Wuerl discusses plans for Anglicans seeking to enter Catholic Church en massse

Written by Ann Rodgers on .

Wednesday’s session of the meeting of the U.S. conference of Catholic Bishops was a feast for ecclesiology wonks of both the Catholic and Episcopal/Anglican persuasion. Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington DC, better known to my readers is the former bishop of Pittsburgh, reported on the progress of starting an ordinariate – a sort of non-geographical, nationwide diocese – for Anglican parishes that wish to convert en masse to Catholicism.

The project stems from a constitution that Pope Benedict approved in 2009, following years of lobbying by some theologically conservative Anglicans worldwide, particularly in Australia. One was founded in England and Wales in January and Cardinal Wuerl said that he wouldn’t be surprised to see one in the U.S. by the end of 2011. But in the meantime there are complex issues to address, ranging from retraining for priests to assisting Anglicans who are divorced and remarried through the annulment process in the Catholic Church. He also addressed a mistaken public perception that married


priests will remain the norm in these Anglican-heritage parishes.

Cardinal Wuerl is chairman of the committee charged with overseeing the implementation of the constitution, Anglicanorum Coetibus, in the United States. So far he said about 100 Episcopal or Anglican priests have submitted dossiers indicating their interest in possibly becoming Catholic priests. Although some of their current parishioners may choose not to be received into the Catholic Church, he estimates that about 2,000 laity are interested. Two Episcopal parishes in Maryland have already voted to do this, he said.

Some other interested parishes are from the new 100,000-member Anglican Church in North America, comprised primarily of parishes that broke from the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada in recent years. Still others are from parishes of Anglican heritage that belong to smaller splinter groups or to no larger body at all.

Cardinal Wuerl is a good friend of Archbishop Robert Duncan of the Anglican Church in North America, who is on record that he doesn’t expect many parishes in his new church to be interested in converting to Catholicism.  Many of them identify with the evangelical or charismatic traditions rather than Catholicism. And the ACNA bishop for Anglo-Catholics in that body has said that he’s not interested because of differences with the Catholic Church over papal authority and other doctrinal issues.

Nevertheless, Cardinal Wuerl said that he has had some inquiries from the Pittsburgh area. He was not at liberty to elaborate, he said.

The ordinariate differs from two other provisions that already allow married Episcopal priests to become Catholic priests. In the “pastoral provision” of 1980, Pope John Paul II permitted this for individual priests, who became regular diocesan priests and rarely brought their former congregations with them. In a few cases where the congregation followed, an “Anglican use parish” was established using a liturgy that incorporated language of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. The ordinariate differs because it is intended for whole parishes, not just individual priests, and sets up a hierarchical structure to oversee them as a group.

The ordinariate parishes will use the Book of Divine Worship already approved for Anglican-use parishes, he said. They can also continue other music, prayers and spiritual practices rooted in Anglican history.

Because married priests will be received into the ordinariate, the initial public reaction included speculation that this was an opening of the western Catholic Church toward a married priesthood (which has existed for centuries in Eastern Europe and the Middle East). But Cardinal Wuerl said that this was a temporary provision for the first group of Anglican priests to come in. If  a layman attending an ordinariate parish wishes to be ordained for its priesthood, he will be expected to remain celibate, although it will be possible to apply to the Vatican for an exception to ordain a married man, Cardinal Wuerl said.

“It’s only the first generation that will have married clergy. In the second generation the intention is that candidates for priesthood coming out of the community will be celibate. Provision has been made for an ad hoc petition [for an exception] to the Holy See, but the presumption is that this is for the first generation,” he said.

All Anglican and Episcopal priests who apply for Catholic ordination must undergo the same criminal background checks and psychological evaluations required of all other candidates for Catholic priesthood, Cardinal Wuerl said. He asked the bishops of dioceses where these priests are located to supply those checks and tests as they do for their own seminarians.

Ultimately the inquirers will be sorted into three categories: Those who can he ordained as Catholic priests after a specially-developed nine-month intensive seminary course; those who require more intensive seminary education and "those whose formation histories would not recommend them for either of these options.”

