Former Anglican priests participate in historical orientation to become Catholic clergy

February 14, 2012

It was both a long-awaited milestone and the beginning of a new journey as 42 former Anglican priests from across the country began their training to become Catholic priests, Jan. 27 to 29. 

The recent formation weekend at St. Mary Seminary and Our Lady of Walsingham Church in Houston marked another considerable step in the men's discernment as they seek to be ordained in the Catholic Church. Including the wives of the Catholic clergy-in-training, 76 total participants came to the Bayou City to officially begin formation.

In November 2009, in response to numerous requests from Anglican groups, Pope Benedict XVI issued the apostolic constitution, "Anglicanorum coetibus," authorizing a process for parishes, groups and individuals of Anglican heritage to become fully Roman Catholic. On Jan. 1, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith announced the creation of a U.S. ordinariate – similar to a diocese, but national in scope – for those groups and clergy who wish to become Catholic. 

The U.S. Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter is based in Houston, with Our Lady of Walsingham Church serving as the principal church. St. Mary Seminary is housing the nine-month program of formation for Anglican clergy to become Catholic priests. 

"What we are celebrating here is a culmination of well over a year of work and preparation to bring these men to this stage where they are beginning their priestly formation," said Father R. Scott Hurd, Vicar General of the ordinariate and a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington. "A lot of new relationships are being made, [and] a lot of old friendships are being renewed."

Father Hurd, a former Anglican priest, said many of the participants attending the formation weekend were contemporaries of his in the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth 17 years ago. 

"This is such an exciting time because this is the fulfillment of so many people's hopes, and now it is actually happening," Father Hurd said. "We have an ordinariate, we have an ordinary, we have this program of priestly formation. We are so grateful for St. Mary's Seminary for their hospitality in making their resources available. This is the beginning, but it is a celebration as well. I give all gratitude to God, because the Holy Spirit has been so pervasive throughout."

Step by step
More than 100 former Anglican priests have applied to become Catholic priests for the U.S. Ordinariate. To date, 42 have been accepted in the multi-stage process to become Catholic priests. The application process for each candidate included a criminal background check, psychological evaluation and recommendations from the Catholic bishop where he lives and from his Anglican ecclesiastical authority, if possible.

The formation weekend for the seminarians featured many highlights, including a presentation by St. Mary Seminary faculty on "The Life and Work of the Catholic Priest"; Daniel Cardinal DiNardo's discussion on "Pope Benedict's Vision of the Anglican Ordinariate"; and a keynote address and conversation with Dr. Marcus Grodi of the "Journey Home" program on EWTN.

Monsignor Jeffrey Steenson, who was officially installed as head of the ordinariate on Feb. 12, said the weekend gathering felt much like a homecoming for him and others in attendance.

"Some of these guys were my old colleagues," he said in an interview on Jan. 27. "We were in the Episcopal ministry before. The historic nature of it is overwhelming to me because all of them have given up so much to be here and have to start all over again with their lives for the joy of being Catholic … as Pope Benedict XVI called it, a ‘holy desire' for them wanting to come into full communion (with the Church)."

Monsignor Steenson was an Episcopal bishop before becoming Catholic in 2007. He has taught patristics at St. Mary Seminary since 2009. On Jan. 1, he was named head of the new ordinariate, which will allow Anglicans (or Episcopalians as they are known in the United States) to join the Catholic Church but retain certain elements of the Anglican liturgy and traditions.

Seminarians currently enrolled at St. Mary's served as hosts during the opening day of the formation weekend last month.

"I think the seminarians at St. Mary understand how significant this is and they have been incredible," Monsignor Steenson said. "They are so energized about this – they know it is historical. None of this could've happened without the extraordinary efforts and help on the part of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston – everybody from Cardinal DiNardo on down have devoted so much in terms of time and resources to help this along. It is exactly what Pope Benedict hoped for – the close relationship with the local diocese and the new Ordinariate. We have been incredibly blessed."

Following this weekend, the clerics will receive formation throughout the spring, with curriculum including subjects like "The Petrine Ministry and Catholic Ecclesiology," "Catechesis and the Stewardship of the Catholic Tradition" and "The Catholic Approach to Scripture." Formation on "A Practicum on Priestly Ministry" consists of four sessions on marriage; Baptism/Initiation; Anointing of the Sick; and the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

The candidates will also receive instruction on the culture of the Catholic Church – from priestly manners to the ecclesial movements – and conclude with individual theological assessments. 

‘I am really home'
Several of the new seminarians lead Anglican-use Catholic communities throughout the country. The weekend's significance was acknowledged by many participants, who have waited patiently for the landmark occasion to arrive. One former Anglican cleric and current seminarian, Randy Sly of Potomac Falls, Virginia, reflected on the historical magnitude of the weekend during evening vespers.

"This is something we have all been waiting for since 2009, and now in 2012, we are not just hearing about it but living it," Sly said. "It was just astounding to look around the room and realize that all of us have been brought together by the Lord for this very special time."

Seminarian Charles Hough III of Granbury, Texas, echoes that sentiment. Hough leads St. John Vianney Fellowship in Cleburne.

"A lot of people [at the orientation], we go back a long way," he said. "I'd been an Episcopal priest for over 30 years and many of us started together, ended in the Episcopal Church together and are now starting again together, moving into the fullness of the Church. It is an incredible time for us. We have worked so hard and this is the culmination of a long journey, but it is the beginning of a new era for all of us to be in union with the See of Peter."

Sly and his wife, Sandy, have been Catholics since 2006. Sandy Sly recognized the "novelty" of meeting the other wives of seminarians but said their bond was certainly profound.

"It has been wonderful to meet other wives who are also on this journey, just to see that they are pouring their lives out for the Lord, like our husbands are," she said. "We want to be the best support for our husbands and for whatever we can do in ministry. We are just taking it one day at a time."

Mark Lewis, a former Anglican cleric, was "overwhelmed" and visibly moved as he looked around a room filled with others who have shared the long trek with him. Lewis is administrator of St. Luke's Catholic Ordinariate Community in Bladensburg, Maryland. The community was received into the Church in October of last year.

"Throughout this process, I have been in awe of the Holy Spirit, because it begins with the Holy Father making this offer available in 2009 and seeing it come into existence," Lewis said. "And here we are today."