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Detecting A Fake Catholic Priest.

There is a Latin adage which says, Cucullus non facit monachum. That is, the habit does
not make the monk. In other words, you do not judge a book by its cover. If indeed the
habit does not make the monk, then how can we know who is a real monk or not. This is
exactly the reason why we are here today. To detect the fake priest.

CNN Story of 2016
This is a story reported by CNN on February 3, 2016: The people of Southern California called him “Padre.” For years, Erwin Mena officiated Mass, took confessions, celebrated a wedding and performed other rites of the Catholic Church. One problem: He’s never been a Catholic priest. The way police describe him, con man might be a better title. Now he’s behind bars in Los Angeles, after a felony warrant was issued for his arrest. That document laid out 30 counts against Mena, including 19 counts of grand theft of property worth more than $950 and eight instances of alleged petty theft. In all, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office alleged that the 59-year-old swindled people out of about $53,000 while pretending to be a priest at St. Bernard Catholic Church in Glassell Park and St. Ignatius of Loyola Catholic Church in Highland Park. “Mena is accused of … selling tickets for a pilgrimage to see Pope Francis during his visit to the United States last September,” the district attorney’s office said. “Prosecutors said he never made the arrangements and the trip didn’t take place.” According to police, Mena “officiated church ceremonies and solicited donations on behalf of the church(s), but kept the money for himself.” (This issue of priests collecting donations in their private capacity is becoming quite
popular on social media. They need the authorization of their bishops to do that. We shall
discuss that matter later.) And it wasn’t just a matter of swiping a few dollars from the Sunday church offerings. He got hundreds of dollars — even $11,690 from one individual — from multiple people, the
prosecutor’s office said. In addition to theft, Mena is also charged with perjury, forgery and one count of practicing medicine without a license. Except for the petty theft misdemeanor counts, all the counts he faces are felonies. If he’s convicted across the board, he could face 21 years behind bars. We are grateful to the Los Angeles Police Department for working to ensure that Erwin Mena was brought to justice,” the Archdiocese of Los Angeles said afterward in a statement. “Our prayers go out to all the victims of his scam.”Celebret – Commendatory Letter.

Can you imagine the terrible mess this fake priest has caused? And you know what? Canon Law has a cure for this. We just need to apply the law, and there would be no such incident in our parishes. Canon 903 states,

“A priest is to be permitted to celebrate even if the rector of the church does
not know him, provided that either he presents a letter of introduction from
his ordinary or superior, issued at least within the year, or it can be judged
prudently that he is not impeded from celebrating.”

The canon just quoted is talking about a commendatory letter called celebret, which in English simply means “may he celebrate.” states the following, “By means of these letters the competent superior bears witness to the bearer’s legitimate ordination to the priesthood, his good moral standing in his own diocese or religious group, his freedom from any ecclesiastical penalty that excludes the celebration of the Eucharist, his freedom from any irregularity, and his consequent commendable status in general.” Under normal circumstances, a priest travelling to another jurisdiction, other than his own, should carry such a document with him. For example, a priest who is taking his annual leave outside his diocese should have his celebret with him. It is a proof of his good standing as a priest. It should not be seen as being difficulty if a visiting priest is asked to produce his celebret. In fact, that should be seen as a sign of diligence, a way of stopping fraudsters, or maybe suspended priests, from administering the sacrament. Canon 213 states,

“The Christian faithful have the right to receive assistance from the sacred
pastors out of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the word of God
and the sacraments.”

This right of the Christian faithful must be protected by ensuring that they receive these spiritual goods of the Church validly and licitly from legitimate ministers. How does a celebret look like? It depends on each diocese. Some dioceses issue them every year in a form of an ID card. It usually has the photograph of the priest on it. Unlike other ID cards which may be for life, a celebret has a lifespan. It may be for a year, or for the period the priest in question may be away from his original jurisdiction. Apart from the ID card form, a celebret can be in a form of a letter from the Bishop or his Vicar General. The aim is to prove that we are dealing with a priest of good standing.

If you are a priest reading this, I would urge you not to forget your celebret when travelling to another jurisdiction. This may save you from an embarrassing situation if you are asked to prove that you are a priest in good standing. And for you our lay faithful, remember we live in a world of fake news and con men. The fact that a man is able to recite all the prayers of the Mass does not mean he is a priest. He may have been an ex-seminarian.
Remember, Cucullus non facit monachum. To detect a fake priest, ask for his celebret. It will help you know two things: As to whether he is indeed a validly ordained priest, and a priest in good standing.

Authored by Rev. Fr. John Patrick Tindana,
Catholic Archdiocese of Accra, Ghana.

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