Among those who will not be accepted as Catholic priests are those who were originally Catholic priests and left the Catholic priesthood for the Episcopal or Anglican churches, Cardinal Wuerl said.

“They are automatically excluded. . . A former Catholic priest cannot apply for this,” he said.

Married Anglican bishops can be ordained as Catholic priests, but not as Catholic bishops, Cardinal Wuerl said. This maintains a tradition shared with Orthodox Christianity, which has a married priesthood, but celibate bishops.

To retrain those who are accepted as candidates for Catholic ordination, a special curriculum has been developed at St. Mary’s Seminary in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. It focuses almost exclusively on teachings on which the Anglican and Catholic traditions differ.  The St. Mary’s faculty member in charge of it is the Rev. Jeffrey Steenson, formerly the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande, who was received into the Catholic Church in 2007. Classes will be offered on site and online.

Seminary training can only begin after the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith approves them as candidates for Catholic ordination. The background tests and psychological exams come after that. A letter of recommendation from the local Catholic bishop is also required and, if possible, one from their previous Anglican or Episcopal bishop.  

Once all of that documentation has been sent to the Vatican, the candidate will cease celebrating the Anglican Eucharist. As soon as the Vatican gives approval he will be ordained as a Catholic deacon while he undergoes his own retraining and instructs his parishioners in the Catholic faith. His ordination as a priest is intended to coincide with the reception of his parishioners into full communion with the Catholic Church.

Each lay person who wishes to become Catholic must sign a statement to that effect, be formally received into the Catholic Church and then confirmed as a Catholic, Cardinal Wuerl said. He asked his fellow bishops to assist in this process by providing experienced Catholic catechists to help instruct the converts.

“If we are able to say that there is a director of religious education from a neighboring parish who will come in and work with you . . . that would be a great blessing to the small congregations that are seeking to be adequately catechized,” he said.

A practical and pastoral problem is the number of Episcopalians and Anglicans who are divorced and remarried. While such remarriage requires permission of the bishop in the Episcopal Church, the Catholic Church requires an annulment in which a church court determines that the first marriage didn’t meet the church’s standard for a sacramental union. He asked the bishops to make their marriage tribunals available to these couples. Causes for a declaration of nullity can range from having signed a pre-nuptial agreement, to a marriage forced by pregnancy to being hung over on the day of the wedding.

The tribunals will determine “what can be regularized,” he said. But if there are no grounds for annulment, “then there is the pastoral decision of who cannot, therefore, receive the Eucharist.”

Another very practical need is for buildings, he said. Many of  ordinariate congregations will have to abandon their former property due to trust clauses that require material assets to remain with their former denomination, he said. “Our hospitality in providing them worship space would be a sign of generosity on our part and, I am sure, greatly welcomed by them,” he said.

The world’s first ordinariate was established for England and Wales in January. It has about 1,000 parishioners in 42 congregations and its priests include five former Anglican bishops.  It is led by a former Anglican bishop who is married and was ordained a Catholic priest. He carries the title of “ordinary,” which is ordinarily the term for a bishop with powers to lead a diocese.  Ordinariates are also under consideration in Australia and Canada.

One bishop at the meeting asked whether there might not be jurisdictional conflicts between the Ordinariate and the regular Latin-rite dioceses. Cardinal Wuerl replied that the model is based on that of the military archdiocese, which overlaps dioceses around the world but works in cooperation with them. Then he gave a different example from his own experience in Pittsburgh, where several Eastern Catholicjurisdictions overlap with the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

“I come from a part of the world where there were Byzantine Ruthenian Catholics, Ukrainian Catholics, Melkites and Maronites. They all had separate jurisdictions, including one where I was the bishop and he was the archbishop. There didn’t seem to be any real tensions,” he said.

Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Military Archdiocese was among many bishops to question Cardinal Wuerl about the plans. Archbishop Broglio indicated that he was aware of  “a number of military chaplains who are very much attracted by this whole possibility.” He wanted to know, if they were ordained for the ordinariate, whether they could celebrate Mass for other Catholics as well.

“That is one of the benefits of the ordinariate,” Cardinal Wuerl said, saying that he expected them to be able to fill in for vacationing priests at neighboring diocesan parishes when necessary.

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