized groups of U.S. nuns for a so-called radical feminist philosophy and for focusing too much energy on issues of poverty rather than church teachings on same-sex marriage and abortion.
“We’re supposed to be totally obedient to the pope and not to listen to our conscience,” Mate says.
“The main thing for me is that it’s not anger making us do this. I’m leaving in sorrow. At this point, I have no choice.”
The parish’s priest, the Rev. Bob Ferris, could not be reached for comment.
The Rev. Ed Sheridan, who led St. Aloysius on two occasions, says he regrets Sanford’s move.
But he says he shares Sanford’s opinion about recent church changes.
“We’re coming up on the anniversary of Vatican II, and it seems like we’re taking all these wonderful things and moving them backwards, rather than building on them,” he says.
“I wish he hadn’t made the decision to leave. The church is the church. If we don’t agree with it, we just hope and pray that it will change. … I guess the frustration just got to him.”
Sanford’s new church is an example of what author Tom Roberts calls “intentional Eucharistic communities.”
Many have sprung, he says, from a weakened relationship between some Catholics and their leaders.
“The old ties that used to bind are simply breaking down. They’re just not there anymore,” says Roberts, author of “The Emerging Catholic Church: A Community’s Search for Itself.”
The fraying began, Roberts says, with the Vatican’s decree on birth control in 1968. It picked up speed as sex scandals involving abusive priests surfaced two decades later.
As much as she agonized over her move, Mate says she’s found peace at Mass.
“I don’t have to be afraid of what I’m going to hear in sermons, what I’m going to be told about politics, about how I’m supposed to vote.”
Her new congregation meets in the old sanctuary of Zion Lutheran Church.
Sanford pays $25 a week for utilities. He uses part of the weekly collection to keep Phyllis Huffman, a Lutheran, playing piano.
Barbara Jackson, Mate’s neighbor, cuts out the numbers for the list of hymns. Mate handles the readings.
After Sanford’s sermon, Robert Read brings the water and wine to the altar, the collection basket tucked under his left arm.
With Sanford leading, they recite the Apostles’ Creed.
“We believe in the Holy Spirit,” they say, “the holy Catholic Church …”
Communion comes and goes. The service takes less than an hour.
The group gathers at the back at the church and talks of Mate’s pilgrimage this week to Poland.
They hope attendance improves after summer vacations ends. A storm builds on the horizon as they head to their cars.
Sanford, though, is smiling.
“Y’all come back,” he jokes, disappearing behind the closing church door.