National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 14, 2004

An imposter priest creates confusion


I’ve been asked to evaluate samples of religious reporting nationwide, so I’m flipping through newsprint when my eye falls on a story in The Arizona Republic. It’s not one of the stories I’m supposed to be reading, which heightens its appeal. But the kicker is the headline: “Parishioners question authenticity of rites.” Their “priest,” it seems, was an imposter, a felon wanted for grand theft and embezzlement with a criminal record dating back to 1979.

Embarrassed diocesan officials said they were glad no harm had been done in the six weeks or so that the man had acted as an associate pastor.

Reading on, I wasn’t so sure they were right.

One woman was deeply upset because the “priest” had presided at the funeral of her aunt, a woman she had loved as a second mother and promised to take care of. Now, feeling she had broken faith, she was pleading for a real priest to at least bless her aunt’s grave.

I’ve known a few “real” priests I wouldn’t have trusted as a conduit for God’s grace, but church teachings smooth over that little glitch, assuring us that God acts through the priest and transcends his human failings. Wouldn’t have happened with this guy, though; he wasn’t under the umbrella. The diocese assured worried parishioners that they had indeed fulfilled their obligation to attend Sunday Mass, even though it had been celebrated by a fake priest. Any marriages he had presided over, however, were invalid. So, technically, was the absolution he had given during the sacrament of reconciliation. So was his consecration of the Eucharist. So was his anointing of the sick. So were the frilly white quinceañeras, the blessed rites of passage for 15-year-old girls.

This is where sacraments get interesting.

My temptation, were I one of his parishioners, would be to minimize his role, reminding myself that the rest of us had been there with clean and willing hearts, and surely God had been present with us. We had felt blessed, married, forgiven, welcomed; wasn’t that enough?

Not by church law. These are legal matters, and they can be stripped of any meaning we invested in them by the pronouncement of a canon lawyer. Presto change-o: That rush of relief we felt after reconciliation was an illusion. Our tender honeymoon encounters were sins. We might as well have eaten cheeseburgers as Communion.

I understand the need to ordain (would that the diocese had been more wary, instead of grabbing for any priest who shows up in the sacramental rush season). I also understand the desire to quickly repeat and make right any sacraments in which people were deceived. But I can’t begin to imagine how crushed they must feel when they are informed that their sense of divine presence was false, their sacrament null and void.

Such things happen all the time with legal matters: Turns out we filled out the wrong form or forgot to submit it in triplicate, thus we didn’t get the requested certification or sanction after all. But sacraments are as much about faith and perception as they are about oil, bread, water or incantations. At the risk of reviving Luther, I wish that Arizona diocese had given more credence to people’s ability to receive God’s grace simply by asking for it. Surely God can leap effortlessly over any obstacle, even a criminal record. Surely God’s grace has the power to transform a felon’s sins into love.

Who knows what happened inside that man’s heart when he played priest?

And how dare the law pronounce the Spirit absent?

Jeannette Cooperman is a freelance writer living in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, May 14, 2004

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: