It's natural for any employee to want to know just how committed the big boss is to the company's future and, especially, to the expansion project that includes his job. So, even though Pope Benedict XVI didn't make it to America in person, Father Jason Catania still appreciated the message he sent to the former Episcopal priests and others who swam the Tiber to Rome after the pontiff's controversial "Anglicanorum Coetibus" ("groups of Anglicans") pronouncement in 2009.
"We didn't just wake up one morning last year and say, 'Why don't we join the Catholic Church?' Many of us have made personal and financial sacrifices over the years to do this," said Catania, who leads Mount Calvary Church in Baltimore. This was the first American parish that voted to enter one of the new "personal ordinariates" -- the equivalent of nationwide dioceses -- that would allow Anglicans to retain key elements of their liturgy, music, art and other traditions, such as married priests. "We were very intentional and took many steps toward Rome on this journey," he said. "Now we're starting to see the results of the Vatican's strategic step toward us."
Clergy and supporters of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter gathered at its home base in Houston last week to mark the first anniversary of this outreach effort in America. Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Muller, the new leader of the Vatican's powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, offered his share of theological commentary on this project, but made it clear that his main message was personal.
"For most of you, this has been a journey into the unknown. ... I want you to know that the Holy Father is following with great interest the establishment and development of the ordinariate," he said, in his prepared Feb. 2 text. It is common knowledge in Rome, he added, that this is "very much the 'pope's project.' I have come to understand how true that is. You are very much in his thoughts and prayers."
So far, Benedict XVI has approved two other bodies for Anglicans and those loyal to Anglican traditions and worship -- the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham in England and the new Ordinariate of Our Lady of the Southern Cross in Australia. British critics greeted these efforts with a skepticism, if not scorn, symbolized by this headline in The Times: "Rome has parked its tanks on the Archbishop of Canterbury's lawn."
In addition to the Anglican doubters and all those who accused the pope of being "an ecumenical poacher," the special arrangements built into these ordinariates have caused skepticism among some Catholics, Muller admitted. However, there is no easy way to begin the work of closing a schism that has lasted for centuries. Only displays of true unity and slow, careful growth will bring healing, he said.
"Anglicans will be interested in what kind of reception you receive and how well you are able to make a home in the Catholic Church that is more than just assimilation," Muller said. "Catholics will want to know that you are here to stay, strengthening our ecclesial cohesion rather than setting yourselves apart as another divisive grouping within the Church. It is safe to say that all eyes are now on you and your parish communities. ..Your decision to 'put out into the deep' in favor of the unity of Christ's Church must be developed and extended in the promotion of a culture of communion of which you are the architects."
During the first year of its work -- while leaders wrestled with thickets of legal and liturgical questions -- the North American ordinariate ordained or accepted 30 new priests, all former Anglicans, and took in 1,600 members from 36 parish communities. It is now expanding into Canada, preparing for a second wave of incoming clergy and making plans for its own chancery facilities in Houston.
The Vatican's goal has been to "build a safe haven for orthodox people who don't mind saying that they're loyal to the Holy Father and to the church," said Catania, who attended the Houston meetings. "Our goal was to show that we're not just a bunch of Episcopalians who wanted to get out of that church. ... We always thought of ourselves as Catholics, but now our Catholic identity is clear to everyone. We made it all the way home."
(Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.)
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