Critical Mass

An Austin church remakes Catholicism without the Pope, celibate priests, or most of the other rules.

Any honest people here?” Grinning, Jayme Mathias scans the small crowd gathered for mass at Holy Family American Catholic Church, in southeast Austin. “Anyone brave enough to raise your hand if you’ve ever done a rolling stop? I come from the cornfields of Ohio, where you can see for miles, and folks slow down but don’t always stop at intersections. They’re not following the letter of the law, but they follow the spirit of the law, and no one gets hurt.”

In the Gospel of Matthew, Mathias explains, Jesus admonishes the legalistic Pharisees for neglecting the spirit of the law. “But our mothers and grandmothers told us not to eat meat on Fridays!” he continues, to knowing nods and a few eye rolls. “Jesus would have said, ‘Catholics, it’s okay to eat a cheeseburger on Friday in Lent, as long as you love God and love your neighbor.’ ”

The sermon over, the congregation stands to prepare for the Eucharist. The altar where Mathias places the bread and wine is flanked by statues of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Saint Joseph holding the Christ child. But instead of light filtered through stained glass, fluorescent panels left over from the building’s days as a dance hall illuminate the room. The pulpit, built by a parishioner, faces rows of metal folding chairs on a concrete floor. When the Eucharist begins, anyone will be welcome to come forward: Catholic or not, married or divorced and remarried, gay or straight. Mathias, who distributes the host, is himself married, to a man.

Holy Family is part of the American Catholic Church in the United States (ACCUS), one jurisdiction in the independent Catholic movement, a decentralized group of clergy and congregations worldwide that consider themselves Catholic but not subject to the authority of Rome. Like the Roman Catholic Church, independent Catholic groups typically recognize seven sacraments and adhere to Catholic theology. But they diverge from Rome in various ways—some ordain women, some celebrate a pre–Vatican II Latin mass—and their stances on issues like homosexuality vary widely. To the Roman Catholic Church, the ACCUS is a schism, and Mathias, a former Roman Catholic priest, has excommunicated himself. To Holy Family parishioners, the church is an expression of Catholicism that has been updated for modern times.

Since Mathias formed Holy Family church, five years ago, it has grown from a handful of congregants to a weekly attendance of 215, making it the largest ACCUS parish in the country. But the history of independent Catholicism is filled with churches that flourished and withered in rapid succession. If Holy Family is to outlast them, it faces an uphill battle.

Independent Catholicism began as a response to the first Vatican council, in 1870, which affirmed the doctrine of papal infallibility. Those who disagreed with the doctrine allied themselves with the successors of a group of Dutch Catholic bishops who had been consecrated in the 1700s without the approval of the pope, a lineage that independent Catholic groups point to as evidence of their legitimacy.

Independent Catholicism expanded in the U.S. after the second Vatican council, in the sixties, both among traditionalists who rejected the council’s reforms and among progressives who thought they didn’t go far enough. Today, there are at least fifty independent Catholic groups in America, some deeply conservative and some, like the ACCUS, more liberal.

The ACCUS’s progressive attitude is shared by many who have stayed in the Roman Catholic Church. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, three quarters of American Roman Catholics think the church should allow the use of artificial contraception. Solid majorities think it should ordain women, scrap the celibacy requirement for priests, and allow people who have remarried without an annulment to receive communion. Asked whether the church should recognize same-sex marriage, respondents were evenly split. The Pew Center also found that while many Catholics who disagree with the church on such issues remain in the church, 41 percent of American adults who were raised Catholic have left.

Groups like the ACCUS offer an alternative: an expression of Catholicism that responds to changing social norms but retains the familiar mass and sacraments and, in the case of Holy Family, Mexican Catholic traditions like Día de la Candelaria.

Mathias, who is 45, didn’t set out to reinvent Catholicism. He grew up in staunchly Catholic rural Ohio and entered the seminary at 18. In 1995, after graduating from college, he was assigned to a yearlong internship at Cristo Rey parish, a predominantly Hispanic congregation in East Austin, where he eventually became fluent in Spanish. Quickly realizing that he had had very little life experience, he took the next year off to try on the life he was giving up to be a priest. He rented an apartment in the Seattle area and paid his bills by selling insurance. The job was revelatory, as Mathias realized how sales techniques could be applied in ministry. “I was sold on this notion of how we need to sell others on Christ,” he says. He devoured books on neuro-linguistic programming and the difference between visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning styles. He realized that preaching, while effective for auditory learners, didn’t engage the majority of people in the pews. In 2001, when he began his first ministry assignment, back at Cristo Rey, he incorporated props into his sermons; he has, for instance, been known to hold up a salt shaker and a candle when explaining how Christians are called to be salt and light.

