Imagine trying to explain to your average reporter—even a religion reporter—what an episcopus vagans is. Those of us who work in “the religion biz” are frequently reminded that the press just doesn’t get religion, and in the case of the “prankster” “fake bishop” who recently made an amusing appearance at the Vatican, the press did not fail to live up to its reputation.
From The Telegraph (“Fake bishop tries to sneak into Vatican meeting”):
Ralph Napierski, a self-appointed bishop from an apparently fictional order called Corpus Dei, managed to get through a checkpoint manned by Swiss Guards but was stopped before entering the Paul VI Hall, where the cardinals were gathering.
Dressed in fake bishop’s vestments, complete with a purple sash, Mr Napierski smiled to photographers as he mixed with more than 140 cardinals from around the world as they filed into the hall to discuss the challenges facing the Church and possible “papabili” or papal candidates.
On closer inspection the sash turned out to be a scarf.
He is a keen proponent of something called “Jesus Yoga” and claims to have invented “a system to enable persons to control computers with the power of thoughts”.
Or consider this bit from ABC News (“Prankster Nearly Sneaks Into Meeting of Cardinals”):
The Swiss Guard promptly ejected the man, later identified as Ralph Napiersi (sic), who told reporters his name was “Basilius.” Napierski said he belonged to an Italian Orthodox Church, which does not exist.
A website that appears to be associated with him describes him as a bishop of Corpus Dei, a fictional Catholic group. The site not only has a fanciful coat of arms for the fake bishop – the motto “Horse of Christ” – it traces his phony credentials all the way back to an 18th Century Patriarch of Babylon.
Napierski is a proponent of “Jesus Yoga” and claims to be a keeper of relics, items of religious veneration because they were touched by or belonged to a saint.
“We want to equip churches (especialy [sic] those with low income) with high class relics,” it says on his website. There are lots of spelling mistakes on the site.
What’s missing here is any sense that these descriptions of the “fake bishop,” a “prankster” who belongs to a “fictional Catholic group” and has “phony credentials” is that they are essentially how the Roman Catholic Church would view the man (if it took any notice of him), but such descriptions are not qualified in any way in these articles. It’s just assumed that this view is the only one. And is he really “self-appointed”? He certainly claims to have been ordained by other people.
Of course, there’s actually a chance that the Vatican might regard his episcopal ordination as “valid” (though unlawful), if it can be shown that his episcopal succession is “valid” in all its propers. Roman Catholic theology of ordination regards it as an “indelible mark” that continues even in heresy, apostasy and schism, so there may be “valid” bishops outside the actual communion of the Roman Catholic Church. (This is how Rome can regard Orthodoxy as “valid” even though it doesn’t submit itself to the pope.) Orthodoxy, by contrast, regards ordination as existing only within the ecclesial community.
Those who have done some study of episcopi vagantes would recognize all the marks here of such a man’s presence online—the prominent display of the claim to apostolic succession, the badly-fitting and not-quite-right clerical garb, the confusing and misspelled website, the attempts to associate one’s ecclesiastical associates with mainstream authorities (e.g., pictures with the pope), pictures of official-looking documents, and so on.
None of that means that these people are “fake,” however, nor that they are pulling some kind of “prank” or promoting a “fictional” religious group that “does not exist.” It would certainly be true to say that they are on their own and not recognized by any ecclesiastical authority other than themselves. It is probably also true their flocks (if any) are quite small and insignificant compared to the Roman Catholic Church. It may well also be true that they are hucksters out to make a buck (or a Euro, I suppose, in this case), but that of course is true of people in many religious groups that the media might not consider “fake.” It may well also be the case that there are more bishops than laity in this man’s church. (Once you take away all that pesky ecclesiastical bureaucracy, why not make anyone a bishop?)
Contrast all this with the media’s treatment of Westboro Baptist Church. Anyone ever see a reporter saying that WBC are “fake” Baptists? I daresay some Baptists might see them that way.
I wrote my M.Div. thesis on Archbishop Aftimios Ofiesh, who, while not an episcopus vagans himself, nonetheless is sort of a “grandfather” to many who were (several such lines of succession coming from at least one and possibly two men whom he consecrated as bishop while in communion with canonical Orthodoxy). The world of these men is rather fascinating. I even discovered that one such man (whose succession was from another line than Aftimios) had his “cathedral” (maximum capacity: about 40) right here in Emmaus, Pennsylvania—indeed, in the very building where my own parish had its beginnings in the 1980s.
Episcopi vagantes are actually somewhat more common and even prominent than many might think. Disgraced Evangelical comedian Mike “The Satan Seller” Warnke was ordained a bishop by one of these folks, as was one of my favorite sword-and-sorcery fantasy novelists, Katherine Kurtz, author of the “Deryni” and other novel series.
So, once again, the press doesn’t quite get religion. They certainly realized that Ralph Napierski didn’t belong there in the Vatican with the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church. And he’s certainly a rather unusual sort of cleric. But wouldn’t it have been far more interesting to learn a little something about the wild, wacky and fascinating world of espicopi vagantes?
The Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick is pastor of St. Paul Orthodox Church of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, author of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy (Conciliar Press, 2011), and host of the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy and Roads from Emmaus podcasts.