Msgr. Jeffrey Steenson, head of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, is pictured at Our Lady of Walsingham Shrine in Houston. (photo by Chris Curry)
The journey has consisted of gut-wrenching decisions, difficult conversations, tests of personal faith, and moral resolve. But for former Anglicans looking back on the first anniversary of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, it was all worth entering the true fold of Christ.
“Like Jesus’ parable of the man who sells all he has to buy a pearl of great price, that is what becoming Catholic has been,” said Msgr. Jeffrey Steenson, a former Episcopal bishop who was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to lead this historic homecoming.
A Catholic priest since 2009, Msgr. Steenson serves as ordinary, a title that carries the same administrative and pastoral authority as a bishop, although he cannot ordain priests. He is a member of St. Cyril of Alexandria Council 8024 in Houston, the seat of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, which was erected Jan. 1, 2012.
The ordinariate is comparable to a diocese, but geographically covers all of the United States and Canada. A year after its official inauguration, the ordinariate has ordained 28 priests and welcomed more than 1,600 members from 36 communities into the new ecclesial structure.
In early 2012, the Knights of Columbus made a key contribution to the critical task of forming the scores of former Anglican clergy who are seeking to be ordained to the Catholic priesthood. The Supreme Council donated $100,000 to purchase technology for a specially designed, long-distance formation program at St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston.
Where logistics and travel expenses could be prohibitive, this equipment has allowed multi-
participant video conferencing and makes it possible for many to pursue their vocations. So far, approximately 70 men across North America have sought candidacy nearly more than the ordinariate can handle, Msgr. Steenson said.
The principal task of the ordinariate in the months ahead, Msgr. Steenson added, will be to build up fledgling communities and to help new converts feel comfortable in the broader Church. In this work, too, the Knights of Columbus has already played a role.
‘A TREASURE TO BE SHARED’
The Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter is part of a bigger movement of Anglicans seeking full communion with Rome after becoming disillusioned by increasing disunity within the Anglican Communion.
In response to numerous petitions from groups around the world, Pope Benedict in 2009 issued Anglicanorum Coetibus, an apostolic constitution authorizing the creation of personal ordinariates to shepherd the conversion of entire communities to the Catholic faith. There are now ordinariates for North America, England and Wales, and Australia.
Anglicanorum Coetibus encouraged the preservation of the rich spiritual and liturgical traditions of the Church of England. It described this patrimony, which in Catholic liturgy is called Anglican Use, as “a precious gift” and “a treasure to be shared.” It also made an exception to the norm of clerical celibacy for Latin-rite priests, allowing some former Anglican clergy who are married to become Catholic priests.
Father Charles Hough IV, who was received into the Catholic Church and ordained a priest last year, was one of 10 Anglican priests from northern Texas who petitioned Pope Benedict for full communion. Father Hough said that most Anglicans making the move are already closely aligned with Catholic theology, but over time have realized that things such as deviations from the all-male priesthood and the erosion of the sacrament of marriage are symptoms pointing to a greater lack of authority within the Anglican and Episcopal churches.
Nearly 500 years has passed since King Henry VIII, who was seeking an annulment from Catherine of Aragon, broke from the Church in Rome over questions of national autonomy. Today, the implication of the loss of unity with the See of Peter has troubled the hearts of many people being led into the ordinariate.
Following years of theological study, Father Matt Venuti, now a Catholic priest in Mobile, Ala., said he had hoped his so-called “Roman Fever” would cure itself once he entered real-world ministry. The most difficult day of his life, though, was when he was ordained an Anglican priest and questioned the validity of his ordination.
“When you realize you need to become a Catholic on the day of your ordination in the Episcopal Church, it kind of throws your whole future into question,” said Father Venuti, who now leads a small Anglican Use mission community called the Society of Saint Gregory the Great.
NOT COUNTING THE COST
Father Hough, who is a member of Our Lady of Walsingham Council 13615 in Houston, said his decisive moment came when he was elevating the Eucharist during the Easter Vigil. He realized that because the Anglican Communion was not in communion with the Holy See, nor were its sacraments.
