On Wednesday, Solsona (Lleida) celebrated its biggest festival. At 11 in the morning, the cathedral was filling up with the faithful to attend the mass that, on paper, Xavier Novell, the titular bishop of the diocese, was to officiate. But it was the bishop of Vic, Romà Casanova, who from the altar read some verses of the Gospel, recounting the appearance of a winged angel before Joseph to tell him not to be afraid of marrying Mary, despite discovering her suddenly pregnant by the Holy Spirit.
Xavier Novell, 52, has also not hesitated to go live with a 14-year-old woman, separated and mother of two children. The union of the bishop with Silvia Caballol, psychologist and writer, has generated a whirlwind of gossip about the reasons that have cemented the sounded idyll. She, a native of Súria, a town near Solsona, belongs to a family with a Catholic tradition. Novell’s visits to the family home had been recurring for a long time, and in this environment the contact between the couple was forged.
Both share concerns for the afterlife, evil and divinity. The novels written by her, of erotic tinge, include references to the devil and Satanism, a mixture that has fed the shocking theory spread by a minority of the religious establishment: Novell is possessed and is not master of his faculties.
The bizarre case has reached international media such as the BBC and has become the meat of memes on social networks. David Simon, creator of the series The Wire, this week retweeted an article by The New York Post entitled “Bishop leaves the church after falling in love with a writer of satanic erotica” with the message: “Everything that is worth doing is worth doing well.”
In the Vatican, where the Pope was informed by Novell himself of his resignation, the case is being followed closely and a report is being prepared on the matter, as it is particularly concerned about the media dimension it is acquiring.
Meanwhile, in Solsona, in the circles closest to the bishop, now bishop emeritus, his recent decisions are interpreted as yet another step on a tortuous path that has been plagued with decomposition.
Novell flaunted a course that caused discomfort within the Catholic Church and that scared off even the most devout people. “I would not let my son go to catechism, because I was afraid that they would eat his head,” confesses Maria Àngels Solé, a Solsona parishioner. She had attended what Novell advertised as the “Alpha Dinners,” meetings in the episcopal palace designed to recruit the faithful and to re-educate the faith of those more lax believers. The dinners, based on escudella, grilled meats and, always, some sweet for dessert, were paid for with the voluntary contributions of the attendees. “They talked about the devil, Jesus Christ and other matters, such as sex,” says Jaume Clavé, a layman who was employed for 20 years as a receptionist for the diocesan curia.
Alpha dinners were scheduled every Friday for groups of about 40 people who attended weekly for two months (then the diners changed). “A lot of people got tired and left it halfway,” says Clavé, who spent five years under Novell’s orders.
“That was scary, it seemed like a sect,” recalls Maria Àngels Solé, one of the people who stopped attending. At dinners, the bishop had the collaboration of Chaplain Lluís Tollar, who was the parish priest of Solsona for nine years. Define those appointments as “evangelistic projects.” Tollar was the subject of controversy in Solsona when he was accused of leaving the premises of the Boy Scouts without electricity for a year and a half, dissatisfied because they rejected “the proposals” that were sent to them from the parish.
The bishopric of Solsona was an extension of Xavier Novell’s character. Anointed just over a decade ago, at age 41, as the youngest bishop in Spain, he forged a curriculum as charismatic as it was controversial. In favor of the referendum for the right to self-determination in Catalonia, he did not hesitate to embrace the more conservative wing of Catholicism with recurring criticisms of homosexuality and divorce. Just half a year ago, he described the practice of abortion as “genocide.”
Healing at 100 euros
The extravagance of some of the rituals he performed also created discomfort in the curia. Like when he invited the Canadian priest Ghislain Roy to do an exorcism and, later, he organized some sessions of “healing and liberation” in which he charged between 70 and 100 euros to cleanse the souls of the attendees.
Some witnesses to this claim to remember people rolling on the ground and convulsing during the supposedly exorcist practices of Novell and his assistants.
“They were charismatic healing masses,” explains Jaume Clavé, while indicating that “they were stopped because not all the priests of the curia approved them.” Lluís Tollar remembers the celebration of these rites, but denies that technically it is possible to speak of exorcist masses. “Exorcisms proceed when someone is possessed by the devil, but they are done in private,” he says.
Also suspicious was Novell’s eagerness to employ women in the episcopal palace. He had up to six collaborators who helped him with the accounting, with the management of the bishopric and, even, in the organization of the Alpha dinners. He paid them a salary of about 700 euros a month. “They were part-time jobs, and he said he preferred to employ women, because for a woman the ideal is to work in the morning and be able to take care of her house in the afternoon,” reveals a former collaborator of the bishopric.
A retired priest who attended the mass of the Solsona festival on Wednesday acknowledged, after the service, that Novell’s religious abandonment is “a failure”, but warned that no one is safe from falling into temptation. In the same church, the veteran priest Joan Clos, who for 30 years served as judicial vicar of the Solsona diocesan curia, affirmed that Novell had handled the entire process of his resignation with the utmost discretion. “He didn’t say anything to anyone.” And he launched a forecast: “When this woman gets tired and leaves him, then he will feel completely alone.”
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.