Former Cristo Rey parishioners say his homilies were the first ones that ever held their attention. They remember his having an energizing effect on that church: increasing attendance, lifting the parish out of debt, and expanding the youth group. Mathias discovered an affinity for East Austin’s Mexican immigrant community and started several programs that offered English classes for adults. “My heart was drawn to ministering to these people who were trying to survive and create a better life for themselves and their families,” he says. He later taught Spanish and served as president of a Catholic high school in Austin. (Five years ago, he was elected to the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees.)

But for all his passion for his flock, Mathias found himself increasingly at odds with church leadership. “Of the three vows I had as a Franciscan—poverty, chastity, and obedience—obedience was always the most difficult,” he says. Mathias’s breaking point came six years ago, when Illinois congressman Luis Gutiérrez was touring Texas, speaking about immigration reform, and was set to appear at Cristo Rey. Shortly before the event, the Diocese of Austin told Mathias that Gutiérrez’s support for abortion rights made it inappropriate for him to speak on any topic on church property. Mathias remembers telling the bishop’s representative that Gutiérrez was “pro-immigrant, and being pro-immigrant is being pro-life . . . the congressman is on the side of the people.” The presentation was moved to a community center, and Mathias, who had come to the conclusion that he could no longer be obedient to the bishop, took a sabbatical from ministry.

During the break, an acquaintance suggested that he affiliate with the ACCUS. Mathias had never heard of independent Catholicism, but on the ACCUS website he saw the names of three priests he knew from seminary. After talking with them, he decided to make permanent his split from the Roman Catholic Church and join the ACCUS. In the spring of 2012 he announced his new affiliation and his intention to hold weekly masses at his house. It was, at the beginning, a modest affair, drawing about ten people to each service. But word spread among the families who knew Mathias from Cristo Rey and from his work in the community. When attendance outgrew his backyard, the group moved to the dance hall, which sits at the end of a warehouse-lined road just south of Austin Bergstrom International Airport. The roar of a low-flying plane sometimes punctuates the a cappella hymns sung at the church’s four weekly masses, one in English and the rest in Spanish.

A significant difference between the Roman Catholic Church and the ACCUS is their approach to the sacraments, including the Eucharist, which at Holy Family is open to all. In the Roman Catholic Church, the sacrament of confirmation is typically preceded by at least nine months of preparatory classes. At Holy Family, people can be confirmed after attending a single class. The practice allows parents to have very young children confirmed, as is typical in some parts of Mexico, and it reflects the ACCUS’s stance that the church should not place obstacles between believers and the sacraments. “The ancient church baptized, confirmed, and gave the Eucharist to people all in the same day, even to infants,” Mathias says. “Should we withhold the sacraments from certain people for ageist reasons, because they’re not yet eight years old? For sexist reasons, because we don’t ordain women? We just decided we were going to make the sacraments available to all. If you feel called in your heart to receive the Eucharist, then I am not standing between you and your God.”

The differences extend to the sacrament of holy orders, or ordination, which in the Roman Catholic Church requires an education that amounts to a college degree plus five to seven years of seminary education. Father Roy Gomez, a 71-year-old former supervisor for several Short Stop restaurants, was ordained as an ACCUS priest in 2015. He had nothing more than a high school education but had been heavily involved in ministry as a layperson at Cristo Rey and helped Mathias lead English classes for immigrants.

“You can be educated and not serve the people, but I’d rather be dumb and be able to serve,” Gomez quips. “You have to know the people, gain their trust, and show them that you care about them, and I think that if you’re able to do that, then you’re fit to be a priest.”

Because Holy Family is not in communion with Rome, the Roman Catholic Church considers sacraments given at Holy Family, with the exception of baptisms and some marriages, invalid or illicit. Beyond that, the Diocese of Austin doesn’t have a position on the church, says Deacon Ron Walker, the chancellor of the diocese. “Every person has to worship in the way that their conscience says, so as with every other denomination, if a baptized Catholic decided to move away from the church and to worship in another church, they have the right to do that.”

