Mother of God

"Everybody thought the priests were talking to one another, and in actual fact, we weren't."



The Role of the Catholic Church

Edith Difato with two Catholic priests
Edith Difato with two Catholic priests,
Michael Duggan, left, and Theophane Rush

here was the Catholic Church during all of this?

In one sense, it was part of the fabric of Mother of God. As many as half a dozen Catholic priests and a handful of nuns lived there at a time. The priests offered daily Mass, heard confessions, taught classes and took part in group discussions. In addition, Catholic bishops and cardinals made occasional, ceremonial visits to the community. As Mother of God grew, Bishop William E. Lori, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Washington, remembers thinking, "These people really take their faith seriously. If everyone took their faith that seriously, what would the church be like? It would be on fire."

Members recall that the Difatos were careful to court important bishops and cardinals. Mother of God sent representatives to church events such as the installation of James Hickey as archbishop of Washington in 1980. Hickey and his aides were invited to Mother of God occasionally for meals. At one point, Joseph Difato gave Hickey a presentation about the community's business plans. When Mother of God dedicated a new building on February 18, 1990, Hickey was the first person to sign the guest book. He walked through the rooms, blessing each with holy water.


espite the appearance that all of this created, the truth of the matter was that the Mother of God community for most of its history had no formal relationship with the Catholic Church — the community had not been recognized as a "private association of the faithful," the church's stamp of approval for lay groups. Mother of God's structures and operations had never been reviewed in depth by the church. Indeed, some members of Mother of God were not even Catholic — a large majority were, but there were a handful of Protestants, too, and the Difatos emphasized the ecumenical nature of their community.

Cardinal James Hickey
Cardinal James Hickey, center
A few of the priests who came to live in the Mother of God community belonged to religious orders. The majority were diocesan priests from parishes as far away as England and Australia. They had been swept up by the charismatic renewal movement within the Catholic Church, had learned of the existence of Mother of God, and had lobbied — sometimes over the objections of their immediate church superiors — to be allowed to move to Gaithersburg. When they arrived, they required approval from the Archdiocese of Washington to offer Mass or hear confession, but that was a routine matter; it did not involve any archdiocese review of Mother of God.


he priests went through the same initiation and training as other Mother of God members, and were fitted into the same hierarchy. They had their own heads and in turn served as heads over other people. Like other members, they were introduced to the full scope of the community's methods only gradually.

On the outside, at least, the Mother of God community was a happy, vibrant group about which there was little cause for worry.

As they learned about the Difatos' practices, some of the priests say they developed doubts. But the fierce demand for loyalty isolated them just as it did other members. Since members could not share negative feelings about the group for fear of ostracism, it was easy for a doubter to imagine he or she was the only person having problems. "Everybody thought the priests were talking to one another, and in actual fact, we weren't," says the Rev. Thomas Weinandy, a Capuchin priest who lived at Mother of God for 19 years before leaving to teach at Oxford University. "Because there was never a free exchange of information, we, as priests, never knew what each other was thinking."


hile some priests remained intensely loyal throughout, others complained to the Difatos about particular practices at Mother of God. Weinandy says he wrote such memos and that other priests did, too. But he says these questions or dissents were ignored or dismissed. So far as is known, no priest working at the Mother of God community ever took his concerns to the archdiocese.

"I certainly don't think anybody here perceived any kind of a major difficulty," says Bishop Lori. "I think the general feeling was that it was something new, but firmly enough grounded in the sacramental life and teaching of the church that it was on a good track." On the outside, at least, the Mother of God community was a happy, vibrant group about which there was little cause for worry.

"We gave the Difatos legitimacy, and we gave everything that was going on at the community legitimacy," Weinandy says. "That's the greatest evil the priests performed in the community."

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