Episcopal Migration Ministries

Lessons from a celebrity conversion

By The Rev. Canon Andrew T. Gerns

The public commotion over Father Alberto Cutie's entry into the Episcopal Church strained ecumenical relations between the Roman Catholic and Episcopal dioceses in southeast Florida because the switch was magnified by the celebrity of the convert.

While there have lots of times when clerics "swim the Tiber" in one direction or another, usually very little is made of it in the press by the churches. Not a written rule, but etiquette says "don't make a fuss."

Which made the story Cutie and his reception into the Episcopal Church followed by a press conference very unusual. An angry MIami Archbishop Favalora said unkind things about Episcopal Bishop Frade. But when Cutie was broadcasting on tv and radio and writing books as a Roman Catholic, Favalora and the rest of his diocese basked in the glow of his celebrity. When circumstances turned the other way, well, it did not feel so good.

Columnist Carl Hiassen, writing for the Miami Herald, made two observations. First, "The good news: He was with a woman, thank God, not an altar boy." And second, "For the Miami archdiocese, losing Father Cutie to the Episcopalians would be like the Yankees losing Derek Jeter to the Red Sox."  On the whole, he said, this is a scandal everyone can live with.

The difference in this matter seems to be celebrity of the convert. Daniel Burke writing for Religious News Service says:

With a star of Cutie's  magnitude—millions tuned in to his television and radio shows for relationship advice—media attention of his conversion was, perhaps, inevitable. Reporters from English and Spanish-language media crowded into Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Miami to witness the half-hour ceremony and subsequent press conference.

Miami’s Catholic Archbishop, John Favalora, Cutie’s former boss, was not pleased.

He blasted the new convert and his Episcopal counterpart, Bishop Leo Frade of Southeast Florida, for breaking the unwritten rules of conversion: Advise the other bishop about your plans and don’t show up the other faith by making a public display....

Even Episcopalians say Favalora has a point. Bishop Christopher Epting, the Episcopal Church’s point man for interfaith affairs, said Friday, “There’s no written rule, but it’s certainly been the informal understanding between all our ecumenical partners that it’s not something one seeks headlines about. It doesn’t help us ecumenically.”

There’s a delicate diplomacy to conversions, with long-established protocols to ensure that interfaith bridges that take decades to build are not burned in a single afternoon. Epting said the Episcopal Church’s ecumenical office, which is usually consulted on all conversions, was not informed about the ceremony ahead of time.

“I wish we had been consulted,” Epting said. “We will be pursuing this.”

On the other hand, when a person of such high profile makes such a change, it cannot be help but be done publicly. If he could not go to the beach with his girlfriend without being photographed by paparazzi, then it hard to imagine him being received without a press conference. So while the Roman Catholics complain about all the negative publicity--and cite the legitimate hurt Cutie's former congregants, most of whom have remained in their church, feel-- they may have hoisted on the celebrity they were anxious to create when "Father Oprah" was in their bullpen.

But there’s been plenty of traffic toward Rome too, said Monsignor William Stetson of the Office of Pastoral Provision, which was created by the late Pope John Paul II in 1980 to prepare former Episcopal priests for ministry in the Catholic Church. Four or five former Episcopal priests—including, recently, several bishops—convert to the Catholic Church each year, he said....

But none of those converts were celebrities. In a sense, Frade’s hands were tied by his new convert’s fame, said Jim Naughton, director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

“When (someone) joins the Episcopal Church, it would be silly to chase them away,” he said. “And in such unusual circumstances it’s very difficult to be critical of Bishop Frade because he has both a very vibrant and gifted priest, but also an atmosphere of controversy. Unless you’re from that community, I think it’s very hard to pass any judgment.”

We in Northeast Pennsylvania will simply note silently the publicity that emanated from a local Catholic diocese when a married Episcopal priest joined their ranks a few years back. Grumblings about that situation being a "man bites dog story" were put aside for the greater good. So we have some idea about how Favalora feels.

But here is a lesson that is unique to Cutie's switch: Sometimes publicity happens, and sometimes publicity is a tool used to send a message. If you groom a priest for the media, emphasizing his charm, charisma and, yes, his sex appeal (the ultimate Father Whatawaste) be ready for the publicity tide to change very quickly.

Read: Daniel Burke, Religious News Service: "Celebrity priest's conversion strains ecumenical ties ."

Also: Carl Hiaasen, Miami Herald: "Give the poor padre a break."


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