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Excommunicated nuns eject schismatic ‘bishop’ from convent

A community of excommunicated nuns in Spain have ejected an excommunicated self-proclaimed bishop from their convent, but have not made overtures toward reconciling with legitimate archdiocesan authorities.

The Poor Clares in Belorado kicked out self-styled bishop Pablo Rojas from their convent in a move recommended by the legal team representing them in Spanish civil courts. However, the nuns refuse to leave the convent or dialogue with the Archdiocese of Burgos.

Poor Clare sisters at the monastery of Belorado, together with “Pablo de Rojas Sánchez-Franco.” Image: Christifideles Tau via YouTube.

Ten of the 16 nuns of the community were excommunicated and dismissed from religious life by Archbishop Mario Iceta of Burgos after failing to appear before a diocesan tribunal on June 21 to answer a charge of schism

The now former nuns previously declared their separation from the Catholic Church on May 13, when they signed a 70-page “Catholic Manifesto” describing the post-Vatican II Catholic Church as illegitimate, and declaring themselves under the jurisdiction of Pablo de Rojas Sánchez-Franco, a self-proclaimed bishop who was excommunicated in 2019 but whom they described as a “legitimate bishop of the Holy Catholic Church.”

One of the nuns subsequently left the convent, while five others were not included in the penalty of excommunication because of to their old age.

According to Spanish media outlet ABC, the women of the community met Monday with their attorneys, during which they were advised to ask Rojas and his companion, a self-styled priest named José Ceacero, to leave.

According to reports, Rojas and Ceacero had become an uncomfortable presence within the community. Ceacero served as the spokesperson for the community and took an aggressive tone, including making insulting statements towards Archbishop Iceta, while the nuns sought to present a friendlier face.

In a statement after the meeting on Monday, the community said that “No one has been kicked out from out community by force, as we only communicated our wish to Mr. Pablo de Rojas, from whose jurisdiction we separate from, and Mr. José Ceacero, to abandon the convent, acting both voluntarily and without any coercion from the undersigned or anyone else, so, as of today, we walk freely and alone in defense of the Catholic Faith.”

The nuns’ reference to Rojas as “Mr” is notable, since the sisters had previously insisted on the validity of his episcopal orders. 

Since the conflict with the local diocese broke out, Rojas has received considerable local press attention, as has his self-founded organization the Pious Union of Saint Paul the Apostle. Despite claiming to have its own seminary and a headquarters on the Gran Vía of Bilbao in the local city, ABC found it actually operates from a former veterinary clinic outside the city center, and has no known members apart from Rojas himself and Ceacero.

Rojas goes by the full name Pablo de Rojas Sánchez-Franco. However, local media have reported that his actual name is just Pablo Rojas Sánchez. Both the particle “de” and composed surnames are common among people from aristocratic families in Spain and appear to be an affectation by Rojas. He apparently also adopted the name “Franco” as a tribute to the Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco.

The sacramental status of the “bishop” is also contentious. He claims to have been ordained a priest in 2005, by a German former Jesuit, Derek Schell, who was himself ordained in the Palmarian Church, a sedevacantist community in Spain. Rojas was allegedly consecrated a bishop by Schell in 2006.

However, he also claims to have been ordained a priest and consecrated a bishop “sub conditione” by Ricardo Subirón in 2010, who had been consecrated by the Vietnamese excommunicated archbishop Pierre Martin Ngô Đình Thục. 

Rojas was excommunicated in 2019 after presenting himself as a bishop and looking to celebrate Masses in parishes in the city of Bilbao despite warnings from the diocese not to do so.

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Despite his disputed status and apparent problems within the convent, the decision to ask him to leave has itself proven controversial within the small community, since it leaves the nuns without pastoral provision of any kind.

After their formal declaration to leave communion with the Church in May, the Archdiocese of Burgos banned local clergy from entering the convent to administer the sacraments. The sisters previously said that they had given Rojas and Ceacero the task of celebrating Mass and providing confession and spiritual direction for the community, though the validity of those sacraments is open to question. 

This decision has split the community, according to some family members who spoke with ABC, with some asking why Laura García de Viedma, formerly Sister Isabel de la Trinidad, the abbess who led the community into schism, would kick Rojas out only a month after inviting him in, and leaving them excommunicated and without access to the sacraments.

While the absence of the excommunicated self-styled bishop is one less complication for the community’s situation, the expulsion of Rojas does not otherwise appear to signal the community backing down in their conflict with the local archbishop. Instead, both sides appear to be preparing for a lengthy legal battle.

In a press conference June 24, Archbishop Iceta said the Archdiocese of Burgos was prepared to take legal measures to evict the former nuns from the convent.

“The ten former nuns do not have a legal claim to stay in the convent and its dependencies. Therefore, they must leave them,” Iceta said. “They already know that they do not belong to the convent because they have voluntarily left the Church and the Poor Clares.”

The nuns allege that since they are not in communion with Rome anymore, canon law does not apply to them.

In the statement, they said that the Belorado convent belongs to them as it is “registered in the Property Registry in a private document of 1969 giving the 100% of its property to the Community of the Poor Clares of Belorado, without further conditions.”

They also denounced “threats of use of force to evict us, which would only proceed if there is a judicial resolution against us.” 

Although the community announced its intentions to break from the Church in May while claiming “from the Throne of Peter we have been receiving contradiction, confusion and doublespeak, ambiguity, lack of clear doctrine,” the announcement also mentioned a real estate dispute with Church authorities.

The former nuns complained that the Vatican had blocked the sale of an empty monastery in the nearby town of Derio, owned by the community, which is believed to have triggered the break with the Church.

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