Father Jeffrey N. Steenson, head of the newly established Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.

The new year ushered in a milestone chapter in Catholic history with the launching of the United States’ ordinariate for disaffected Anglicans seeking communion with the Catholic Church. 

Later this month, the first group of former Anglican priests will begin their studies to become ordained Catholic priests in the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, encompassing the territorial United States. 

“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,” said Father Jeffrey N. Steenson, who will head the new ordinariate. 

In a Jan. 2 press conference, Father Steenson, 59, a married father of three grown children, a grandfather and a former bishop in the Episcopal Church who entered the Catholic Church in 2007, reflected on the “steep learning curve” and adjustments awaiting him and other former Anglicans who will join the ordinariate. 

“It’s a big challenge to leave one eccesial world and to enter into another,” said Father Steenson, a patristics scholar who teaches at the University of St. Thomas and St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston, Texas. 

Father Steenson, who in 2009 was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, N.M., created the formation program for Anglican clergy seeking to become priests in the ordinariate. He will be installed as the ordinary Feb. 19. 

Second to be established

On Jan. 1, Pope Benedict XVI established the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, which will be headquartered in Houston. It is the second ordinariate created since November 2009, when the pope issued the apostolic constitution. Anglicanorum Coetibus, which authorized the establishment of ordinariates to allow former Anglican parishes to enter the Catholic fold while retaining some elements of their Anglican heritage and liturgical traditions. 

The first ordinariate, Our Lady of Walsingham, was created for England and Wales on Jan. 15, 2011. The English ordinariate is led by Msgr. Keith Newton, a married Catholic priest and former Anglican bishop. 

Ordinariates are also under consideration in Australia and Canada.

In the two years since Anglicanorum Coetibus, Church officials said several Anglican communities and individuals across the United States have expressed interest in joining an ordinariate. As of Jan. 1, 2012, more than 100 Anglican priests have applied to become Catholic priests for the ordinariate. To date, 47 have been accepted for the second stage of the formation process. 

Since September, two former Episcopal parishes — St. Peter of the Rock in Fort Worth, Texas, and St. Luke’s in Bladensburg, Md. — have been received into the Catholic Church with the intention of joining the ordinariate. 

“The creation of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter begins a new chapter in the life of the Catholic Church and I welcome its establishment with great joy,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston. 

“Father Steenson is a wise and prudent administrator who will bring a vibrant intellect and humility to his role in the ordinariate,” Cardinal DiNardo said. 

Growing interest

The ordinariate widens the path for entire Anglican communities to join the Catholic Church. In 1980, Pope John Paul II established a pastoral provision to provide Episcopal priests, including those who were married, to be ordained Catholic priests in the United States. The pastoral provision also allowed Anglican parishes to become Catholic parishes or chaplaincies. Since 1980, three parishes and a number of smaller groups have been established within existing dioceses. 

Anglican priests wishing to join the Catholic Church will be asked to discern whether they want to be ordained in the Catholic rite or to join the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. 

In the ordinariate, parishes will have a liturgy that, while fully Catholic, will be similar to that of a traditional Anglican liturgy in terms of music, structure and prayers. The parishes will use the Roman Missal and the Book of Divine Worship, a Vatican-approved liturgical book that is based upon historic Anglican liturgies. 

Former Anglican bishops, priests or deacons who are married can become priests for the ordinariate. Nonmarried clergy who are ordained to the Catholic priesthood will not be allowed to marry. 

Groups seeking to join the ordinariate will undergo a process of catechesis using the United States Catechism for Adults, which was approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ ad hoc Committee on the Implementation of Anglicanorum Coetibus. 

Next step in journey

Father R. Scott Hurd, a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington and himself a former Anglican clergyman, will serve as the ordinariate’s vicar general for three years. Father Hurd, a married father of three young children, has also served as the chaplain to the St. Luke’s Catholic Ordinariate Community in Maryland since its reception into the Catholic Church in October 2011. 

Father Hurd said the St. Luke’s community applauded the ordinariate’s establishment. 

“For them, it’s just the next joyful step in this journey,” he said. “They became Catholic in October anticipating the ordinariate. They see their hopes and dreams coming to fruition and they see the hand of the Holy Spirit in this.” 

Father Hurd said those like him who were raised in the Anglican tradition and now seeking communion with the Catholic Church should not be seen as malcontents. They are simply following the Lord’s call in their life, he said. 

“With time and prayer and experience I came to the point where I believe there were certain elements missing from the Anglican expression of Christianity that I could only find in the Catholic Church,” Father Hurd said. “When you get to that point, the tug of the Holy Spirit becomes very strong and in good conscience you can’t ignore that.” 

Building bridges

Father Steenson said he decided to become Catholic shortly after he witnessed the Episcopal Church’s handling of the issue of whether to bless same-sex unions. He said Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury had tried to introduce “stronger instruments of unity” to address the turmoil within the Anglican Communion, but the Episcopal Church responded that it operated like an autonomous democracy. 

“That was a real catalyst for me in freeing my travel to the Catholic Church,” said Father Steenson, who explained his opposition to the idea that the Church can solve difficult issues by putting them up to a vote. 

“It is not the way the Church has functioned over the course of her life,” Father Steenson said. 

During his graduate studies, Father Steenson, who spent 28 years in the Anglican clergy, said he had been told to have a reasonable expectation of reconciliation in his lifetime between the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church. But “many dramatic changes”—including women’s ordination and blessing same sex unions—pushed that goal of unity beyond the horizon. 

“I was only given one life to live, and I wanted to be a Catholic,” said Father Steenson, who hopes the ordinariate will become an effective instrument for evangelization in working toward the goal of Christian unity. 

“So this must be our hallmark; to build bridges, to be an instrument of peace and reconciliation, to be a sign of what Christian unity might look like,” Father Steenson said. 

Despite the controversies that prompted him to leave the Anglican Communion, Father Steenson said he only recalls the happy memories. 

“I look back now with joy and gratitude for my life as an Anglican,” he said. 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.