Pope formally creates group to attract dissident Episcopalians

January 3, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] The Vatican on Jan. 1 officially formed an “ordinariate” in the United States to welcome former Episcopal parishes and priests – including married priests – seeking to enter the Roman Catholic Church, according to a press release from the Houston-based Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter under the patronage of Our Lady of Walsingham.

Jeffrey Steenson, the former Episcopal Church bishop of the Diocese of the Rio Grande, was named as the first “ordinary” and will have the title of monsignor, according to the organization’s website.

“For perhaps the first time since the Reformation in the 16th century, a corporate structure has been given to assist those who in conscience seek to return to the fold of St. Peter and his successors,” Steenson wrote in a Jan. 2 statement. He added that such a response has its roots in the end of the 6th century when Pope Gregory the Great insisted that St. Augustine, the first archbishop of Canterbury, be a patient pastor with the people around him thus showing “how the Church gathers her people from many different cultures and lands.”

An ordinariate is a geographic region similar to a diocese, though typically is national in scope. Ordinariate parishes will be fully Catholic, while retaining aspects of Episcopal heritage and liturgical tradition, according to Vatican documents.

As of yet, the ordinariate’s website notes, only the entity itself exists. While “many communities of various types are expressing interest in the ordinariate,” according to the website, none have been accepted. Those types of communities envisioned to be part of the organization, the website says, are “parishes, groups, and religious communities.”

As of Jan. 1, the website says, “1,400 individuals, part of 22 communities, have expressed their interest” in joining the ordinariate. The website also reports that “the rectors and members of two former Episcopal communities seeking to join the Ordinariate were received into the Catholic Church.” St. Peter of the Rock, in Fort Worth, Texas, was received Sept. 25, 2011, and St. Luke’s, in Bladensburg, Maryland, was received Oct. 9, 2011. Others are currently preparing to be received, the ordinariate’s site says.

In addition, as of Jan. 1, the website says “over 100 Anglican priests have applied to become Catholic priests for the ordinariate,” 47 of those have advanced to the second stage of that process and “most of them” will this month begin a formation course intended to lead to Roman Catholic ordination.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Catholic Archbishop of Washington, is the United States delegate of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which will handle requests for membership in the U.S. ordinariate.

Steenson’s leadership of the ordinariate points to concessions made by the Vatican to the nature of priesthood in the Episcopal and wider Anglican traditions. The married father of three became a Roman Catholic priest in 2009 under a Vatican exemption dating to 1980 that allowed married priests.

Because he is married, Steenson cannot be ordained as a Roman Catholic bishop and he thus cannot ordain men to the priesthood, according to the ordinariate’s question-and-answer section. He can, however, wear a pectoral cross and miter, and carry a crozier. He will be installed as the ordinary on Feb. 19, according to the website.

Steenson left the Episcopal Church in late 2007, having told a House of Bishops meeting in September of that year that remaining an Episcopalian “may lead me to a place apart from Scripture and Tradition.” He told the bishops that his departure was not “a repudiation of the Episcopal Church or Anglicanism,” but was instead “the sincere desire of a simple soul to bear witness to the fullness of the Catholic Faith, in communion with what St. Irenaeus called ‘that greatest and most noble ancient Church.’”

He is now a member of the faculty of St. Thomas University in Houston, Texas, and has created the formation program for former Anglican clergy seeking to become priests for the ordinariate. The Rev. R. Scott Hurd, a priest of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, will assist Steenson for three years with the title of vicar general. Hurd, also a former Episcopal priest, is married with three children.

Married Episcopal and Anglican priests who become Roman Catholic priests may remained married but cannot marry again if their wives die. Those who enter the Roman Catholic process as unmarried priests cannot marry later on.

The so-called “pastoral provision” established by Pope John Paul II in 1980 also allowed Anglican parishes to become Catholic parishes or chaplaincies within existing dioceses. Since 1980, three parishes and a number of smaller groups, commonly referred to as “Anglican Use” communities, have been established, according to the website. Those parishes will not immediately become part of the ordinariate and are not required to. They will have to apply for admission. One such Anglican Use parish is Our Lady of Walsingham Catholic Church and Shrine in Houston. More information about Anglican Use groups is here.

The Jan. 1 announcement was not a complete surprise, despite some news coverage that might have made it seem to the contrary. In October 2009, Pope Benedict XVI authorized the formation of “ordinariates” for former Anglican parishes and priests. The first ordinariate was established for England and Wales Jan. 15, 2011.

Anglicanorum coetibus, the papal document authorizing the establishment of ordinariates, is here.

The notoriety of Our Lady of Walsingham, whose protection both ordinariates claim, began in 1061 when an English noblewoman of Walsingham, England, reported that the Virgin Mary appeared to her in a vision. A shrine was built to commemorate the vision and it became one of the most important pilgrimage sites of the Middle Ages. The shrine and monastery was destroyed during the English Reformation but both Anglican and Roman Catholic devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham revived in the 20th century.

ENS coverage of the 2009 original announcement is here and a follow-up story with further details and reaction is here.

Among other news outlets reporting on the creation of the U.S. ordinariate are

Associated Press,

Reuters,

Los Angeles Times,

National Public Radio,

Houston Chronicle,

Fort Worth Star-Telegram,

National Catholic Reporter,

Commonweal,

Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald.

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