Seeking the pearl of great price

flickr / Patrick TheinerFor Anglicans to
enter into full communion with the Catholic Church, gathered around
St. Peter and his successors, is not unlike the experience of the
merchant in Matthew 13:46, who, “when he had found one pearl of
great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.” It is a
demanding venture, requiring sacrifice, but this is the nature of the
apostolate, and it is of such fundamental importance that all
contingent arguments must ultimately fall away. Benedict XVI’s
astonishing generosity in offering a canonical home to Anglicans who
desire to be in communion with him is an occasion for great
rejoicing, for it will mean that we do not journey alone.

Anglicans do not
come to Rome primarily because they are unhappy with their churches.
There are options within the Anglican world that are far more
accessible to those who object to recent decisions and developments
within their own churches. The warnings heard especially in liberal
Catholic circles about the dangers of admitting the disaffected
Anglicans are to be heeded of course, but most of the anger I have
encountered as a Catholic comes from disaffected Catholics who object
to the teachings of their own church. The journey to full communion
is by nature a purgative process, and the souls who arrive are mostly
simply happy to be there.

For me the moment of
truth came in early 2007, at a meeting of the House of Bishops of the
Episcopal Church, amidst colleagues whom I had come to love, whose
company I truly enjoyed. They felt the time had come for them to
assert that the polity of the Episcopal Church was essentially local
and democratic and that its wider associations within the Anglican
Communion and the Christian world were voluntary and collaborative.
This was the straw that broke the camel’s back; I could not
reconcile this position with the Catholic understanding of the
Church. And as a member of a church family whose origins were Roman,
it seemed obvious to me what must be done.

It was not a sudden
decision. The goal of Catholic unity has been, more or less, an
integral part of Anglican identity since Newman, as the agreed
statements of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission
plainly show. The conditions for corporate reunion seemed favorable
for a brief season in the years immediately following Vatican II. But
powerful counter-intuitive movements within Anglicanism had pushed
the goal of full communion so far over the horizon that it was no
longer realistic to expect that the established ecumenical
instruments could heal the schism. And so various groups and
individuals approached the Holy See, not with the intention of
repudiating Anglicanism, but rather to discover a new path toward

I was a part of one
such effort in 1993-1994. In reviewing our submissions to the Holy
See from that time, I was astonishing to find so many echoes in the Note of the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) about Personal
. For those who are interested in following this
story, William Oddie’s The
Roman Option
(Harper/Colllins, 1997) is essential
reading. To add one note to Dr Oddie’s fine study – the request
for a canonical structure similar to the military ordinariate was
initially proposed by Msgr William Stetson, for many years the
secretary to the ecclesiastical delegate for the Pastoral

It is no simple
exercise to define precisely what Pope Paul VI had termed the “worthy
patrimony” of the Anglican tradition. We soon realized that it is
not accurate to speak of this Anglican identity as primarily
liturgical, because the liturgical movement has brought about a real
convergence between Anglican and Catholic forms. We wrote: “It must
certainly be more than the preservation of the distinctive features
of Anglican Church culture (ie, its liturgical, devotional, and
musical heritage), as worthy an undertaking as this may be. We desire
that our return to union with Peter will enable us to contribute to
the healing of the Western Schism, by means of an apostolate uniquely
dedicated to Christian unity, as a vehicle through which the Catholic
Church may embrace her separated sons and daughters and augment the
resources for her work of evangelization.”.

I very much
appreciated the CDF’s Note that the preservation of the Anglican
patrimony be balanced by the concern that the Anglican pilgrims be
integrated into the Catholic Church and not merely live on as a
distinct sub-culture. This is important for many reasons, but one
comes especially to mind: we Anglicans have some bad habits to
unlearn, for Anglican life today is manifestly disordered. The need
for our formation is not to be underestimated; Rome was not built in
a day, and neither can Catholic priesthood be put on like a coat. I
found this to be particularly challenging, requiring an effort to
reach out to wise and experienced Catholic priests. I will always be
grateful for those who patiently supported, encouraged, and prayed
with me, especially the wonderful men of the Irish College and Msgr
Francis Kelly of the Casa Santa Maria in Rome.

Those dear friends
at the Irish College sometimes teased me about my “five ordinations
and a wedding.” Some Anglican clergy, even as they welcome this
initiative from the Holy Father, want to reopen the question of the
validity of Anglican orders, because they object to the general rule
of absolute ordination. I did not find this a difficulty, for I did
not think of my ordination in the Catholic Church as a repudiation of
the Anglican ministry. Anglican ordinations are what they are. It may
be reasonable to criticize Leo XIII's 1896 encyclical on Anglican
orders, Apostolicae
speaking in the harsh idiom of a different age, but it can certainly
be read in a positive light. Friends do not eschew plain speaking,
and it is likely that this text has been responsible for much of the
ecumenical progress already realized, by provoking Anglicans to
reflect more deeply on the theology of ministerial priesthood. I
treasure the times I was able to pray near the tomb of Pope Leo XIII
at St. John Lateran last year. Anglicanism’s chief antihero
remains, ironically, a potent spiritual force for Christian unity.

One thing has
continued to trouble me in this journey, and that is the remembrance
of the people left behind. It was very difficult to step away from
treasured pastoral relationships, although church polity and
ministerial ethics certainly required a clean and decisive break.
Many of them of course are firmly committed Anglicans who have no
interest in following this path toward Catholic unity. I wish them
every blessing. But I often think of others who hunger and thirst for
something more, for whom the Catholic Church is a very intimidating
but compelling presence. They must overcome misunderstandings about
what the Catholic Church teaches, and fears about what it might mean
to live in the Catholic Church. Patient pastoral work can resolve
much of this, and I rejoice that the Holy Father has opened this door
for them.

The Rev. Jeffrey
Steenson, of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, was the Bishop of the
Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande (New Mexico and west Texas)
before his reception into the Catholic Church on November 30, 2007.
He and his wife Debra now live in Houston, where he teaches
patristics at the University of St. Thomas and St. Mary’s Seminary.
They have three adult children.


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