Media Discovers Episcopus Vagans at Vatican, Film at 11


Imagine trying to explain to your average reporter—even a religion reporter—what an episcopus vagans is. Those of us who work in “the religion biz” are frequently reminded that the press just doesn’t get religion, and in the case of the “prankster” “fake bishop” who recently made an amusing appearance at the Vatican, the press did not fail to live up to its reputation.

From The Telegraph (“Fake bishop tries to sneak into Vatican meeting”):

Ralph Napierski, a self-appointed bishop from an apparently fictional order called Corpus Dei, managed to get through a checkpoint manned by Swiss Guards but was stopped before entering the Paul VI Hall, where the cardinals were gathering.

Dressed in fake bishop’s vestments, complete with a purple sash, Mr Napierski smiled to photographers as he mixed with more than 140 cardinals from around the world as they filed into the hall to discuss the challenges facing the Church and possible “papabili” or papal candidates.

On closer inspection the sash turned out to be a scarf.


He is a keen proponent of something called “Jesus Yoga” and claims to have invented “a system to enable persons to control computers with the power of thoughts”.

Or consider this bit from ABC News (“Prankster Nearly Sneaks Into Meeting of Cardinals”):

The Swiss Guard promptly ejected the man, later identified as Ralph Napiersi (sic), who told reporters his name was “Basilius.” Napierski said he belonged to an Italian Orthodox Church, which does not exist.

A website that appears to be associated with him describes him as a bishop of Corpus Dei, a fictional Catholic group. The site not only has a fanciful coat of arms for the fake bishop – the motto “Horse of Christ” – it traces his phony credentials all the way back to an 18th Century Patriarch of Babylon.

Napierski is a proponent of “Jesus Yoga” and claims to be a keeper of relics, items of religious veneration because they were touched by or belonged to a saint.

“We want to equip churches (especialy [sic] those with low income) with high class relics,” it says on his website. There are lots of spelling mistakes on the site.

What’s missing here is any sense that these descriptions of the “fake bishop,” a “prankster” who belongs to a “fictional Catholic group” and has “phony credentials” is that they are essentially how the Roman Catholic Church would view the man (if it took any notice of him), but such descriptions are not qualified in any way in these articles. It’s just assumed that this view is the only one. And is he really “self-appointed”? He certainly claims to have been ordained by other people.

Of course, there’s actually a chance that the Vatican might regard his episcopal ordination as “valid” (though unlawful), if it can be shown that his episcopal succession is “valid” in all its propers. Roman Catholic theology of ordination regards it as an “indelible mark” that continues even in heresy, apostasy and schism, so there may be “valid” bishops outside the actual communion of the Roman Catholic Church. (This is how Rome can regard Orthodoxy as “valid” even though it doesn’t submit itself to the pope.) Orthodoxy, by contrast, regards ordination as existing only within the ecclesial community.

Those who have done some study of episcopi vagantes would recognize all the marks here of such a man’s presence online—the prominent display of the claim to apostolic succession, the badly-fitting and not-quite-right clerical garb, the confusing and misspelled website, the attempts to associate one’s ecclesiastical associates with mainstream authorities (e.g., pictures with the pope), pictures of official-looking documents, and so on.

None of that means that these people are “fake,” however, nor that they are pulling some kind of “prank” or promoting a “fictional” religious group that “does not exist.” It would certainly be true to say that they are on their own and not recognized by any ecclesiastical authority other than themselves. It is probably also true their flocks (if any) are quite small and insignificant compared to the Roman Catholic Church. It may well also be true that they are hucksters out to make a buck (or a Euro, I suppose, in this case), but that of course is true of people in many religious groups that the media might not consider “fake.” It may well also be the case that there are more bishops than laity in this man’s church. (Once you take away all that pesky ecclesiastical bureaucracy, why not make anyone a bishop?)

Contrast all this with the media’s treatment of Westboro Baptist Church. Anyone ever see a reporter saying that WBC are “fake” Baptists? I daresay some Baptists might see them that way.

I wrote my M.Div. thesis on Archbishop Aftimios Ofiesh, who, while not an episcopus vagans himself, nonetheless is sort of a “grandfather” to many who were (several such lines of succession coming from at least one and possibly two men whom he consecrated as bishop while in communion with canonical Orthodoxy). The world of these men is rather fascinating. I even discovered that one such man (whose succession was from another line than Aftimios) had his “cathedral” (maximum capacity: about 40) right here in Emmaus, Pennsylvania—indeed, in the very building where my own parish had its beginnings in the 1980s.

Episcopi vagantes are actually somewhat more common and even prominent than many might think. Disgraced Evangelical comedian Mike “The Satan Seller” Warnke was ordained a bishop by one of these folks, as was one of my favorite sword-and-sorcery fantasy novelists, Katherine Kurtz, author of the “Deryni” and other novel series.

So, once again, the press doesn’t quite get religion. They certainly realized that Ralph Napierski didn’t belong there in the Vatican with the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church. And he’s certainly a rather unusual sort of cleric. But wouldn’t it have been far more interesting to learn a little something about the wild, wacky and fascinating world of espicopi vagantes?


  1. I’m a Baptist, and I can assure you the Westboro people are considered fake! They are not recognized by any Baptist group that I know of. We regret that “Baptist” is not a registered trademark so that we can’t stop them from using it.

  2. “Orthodoxy, by contrast, regards ordination as existing only within the ecclesial community.”

    This being the case, is it not then true that Roman Catholic ordinations are invalid from an Orthodox perspective since they are at best in schism and at worst in heresy…? At the very least, I assume it’s the case that there can be no “roaming bishops” in Orthodoxy, so the “roaming” Catholic bishops (of which there are many) would necessarily be invalid since they have no particular See…?

    (I’m an inquirer into Orthodoxy from Roman Catholicism, so I’m curious)

    1. Orthodoxy does not really have a category of sacramental “validity” the way RC theology does. The best we can really say is that we do not really know whether such sacraments are true or not, because they are outside the Orthodox community. The only time the question really comes up in a way that is actionable is when someone wishes to be received into Orthodoxy, and then it is dealt with on a case-by-case basis according to whatever the standing tradition of that Orthodox church is (i.e., of the bishops in that synod).

      1. Thank you for answering, Father. I’m finding it difficult to divest myself of the legalistic framework of Roman Catholicism and its sacramental theology. But, I’m working on it with my priest.

        You’re podcasts and writings have been very helpful in my journey, by the way. Thank you for your efforts!

  3. I know Katherine Kurtz. I served at mass for Katherine Kurtz. Katherine Kurtz is my friend. And you, sir, are no Katherine Kurtz.
    (And to be precise, she is a mitered abbess.)

  4. I think it’s interesting these people are obsessed with having or saying they have Apostolic Succession. I do know some schismatic Vatican Catholics and Anglicans who are not sure where to go in regards to their churches becoming Apostate. I read that Satanists pursue these sacraments as a way to mock Christianity.

  5. This is an interesting and confusing subject. I’m Roman Catholic and have a hard enough time with that let alone all the other groups. So then what are your thoughts about the outfit that is called the Universal Life Church? The organization was started by an Ordained Baptist Minister. Does this actually mean that all his ordiantions are actually real? I read that this group is accepted legally and part of the Baptist Doctrine is “Priesthood for all believers”. So, I’m still confused.

  6. Dear Father:

    Christ is Risen!

    Whatever the bona fides of Bishop Ralph, or lack of same, I believe you have mistranslated his motto. A closer look will reveal the easily made error.

    It is not “Horse of Christ” (equs Christi). It is actually “Knight of Christ,” (eques Christi).

    Other than that, I enjoyed your article.

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