Austin diocese spokesperson Christian González says that in the early days of Holy Family, people called the diocese frequently to ask if the sacraments they’d received there would be recognized if they returned to the Roman church. Those calls prompted priests across the diocese to read a statement from the pulpit a few years ago stating that Roman Catholics should refrain from receiving the sacraments from Mathias.

The statement had an unintended effect on some in the pews. Lifelong Catholic Mario Cruz, a 76-year-old retired school counselor, says it reminded him of growing up during segregation. “They said, ‘He is not one of us,’ ” Cruz remembers. “They said, ‘He’s not a priest, so don’t go to that church.’ And when they say don’t go, that tells me, go. Because who are they to tell me what I should do, and to exclude people?” Cruz and his wife went looking for Holy Family one Sunday and started attending regularly.

At a recent Wednesday night Bible study, Cruz and a number of other parishioners described their path from the Roman Catholic Church to Holy Family. Some left the Roman church after being barred from the Eucharist because they had divorced and remarried without an annulment. Others have gay relatives and disagreed with the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings on homosexuality. Many say they still experience disapproval from staunchly Roman Catholic relatives and friends. “To this day, we still encounter people who say, ‘That’s not a real church, and [Mathias] is not a real priest,’ ” says Rita Cuevas, who followed Mathias from Cristo Rey to Holy Family.

Cuevas calls Mathias “perfect in every way,” but she and her husband, Louis, describe the months after the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015 as a “bump in the road.” Mathias officiated a wedding for two men at Holy Family that attracted a television news crew, and then photographs of Mathias and his husband, Anthony Tang, who were married that summer, appeared in local newspapers. The Cuevases say they thought Holy Family didn’t need the added pressure of its priest being the public face of same-sex marriage. “We’d already gone out on a limb with our families, and here we are colliding with this other issue,” Rita Cuevas says. “We supported gay marriage, but our priority was to build the church.” Like a few other parishioners, they stopped going to mass. But months later, they raised their concerns with Mathias, which seemed to clear the air. They returned and have been loyal congregants ever since.

Vincent Maldonado, another Wednesday night attendee, left his Roman Catholic church after getting divorced and started attending Holy Family five years ago. He was happy to receive the Eucharist again, but he was floored when Mathias and Gomez invited him to become a deacon; he managed a nightclub, a venue that Roman Catholic acquaintances had told him was a place of sin. “I’m an American Catholic follower, but I still have a Roman Catholic mind, so I had to let go of all the rules,” Maldonado says. “The American Catholic Church is open to accepting everyone, and I think that’s how religion should be. In the past five years, I’m proud to be Catholic again.”

Despite independent Catholicism’s appeal to people like Maldonado, the same ad-hoc quality that gives independent Catholicism its flexibility has prevented it from ever becoming a significant religious force, says J. Gordon Melton, a distinguished professor of American religious history at Baylor University who has closely studied independent Catholicism.

“Each generation has to start from the beginning,” Melton says. “The churches grow from adult converts, and there are no seminaries or schools, so they aren’t able to call young people to the ministry and train them. The parishes are, at best, a one-generation phenomenon.”

Melton says that because independent Catholic bishops lack the sort of power that is vested in Roman Catholic bishops—control over property and pension funds, for instance—an independent Catholic priest who disagrees with his bishop often resolves the dispute by leaving to start a new branch of the church. Past efforts to organize the movement haven’t lasted, Melton says, because the issues that drove clergy to form independent churches—such as the ordination of women or openly gay people—are the same ones that divide independent Catholic groups.

These challenges are familiar to Mathias, who wants to form an independent Catholic conference. He dreams of bringing independent Catholics from across the country to meet in Austin, but the largely part-time clergy don’t have travel budgets, and he doesn’t have a retreat center. When he invited half a dozen independent Catholic clergy from Central Texas to Holy Family for Sunday lunch, only one turned up.

“When I joined the movement, it seemed stronger than I now perceive it to be,” Mathias says carefully. He sees the cultivation of additional clergy—Holy Family now counts seven priests and deacons—as the best way to ensure the church’s survival.

Independence brings both freedom and risk; when Holy Family discarded the “rules,” it also abandoned the structures that sustain churches and help them grow. In the long run, its fate may depend more on such practical matters than on its message of inclusivity. But for Holy Family’s parishioners, that message—and the sense of community they’ve formed—are, for now, enough.