Just as many were preparing for Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S., there was another Francis on Friday throwing his own separate Catholic celebration.
The Ecumenical Catholic Communion, an independent U.S. denomination with about 10,000 members, has moved its national headquarters to St. Louis.
On Friday, Francis Krebs, a pastor at Sts. Clare & Francis in Webster Groves, became the organization’s new presiding bishop at a ceremony celebrated in English and Spanish at Eden Theological Seminary — the group’s host institution.
Hundreds from all over the country packed into Eden for a joyous service that commissioned the new bishop.
“This is all we have to offer the world, a church that is fully alive,” said an emotional Krebs. “We have the ability to awaken something in each other.”
Krebs spoke of the importance of seeing the face of Christ in others and referenced St. Louis’ own troubles with racial equality. “We’ve got a lot to do, let’s get to love,” he said.
David Greenhaw, president of Eden Theological Seminary, said the school has relationships with different Christian groups, but “none is more exciting than this one.”
Krebs succeeds the Rev. Peter Hickman of Los Angeles, who has led the Ecumenical Catholic Communion since its formation in the U.S., in 2003. The Ecumenical Catholic Communion is thought to be the largest of various Catholic splinter groups, with 51 churches in 20 states. In the St. Louis region, in addition to a church in Webster Groves, the Ecumenical Catholic Communion has a mission in Belleville called All Saints.
The church traces its origin to 1870 — the date of the First Vatican Council — when a group of European bishops meeting in Utrecht refused to accept that the pope was infallible in matters of church doctrine.
“This group of European bishops formed what is commonly called the ‘Old Catholic Church,’ the predecessor to the ECC,” Krebs said.
The Ecumenical Catholic Communion is similar to the Roman Catholic Church with regard to both creeds and sacraments but distinguishes itself in several ways. The church believes in inclusion, where all are called to serve, regardless of gender, marital status or sexual orientation.
Unlike in the Roman Catholic Church, for example, the priesthood is open to both men and women. Gays may also serve. About a quarter of its clergy are gay. About one-third are female.
The laity also have a powerful voice in the church. Both pastors and church members elected Krebs by a two-thirds vote in a recent synod held in Denver.
Krebs, 68, was born and reared with eight siblings in St. Louis. He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of St. Louis in 1972. In 1977 he became pastor of Sts. Peter & Paul, a parish founded before the Civil War, and situated in the Soulard neighborhood.
But in 1990, Krebs left the Roman Catholic Church.
“There wasn’t anything about being a priest that I didn’t love,” Krebs says now. But he realized he was unwilling to commit to a celibate lifestyle.
So for 14 years Krebs worked at a large behavioral health care company.
Then in 2004, at a crowded Easter celebration, he helped a Roman Catholic priest give communion.
“I think it just kinda woke up those gifts again, and I wanted to get back to it,” Krebs said.
It wasn’t long before he found the Ecumenical Catholic Communion and established Sts. Clare & Francis in Webster Groves.
Despite his break from the Roman Catholic Church, Krebs says he remains close to many in that community. He’s also a big fan of Pope Francis.
“He’s changed the atmosphere,” Krebs said. “Who doesn’t love this man? I don’t have any kind of chip on my shoulder about the Roman Catholic Church. I think it’s about people finding a path to do what they are called to do.”
Still, Krebs says the Ecumenical Catholic Communion will continue to serve those the Roman Catholic Church can’t, such as gays, married men and women who feel called to the priesthood.
Despite Pope Francis’ openness and nonjudgmental tone, Krebs doesn’t expect the Roman Catholic Church to change any teachings or policies any time soon.
Krebs would like the Ecumenical Catholic Communion to achieve even greater growth by attracting other independent Catholic groups. They are, for example, in talks with St. Stanislaus Kostka Polish Catholic Parish, which the Archdiocese of St. Louis sued in 2008 in a fight over the church’s property and assets. The archdiocese ultimately lost, but St. Stanislaus has been in search of a spiritual home ever since.
Most of all, however, Krebs says he plans to help bring his church into full communion with the Old Catholic Church of Utrecht.
“They are willing to engage with the culture and ask the hard questions,” Krebs said.
Editor's note: All references to the Ecumenical Catholic Church were changed to the Ecumenical Catholic Communion.