“Many of us came to the conclusion that there is only one way to gain back ‘the faith once for all delivered to us by the saints,’ as St. Jude said in his epistle, and that was to come back into communion with the See of Peter at whatever the cost.”
The price for many, though, would include the possibility of leaving priestly ministry forever, in addition to saying goodbye to the communities they loved, the faith of their fathers and, in some cases, the church buildings their ancestors had built.
For married men trained and formed for lives as Episcopal clergy, financial concerns loomed about how they would be able to provide for their families on the stipends provided for celibate Catholic priests. Msgr. Steenson noted that the Knights’ life insurance and financial services have been a wonderful resource in that regard.
Former Anglican communities have also had to wrestle with the loss of members, property issues and finding their financial footing. St. Luke’s Parish in Bladensburg, Md., the first Episcopal church to join the ordinariate, is one example. When the congregation decided to join the Catholic Church, it negotiated a three-year lease from the Episcopal diocese for the current church and rectory hopefully enough time to find a new place of worship or to raise funds to purchase the current facilities.
“We live from our collection plate or paycheck to paycheck,” said Father Mark Lewis, the parish’s pastor. “Truly we are putting ourselves in the hands of God and trusting as we move forward that he will take care of us.”
Despite the challenges, new Catholic converts radiate joy.
“To become Catholic has been the greatest gift that [my wife and I] could have received,” Father Lewis said. “It has deepened our spirituality. It has put before us, even more than before, the call to holiness in our lives…. It has quenched a thirst we didn’t know we had, but at the same time it has inspired us to want more.”
Father Hough, who was ordained alongside his father, also a former Episcopal priest, said, “We are overjoyed to be here and so blessed to be able to live in the fullness of faith with other Catholics.”
‘PROUD TO BE A KNIGHT’
Embracing the fullness of the faith has also included, in some sense, enthusiastic service through the Knights of Columbus.
In a March 2012 letter to Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson, Msgr. Steenson expressed his gratitude for the Order’s grant to purchase the equipment used for the priestly formation of dozens of candidates throughout North America.
“I do look forward to seeing councils of Knights chartered in Ordinariate communities,” Msgr. Steenson wrote. “My association with the Knights at St. Cyril of Alexandria, Houston, has been a very happy one, and it will be a privilege to commend the great work of the Knights of Columbus to our future clergy and laymen.”
Among the former Episcopal priests who have joined the ordinariate is Father Randy Sly, a member of Our Lady of Hope Council 12791 in Potomac Falls, Va. “When I found out how involved the Knights were in the ordinariate, it just made me even more proud to be a Knight,” he said.
In a “blessing beyond all description,” Father Sly was ordained a Catholic priest in June 2012, accompanied by an honor guard of Fourth Degree Knights. Father Sly now leads the St. John Fisher Anglican Ordinariate Community at Our Lady of Hope Church.
Meanwhile, Father Venuti said he was grateful to the Knights of St. Mary’s Parish in Mobile who adopted him as their seminarian and purchased books he needed for the distance-learning program in Houston. “I am in debt to them, and I know a lot of other guys are, too,” he said.
As for Father Hough, he first encountered the Knights after he converted and was living in the rectory with his wife and two children at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Keller, Texas.
“For a year I was able to experience that council, and it was beautiful,” said Father Hough. “What I saw those men doing for the Church was phenomenal. I realized I wanted to be a Knight of Columbus, too, and wanted to know how I could carry it with me through my ministry.”
When he was appointed rector of Our Lady of Walsingham, the ordinariate’s principal church, and realized it had a dormant Knights of Columbus council, he knew just what to do.
“When I came here, I figured it out. I thought, let’s resurrect this council. In October we did, and I became a Knight,” he said.
MONICA HATCHER is a journalist and Catholic Worker serving at Casa Juan Diego in Houston.