The Roman Catholic Diocese of Colorado Springs is taking aim at what it calls a renegade church in Black Forest and asking its members to return to the fold.
In a letter to about 60 households, Bishop Michael Sheridan said Servants of the Holy Family is not part of the Roman Catholic Church, despite what church priests tell them.
“I entreat you to separate yourself from the Servants of the Holy Family and return to full communion with the Roman Catholic Church,” Sheridan wrote in his letter. “No one can claim to be authentically Catholic if he or she is not in communion with the diocesan bishop and the Pope.”
Sheridan said the separation nullifies some Catholic sacraments such as marriage and reconciliation, also called confession or penance.
Former members claim that Servants of the Holy Family is out of sync with the Catholic Church in other ways, too, saying the church is as much a personality cult as a place of worship.
Sheridan and the diocese can’t take action against the church, just urge members to leave.
Servants of the Holy Family is a church and seminary of 100-150 congregants at 8025 Maverick Road.
Father Allan Kucera, one of five priests at the church, said by e-mail that the church will not answer questions about the church or Sheridan’s letter.
“Servants of the Holy Family will neither participate in a public debate or controversy, nor will it in any way contribute to the strife and division already present today in the Catholic Church,” Kucera said in his e-mail.
“If anyone is interested, he or she may come and see for themselves what we are about.”
Sheridan’s letter, sent last month, sidesteps accusations by former members who say Servants of the Holy Family is dysfunctional and perhaps a cult.
Former members say priests berate church members from the pulpit and demand unquestioned loyalty, that families have been torn apart over the church, and that many members refuse — or are unable — to talk with parents, children or siblings who have left the church.
Sheridan has heard the allegations but did not address them.
The letter dealt only with the church’s status within the Catholic Church. “Anything else is hearsay,” he said.
The letter marked the first time Sheridan, who became bishop last year, addressed the group, although Servants of the Holy Family has been a longtime diocesan concern.
According to Sheridan, his predecessor, Bishop Richard Hanifen, wrote a few columns for the diocesan newspaper that stressed the church had splintered from Rome.
According to the group’s Web site, www.servi.org, Servants of the Holy Family was founded in 1977.
Led by the Rev. Anthony Ward, the church offers traditional Latin Mass six days a week. Mass is open to the public.
The church’s adherence to Catholic orthodoxy has drawn many devout Catholics looking for a more traditional service; many congregants moved to Black Forest, in part, to attend, former members said.
Latin nearly disappeared from Catholic parishes in the wake of Vatican II, a sweeping series of reforms instituted by Roman Catholic leadership between 1962 and 1965.
The Rev. Richard McBrien, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., believes there are few Latin Mass congregations.
Most of them reject Vatican II’s liturgical reforms, he said, and are suspicious of the Catholic Church’s social agenda and increasing ecumenicalism, which is why many run afoul of Rome.
But traditionalists say they are simply attracted to the beauty and power of the Latin Mass, which had unified the Catholic Church for centuries. Latin is not prohibited by the Vatican, and there are many Latin Mass congregations sanctioned by the Catholic Church.
Locally, the Immaculate Conception Latin Mass Mission celebrates Mass daily in St. Joseph’s parish in Fountain.
McBrien said many sanctioned Latin parishes are skeptical of Vatican II reforms, particularly when it comes to Catholic liturgy.
“ . . . The main difference is still centered on the Latin Mass,” McBrien said. “In some cases, however, these groups are smart enough to stay in the good graces of the local bishop.”
Not so with Servants of the Holy Family.
Sheridan believes its priests mislead people as to how “Catholic” the church is.
Former members say priests told them the church is in good standing with the Vatican. Many members realized the group was separate only after they had left.
Patrick and Patty Biolchini were married in Servants of the Holy Family in 1994. When they left in 2003, a Catholic priest told them that, in the eyes of the Church, they never were married because the church isn’t sanctioned by Rome.
“We might as well have gotten married in front of a justice of the peace,” Patrick said.
In the phone book, Servants of the Holy Family is listed under the heading “Churches — Catholic Traditional,” but separate from diocesan parishes.
Sheridan never has attended a mass at Servants of the Holy Family.
Sheridan and former members say the church reportedly was tied to a traditionalist Catholic group called the Pius X Fraternity, an organization that split with Rome over Vatican II-style reforms.
Ward was ordained in the early 1970s by Pius X’s founder, the controversial Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, former members say. Lefebvre was excommunicated in 1988.
Ward broke with the Pius X movement in the 1980s, former members say.
Sheridan believes church members are well-meaning Catholics, and he sympathizes with their desire to celebrate traditional Latin Mass.
The church, many former members say, has evolved over the years, becoming an aberrant, almost abusive, sect.
Former members claim priests criticize the Pope from the pulpit — something almost unheard of in most Catholic parishes.
Many say members are fiercely loyal to Ward and regularly ask his permission to marry or change jobs.
Ward demands unquestioned allegiance, ex-members claim, and former congregant Steve Bertucci called the church a “cult of personality.”
Priests also would lambast congregants publicly and privately. Members would be forced to leave Mass if they blew their nose or if their children fidgeted.
“You just literally couldn’t be human in there,” said Patrick Biolchini, a member of the church for decades before leaving last year.
The Gazette talked with several ex-members, many of whom did not want to be identified because they still have family in the church.
Cowan has written a book on the subject, titled, “Bearing False Witness? : An Introduction to the Christian Countercult.” The title is ironic, given the fact that Cowan frequently misrepresents those whom he criticizes.
Contact with family members is sparse, former members say, and in many cases nonexistent.
Many blame the church for their estrangements.
“It’s as if with a sharp strike of the knife we’ve been severed,” one former member said. “Our whole family has been severed from us.”
Religious movement expert Douglas Cowan cautions against the use of the term cult, which he said involves a specific set of criteria that most so-called “cults” don’t exhibit.
Cowan, an assistant professor of religious studies and sociology at the University of Missouri in Kansas City and head of the Religious Movements Homepage Project (religious movements.lib.virginia.edu/), said accusations made by exmembers must be treated with caution.
“While we don’t discount the testimony of former members, it has to be weighed in the balance of the fact that they’re former members,” he said. “They may have an ax to grind.”
Cowan said accusations are not unusual. Many groups shun former members or are devoted to their leader.
But McBrien, the Notre Dame professor, said it’s unusual for a traditionalist group to follow a leader without question.