INDIANAPOLIS — The mid-January mission that Franciscan Father Justin Belitz preached at St. Matthew Church in Indianapolis had a familiar feel for anyone who has followed the eccentric Franciscan priest’s ministry over the years.
Over four nights, Father Belitz discussed praying through meditation. The feedback was positive among most parishioners who attended the talks, including St. Matthew’s pastor, Father Nick Dant.
“Father Justin did a beautiful job of using meditation and contemplative prayer, a language not many are used to,” Father Dant said, adding that the parish mission ended with Eucharistic adoration and Benediction.
“The central core of his presentation was him trying to open us up and show us that we can be in a deeper relationship with God, to listen more closely to the voice of God and pay attention to the Spirit of God that is inside each and every one of us,” Father Dant told the Register.
But not everyone is as enamored of Father Belitz, 79, who was ordained in 1961. Shortly after arriving in Indianapolis in the early 1980s, Father Belitz founded an interfaith center called the The Hermitage, where classes and workshops in New Age practices such as Reiki — a Japanese alternative-healing practice that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said in 2009 presented “insoluble problems” for Catholics — and “healing touch” have been offered.
Some Catholics also dismiss the Silva method of meditation that Father Belitz espouses as essentially a self-hypnotic state and another New Age practice.
“He would tell parishioners to close their eyes, relax their muscles and imagine a blue light going through their whole body and even into their organs. I sat in my pew and thought it was very odd,” said Paul Annee, an 18-year-old Catholic high-school student in Indianapolis who attended the Jan. 18-22 mission at St. Matthew Church with Mary Anne Barothy, a family friend.
“For one, I didn’t feel it to be very spiritual, as most of the time Father Justin was giving the impression that you can be anything you want to be or get anything you want by taking deep breaths and meditating, which seemed to be all part of the Silva mind-control program he has taught over the years,” said Barothy, who described much of Father Belitz’s presentation as an “infomercial” for The Hermitage.
Said Barothy, “There is enough confusion in the Church today as it is. Why continue to confuse people?”
Annee also noted Father Belitz’s participation in a movie called Jesus and Her Gospel of Yes, a film IMDb describes as “a surreal retelling of the life of Christ” that portrays Jesus as a woman who is opposed by a transgendered Moses. The film’s director said Father Belitz gives an “erotic sermon” in the film.
“It’s just a horrible movie,” Annee said. “I don’t think he has been held accountable for that or anything he does.”
Annee, who had seen Father Belitz deliver a mission at another Indianapolis parish last year, emailed more than 200 St. Matthew’s parishioners to warn them about Father Belitz.
Australian Bishop Disallows Retreats
Over the years, supporters and critics of Father Belitz have written letters to officials in several dioceses where he has preached parish missions and led retreats.
Concerns about his teachings having “less obvious references to Christianity and Christian values” led the Archdiocese of Perth in Australia to notify Father Belitz in January 2014 that he was no longer allowed to lead retreats there.
“… [A]s I have indicated to you in previous correspondence, your visits have caused a certain amount of disquiet among some people,” Archbishop Timothy Costelloe of Perth explained in a letter addressed to Father Belitz. “Whilst I understand how easy it is for people to misunderstand what preachers and teachers are trying to communicate, it does seem to be the case that some people have been left with the impression that the material you present and the way in which you present it seems to have less obvious reference to Christianity and Christian values than many would expect of an officially sanctioned parish retreat.”
Added the archbishop, “I am concerned about this impression, which, it seems to me, is not confined to a very small group or to ultraconservative people. For that reason, I feel it might be wise for us to conclude that, after providing the archdiocese with retreats for a number of years, it might now be time to call this activity to a halt.”
Complaints about Father Belitz’s preaching also surfaced recently in Cincinnati.
“The complaints we received were along the lines that he was New Age-y,” said Dan Andriacco, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, where Father Belitz has also led parish missions. Andriacco said a handful of parishioners complained to the archdiocese after Father Belitz led a five-night mission in 2013. The archdiocese investigated those concerns but did not find reason to caution other parishes about inviting Father Belitz to lead missions.
“There were no complaints from other parishes where he had given missions in the past,” Andriacco said.
A Priest in Good Standing
Despite the criticisms, Father Belitz is a priest in good standing who has faculties to celebrate the sacraments. Greg Otolski, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, told the Register that the archdiocese, after receiving complaints about Father Belitz’s teachings, consulted with his superiors in the Franciscan Province of the Sacred Heart about six years ago.
