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Wisconsin bishop charges Viganó with illicit ordination, defamation

A Wisconsin bishop charged former apostolic nuncio Archbishop Carlo Vigano with “public defamation” Friday, while criticizing an allegedly illicit priestly ordination conducted by the archbishop.

Bishop James Powers. Credit: Diocese of Superior.

In a sharply worded April 5 statement, Bishop James Powers of Superior became one of the first U.S. bishops to engage in direct criticism of Vigano, who has emerged in recent years as a sharp critic of Pope Francis, the Church’s liturgy, and Vatican Council II, which he has designated a “devil council.”

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Powers’ letter came partly in response to a March 22 posting from Vigano’s account, which criticized an apparently Native American ritual which preceded the Chrism Mass offered in Superior’ March 19.

The ritual, the subject of considerable criticism from Catholics online, featured four women holding feathers and conducting choreographed movements in the sanctuary of Superior’s Christ the King Cathedral, while a drum was periodically beaten to accompany chant, and a prayer was offered to God, addressed as the “Creator.”

A March 19 ritual before the Chrism Mass at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Superior, Wisconsin. Credit: Diocese of Superior/YouTube.

Vigano’s post called the ritual a “shamanic ceremony,” which “constitutes a sacrilegious act that desecrates the cathedral.” The post added that Powers was “responsible for a very serious sacrilege and for the scandal caused to those present.” 

“This is not a Successor of the Apostles, but a servant of Freemasonry,” Vigano’s posting wrote of the Wisconsin bishop, whom it called “a squalid official of the ecumenical religion, a dutiful executor of Santa Marta's wishes.”

But Powers’ April 5 statement pushed back. 

The bishop argued that “it has long been a tradition in the Diocese of Superior to honor the heritage of our Native Americans before major diocesan celebrations.”

“In fact, this tradition was carried out at my own installation as Bishop of Superior,” Powers added. “Archbishop Vigano was present for that ceremony and has never in the last eight years expressed any concerns about that ceremony in which he participated as apostolic nuncio.”

Powers said that Vigano’s post “brings harm to the faithful entrusted to my care.”

The bishop wrote that he would “charge Archbishop Vigano with a violation of my right to a good name and reputation,” and explained that if Vigano was responsible for the posting, “I would expect a public apology from you to me and my people.” 


But while Powers’ statement began with criticism over Vigano’s comments, the bishop also leveled a much more serious charge against Vigano. Powers wrote that Vigano had allegedly ordained a priest illicitly, and subsequently sent him to operate an unsanctioned hermitage in the Superior diocese.

The bishop has raised concerns about the “Hermitage of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph” previously.

In a February letter to Catholics of his diocese, he wrote that the facility, operated by Bryan Walman, who was apparently ordained by Vigano and refers to himself as Fr. Ambrose - had not been established appropriately by the diocese, and that attendees of the hermitage “are not receiving valid sacraments in communion with the Most Holy Roman Catholic Church.”

Powers wrote that he had questioned Walman’s canonical status, including the facts around his apparent priestly ordination, but had been rebuffed. He added that a woman named Rebekah Siegler, who presented herself as a religious sister, did not appear to be a member of a religious institute.

The bishop said that while he would reevaluate the situation if the pair produced appropriate documents, “I need to caution [Catholics] about attending services there and financially supporting them in any way. 

The Hermitage of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph has not yet responded to a request for comment from The Pillar. 

In his April 5 statement, Powers said that Vigano had allegedly ordained Walman a priest and sent him and Siegler to “operate without episcopal approval” in the Superior diocese.

“If Archbishop Vigano is involved in any way with these activities, I demand that he cause their cessation immediately,” Powers wrote. 

While a bishop has the power to validly confer sacred ordination, the Church prohibits bishops from doing so unless they are ordaining clerics to be incardinated in their own dioceses, or possess the proper documentation to confirm that an ordained person will be incardinated in a diocese, religious institute, or some other ecclesiastical structure.

Because the Church prohibits “acephalous” clergy, who are ordained without incardination in a particular structure, a bishop who ordains without proper documentation can be subject to canonical sanctions. 

It is not clear whether Vigano will face canonical charges on that front. But in recent years, the Holy See has not demonstrated publicly any intention of addressing concerns about Vigano, who has charged the Second Vatican Council with heresy, and been a sharp critic of post-conciliar liturgical rites. 

Archbishop Carlo Viganó. Pillar file photo.

The archbishop, who was apostolic nuncio to the U.S. from 2011 to 2016, made headlines in August 2018 for a sweeping open letter that accused Church officials of complicity and cover-up in the scandal surrounding sexual abuser Theodore McCarrick. 

While that letter was controversial, Vigano soon generated more controversy, as he began to issue statements on the coronavirus pandemic, the Marian apparition at Fatima, and the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, at which, he claimed, "hostile forces" caused "the abdication of the Catholic Church" through a "sensational deception."  

He has since weighed in on global political affairs and ecclesiastical matters, and has been an outspoken critic of Pope Francis.

In December 2023, Vigano announced plans to found a seminary, the Collegium Traditionis, which would be a place of welcome for clerics “who have been deprived of their parish or removed from their community because they are not compatible with the doctrinal, moral and spiritual approach of the Bergoglian Church.”

Vigano said that seminarians at the institution would not be required to accept the “heresies of the Second Vatican Council or the deviations of Bergoglio.”

The archbishop did not indicate where he expected seminarians of his institution to be incardinated, or if he intended instead to establish a canonically irregular association of some kind.

Vigano could not be reached for comment. 

“Smoking ceremonies” or “smudging ceremonies” take place frequently in the Church in places with a significant Indigenous population. Recent popes have taken part in such ceremonies held before or during liturgies.

In the United States, Catholic bishops have also participated in similar Indigenous ceremonies, including smudging ceremonies, as part of incultrating the liturgy — including for the Tekakwitha Conference.

Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap, emeritus Archbishop of Philadelphia, is a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation in Kansas. Speaking to The Pillar last year about such ceremonies, Chaput said that while he could not comment on any particular ceremony, he could speak from his own experience with inculturation of the Church’s liturgy.

“Incensations do not require specific instruments, so a bowl and feather seems just as acceptable as a silver or brass thurible. And incense can be made of anything that is pleasantly combustible!” the archbishop said.

“Also the laity can use incense in extra-liturgical prayer services, so there is no problem with laity doing smudging outside of Mass, or before Mass, as long as the prayers and intentions are correct,” Chaput said.

Chaput acknowledged criticisms of the practice, and said that the intentions of those involved is an important criteria for ecclesiastical leaders assessing the suitability of such ceremonies.

“The real issues are the prayers used and the intention behind the act which specify its meaning,” he explained. “Unfortunately many people use prayers that do not fit within Catholic theology and that is always a problem.”

But, he said, “if they are Christian prayers and the intention is the same as the Church’s use of incense implies, then I do not see a problem.”

Powers, 71, was installed in February 2016 as bishop of the Superior diocese, which is home to roughly 80,000 Catholics in northern Wisconsin.

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