Leadership and Organization
At its foundation in 1978, the Palmarian church, officially known as Santa Iglesia Católica Apostólica y Palmariana and Orden Religiosa de los Carmelitas de la Santa Faz en Compañía de Jesús y María, already had a developed, top-heavy organizational structure, headed by Pope Gregory XVII.
The Palmarian pope has absolute power in the church. He is the high priest, the Vicar of Christ and the Successor of St. Peter. He is infallible when proclaiming doctrine and has the supreme spiritual and temporal authority in the universe, including both the earth and other inhabited planets. Papal election is understood as an invisible eighth sacrament conferred by Christ himself. Still, it is evident that the first Palmarian pope and Manuel Alonso (Father Isidoro María) were close collaborators. Clemente/Gregory was the “voice-box” and charismatic leader, while Manuel/Isidoro María was the eminence grise through whom all messages passed. He never claimed charismatic authority.
From 1976 onwards, the Palmarians consecrated a large number of bishops. Palmarian priests existed, but they were clearly outnumbered by bishops. The normal situation was that a clerical member of the Carmelites of the Holy Face soon was elevated to the episcopacy. Overall, 192 men were consecrated Palmarian bishops between 1976 and the death of Gregory XVII in 2005. During these three decades, no less than 133 have either left the order or been expelled, twenty-seven died in office, and only thirty-two bishops remained as of 2005 (Personal communication with ex-members).
At the foundation of the church in 1978, most of the bishops were made cardinals, who were members of a curia, led by Secretary of State, Father Isidoro María. Number three in the hierarchy was the Vice-secretary of State Father Elias María, who would remain so until his death in 1997. A fourth influential cardinal was Father Leandro, Camilo Estévez Puga (1924-1999), who had been a Roman Catholic priest in Galicia before he became one of the five bishops consecrated by Archbishop Thuc. Father Leandro took part in most Palmarian episcopal consecrations.
In 1987, Pope Gregory announced that since 1978 he had elevated ninety-eight bishops to the cardinalate. Of the bishop-cardinals, some were vicars general in charge of liturgy, cult, vocations, missions, propagation of faith and the Inquisition, and some were elected archbishops, patriarchs or archpatriarchs (see documentation from the Spanish Ministry of Justice 1981-1982, in Catalá Rubio 2004:307-11).
Gregory XVII suppressed the cardinalate in 1995 and in the year 2000, he appointed Father Isidoro María as his successor. After Gregory’s death in 2005, he became pope, taking the name Peter II. During Peter II’s pontificate, Father Sergio María was the Secretary of State and was chosen as his successor. At Peter’s death in 2011, he succeeded him as pope, taking the name Gregory XVIII. He was the Palmarian pope until April 2016, when he left Palmar de Troya. (See recent developments)
In the early years, there were about a hundred nuns in the Carmelite Order of the Holy Face, who lived a life in strict enclosure. They were led by a mother superior, seen as the co-General of the Order. The available sources say little about their role. Some of them had joined the order after leaving Roman Catholic convents, but most had no previous experience of religious life. Just as in the case of the bishops, quite a number of the nuns left the order soon, while others remained for a long time (For a first-hand description of female religious life in the Palmarian church, see the autobiography of Maria Hall).
Control and Abuses
Already in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Spanish newspapers published a series of testimonies by former bishops of the Palmarian church. Being able to provide an inside perspective, ex-members told about a very strict life based on blind obedience to superiors. Of course, the pope and his closest men were on the top, followed by other cardinals. The highest leaders led quite a luxurious life, eating and living well. The ordinary bishops, priests and in particular, the non-ordained brothers lived in frugal circumstances. The days followed a strict and repetitive plan, and the members of the order were constantly controlled, deprived of sleep and were given too little to eat. Psychological and physical abuse was common.
Though clerics did not wake until 8.30 AM, their activities often continued until very late at night. After attending mass and having a light breakfast, the friars went in line from their convent to the headquarters at Calle Abad Gordillo 5, where there was a roll call, where public criticism against individual friar also had a part. Thereafter, classes of liturgy and Spanish began; most of the members were foreigners. Numerous masses were celebrated on the many altars. At 2:00 PM, the friars had a simple lunch, generally eaten in silence, if the pope did not give a special permission for them to talk. Having finished their meal, the friars went back to their convent for a new roll call to check that nobody had escaped.
In the late afternoon, all nuns and clerics, but generally not the pope, left for Palmar de Troya. There, there were new masses and pious practices, such as praying the penitential rosary and meditating over the Stations of the Cross. They generally returned to Seville at about one or two in the night, but often continued their prayers in the city until 4:00 AM or 4:30 AM. Thereafter, the friars got a few hours of sleep until the next day begun (For testimonies of the daily life in the Palmarian order, see ABC December 4, 1977; December 1978; Molina 2006:119-24, 147-58).
Although the Palmarian edifices in Seville looked quite elegant from the outside and were centrally located, the ordinary clerics and nuns lived in run-down rooms. Different kinds of illness, both of a physical and psychological nature were common, and since the members were not allowed to wash often, the smell inside was overpowering. On a frequent basis, the friars had to move from one building to another in the middle of the night, according to the contents of the pope’s visions. In 1981, however, these kinds of apparitions disappeared, and their living quarters became more stable (ABC, December 20, 1978; January 30, 31, 1979; February 1, 1979; September 13, 1981; Molina 2006: 210-17).
The Legal Status of the Church
Despite its general condemnation of the outside world, the Palmarian church wanted to become an officially recognized religious group. Following the promulgation of the 1980 Spanish law on religious freedom in 1981 and several times later, the Palmarians applied for inscription into the official Spanish register of religious associations. However, they were repeatedly denied inscription by the Ministry of Justice, among other reasons because the term “Catholic” was controlled by the Roman Catholic Church, and words such as “pope” and “cardinals” belonged to that church.
In later applications, they therefore introduced a new official name, Iglesia Cristiana Palmariana de los Carmelitas de la Santa Faz. Thus, in the official context, the church did not use the label “Catholic” but rather “Christian,” but in internal documents, Pope Gregory made it clear that this church was identical with the Holy Apostolic Catholic Palmarian Church. Still, they were not successful with the applications.
In 1985, the Palmarians appealed against the Ministry’s decisions to the Spanish Supreme Court. At first, the Court ruled against them, but on November 2, 1987, it eventually decided that the Palmarian church could indeed be included in the register, as they met all the formal requirements for a religious association. The Court referred to the Spanish law on religious freedom (1980) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). This decision meant that the church now had a separate legal personality (For the final decision, see Tribunal Supremo 1987, cf. El País, Decemer 7, 1985 and August 28, 2000. For a detailed legal analysis, see Seco Caro 1988; cf. Catalá Rubio 2004:224-25; 307-11; Pelayo Olmedo 2009. For the Palmarian teaching on the church’s name, see TM, chapter 35, volume 47).