“After that took place, there was no change in his status,” Otolski said. “I can only assume that everyone came to the conclusion that, whatever the complaints were, they at least didn’t put him outside the teachings of the Church.”
The Archdiocese of Indianapolis’ file on Father Belitz contains “fairly extensive positive endorsements” and correspondence offering negative criticisms on his ministry, according to a 2009 review of the file by Father Dismas Bonner, the former head of the Franciscan Province of the Sacred Heart, which is based in St. Louis.
“While this negative criticism occupies a good many pages of the files, especially in the Indianapolis file, it emanates from a fairly limited number of complainants,” wrote Father Bonner, who also stated that a few people seemed to have several “misunderstandings” about Father Belitz’s ministry regarding such issues as his use of the Silva method and his “ministry of healing.”
“One hopes that sincere dialogue and clarification can overcome the misunderstandings that are the bitter fruit of a judgmental approach to what is not well understood,” wrote Father Bonner, who died in 2011.
Father Belitz told the Register that the criticisms seem to come from Catholics “with a more traditional mindset” who feel threatened by the “more universal” direction the Church has taken since the Second Vatican Council. Father Belitz said he and his fellow friars were “brought up” with the Vatican II documents.
Said Father Belitz, “It seems to make no difference [to his critics] that I am, and have always been, in good standing in the order and in the Church.”
Father Pacwa’s Assessment
Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa, an EWTN television host and published author, mentioned Father Belitz in his 1992 book Catholics and the New Age. Father Pacwa told the Register that he first heard of Father Belitz when the Franciscan was in Cleveland and involved in Reiki.
Father Pacwa said he has studied the Silva method — also known as Silva mind control — in which Father Belitz is a certified instructor. The Silva method — named after a New Mexico electrical repairman who invented it in the 1940s — claims to increase someone’s abilities and sense of personal well-being through relaxation and development of higher brain functions.
Practitioners swear by the practice, but Father Pacwa described the Silva method as a form of self-hypnosis. He also said the method is consistent with New Age themes that an altered state of mind is preferable to being sober.
“If someone can get you to think that being in an altered state of conscience is normal and sobriety is abnormal, then they can get you to believe a lot,” said Father Pacwa, who explained that New Age philosophies began impacting the Church in the 1970s, at a time when people were more willing to accept those ideas rather than to trust traditional institutions and authority figures.
“The thing with someone like Justin Belitz: He and other folks who were Catholics at the time came to think that this is inevitable, that this was the wave of the future, and, therefore, for the Church to remain relevant, it needed to get on board,” said Father Pacwa, who noted the example of Matthew Fox, a Dominican priest of the Chicago province who was an early proponent of creation spirituality, a movement that blends the insights of Catholic mystics with other spiritual traditions and ecological and environmental ideologies.
“You started seeing retreat houses around the world giving New Age-oriented retreats,” Father Pacwa said.
Fox was expelled from the Dominicans in 1993, and he subsequently left the Catholic Church to become an Episcopal priest.
Questionable Reading Material
But that did not stop Father Belitz from recommending that people read Fox’s books, according to Annee, the Indianapolis teen.
Annee said the books and handouts that Father Belitz recommends at his parish missions include materials from retired Bishop Geoffrey Robinson — who was criticized by the Australian bishops' conference for questioning the Church’s authority to teach truth — and New Ways Ministry, a self-described “gay-positive” ministry that the U.S. bishops said in 2010 does not present an authentic view of Catholic teaching.
“He had available handouts for everyone, recommending books and tapes by people and groups most of whom have been either banned, silenced or denounced by either the USCCB or the Vatican,” Annee said. “When we asked him about them he said, ‘Fine Catholics they are.’ I was like, ‘Okay, he doesn’t get to do that. That’s not right.’”
Father Belitz told the Register that his materials have been examined by theologians from his province. He said his message is simple: love and compassion and that meditation can help one grow in those areas.
“No one who attended my sessions or who have read my books have objected to my teaching,” Father Belitz said, adding that his critics have not responded to any of his requests for dialogue.
After Annee’s email to St. Matthew parishioners, Father Dant, the pastor, accompanied by the pastoral associate and school principal, sent their own email, in which they said “rumors, innuendo and lies always have seeds that are rooted in some facts that are taken out of proportion and blown out of context.”
Still, the pastor told the Register that he took Annee’s concerns seriously.
Said Father Dant, “It deepened our investigation into the content we would be receiving for the parish mission, and at no time did I personally come across something that I thought wouldn’t be Christocentric and rooted in our Tradition.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.