The first ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter oversees the U.S. and Canada
Brian Fraga, OSV Newsweekly, November 9, 2014
As a former bishop in the Episcopal Church, Jeffrey N. Steenson was responsible for leading a diocese that encompassed Southwest Texas and all of New Mexico. Today, Msgr. Steenson, who entered the Catholic Church in 2007, administers an ecclesial entity that comprises the United States and Canada.
“The administrative part has been quite challenging for us. It’s just a lot to do, and we don’t have the resources to do it very efficiently right now,” said Msgr. Steenson, the first ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, which is composed of parishes, groups, communities and individuals from the Anglican heritage that have entered into communion with the Catholic Church.
The Ordinariate was established on Jan. 1, 2012, after Pope Benedict XVI paved the way in the fall of 2009 by establishing a structure for Anglicans to unite with Rome. In a recent interview with Our Sunday Visitor, Msgr. Steenson reflected on the first three years of the Ordinariate and shared his hopes for the future of Anglican-Catholic relations.
Our Sunday Visitor: How would you describe the Ordinariate’s first three years of existence?
Msgr. Steenson: It’s been a very, very busy time. It’s been challenging starting an Ordinariate covering all of North America. It means a lot of traveling. There’s a learning curve that I think is very steep in creating a new ecclesial entity and relating to the bishops’ conferences in Canada and the United States. In every case, we have to partner with the local bishop and the local diocese in terms of ordinations and establishing communities. The networking has been very intensive, but it’s also been a wonderful experience.
OSV: What are some important lessons you’ve learned in the first three years?
Msgr. Steenson: What we’ve discerned is that this requires a very intentional catechetical approach. We have to get into the business of proclaiming the Gospel, proclaiming the New Evangelization, helping people to understand why the Catholic Church is important and compelling, and the need that if you’re going to be Catholic, you have to be in communion with Rome. We’re now helping clergy and lay leaders in the Ordinariate understand what evangelization is all about.
OSV: What have been some of the challenges and difficulties thus far?
Msgr. Steenson: I spent 28 years in the Anglican ministry, but it’s hard to get your mind wrapped around what is required of administering an ecclesial group within the Catholic Church. We basically had to create a quasi-diocese. I’ve found that to be very challenging. We had to create a body of laws and particular norms to govern it. We had to set up not only the church structures but also the civil structures. Most of us (clergy) in the Ordinariate are also not full-time. I spend half of my time teaching in a seminary in Houston. A few are full-time pastors in their communities, but most of us are doing something else, whether we’re working as hospital chaplains, teaching in Catholic schools, helping out as parochial vicars in Catholic parishes and serving as military chaplains. It gets pretty involved and challenging for us. We’ve also had to bring together groups of Anglicans who were never together in the past. Some were part of the Episcopal Church or the Anglican Church of Canada. Others left the church for various reasons, and now we’re bringing them all together. Where in the past we weren’t in community with each other, we’re now learning to be in communion with each other as Catholics.
OSV: What are some reasons why individuals and communities from an Anglican tradition join the Ordinariate?
Msgr. Steenson: I think the main reason is their desire to really connect with the apostolic faith, and their experience within the Anglican tradition is that it’s becoming harder and harder to do that. But the reason why you enter the Catholic Church should be because you think it’s true, and that you agree when the Second Vatican Council says that it’s Christ’s will that the Church be constituted around Peter and his successors. The thing we want to avoid above all else is the Ordinariate becoming a safe harbor of refuge for people who are disgruntled with their previous church experience. That’s what we absolutely don’t want.
OSV: Do some Ordinariate communities own their own church buildings? Where do they celebrate their liturgies?
Msgr. Steenson: There are different models. St. Barnabas in Omaha (Nebraska) bought their building from the Episcopal diocese. They dug deep … to come up with the resources to purchase their own building. At St. Luke’s in Washington, D.C., they’ve partnered with Immaculate Conception Parish in downtown Washington and they share the church. Some of the independent Anglican groups already owned their buildings and didn’t have problems transferring. For most of these groups we’re dealing with, they have partnered with a local Catholic parish in order to start their congregation.
OSV: What do you hope to see in the Ordinariate moving forward?
Msgr. Steenson: One thing we’d like to do is create a catechetical program for those coming out of the Anglican tradition who want to learn how to make this journey together with their group and be catechized and received into the Catholic Church. Obviously in terms of the stability of the Ordinariate, we need to strengthen our congregations. Hopefully we get to the point where many of the clergy will not have to work another job in order to make ends meet, that the congregations will have their own buildings and are able to support the clergy full time.
OSV: How do Ordinariate communities interact with the Latin Rite dioceses where they are located?
Msgr. Steenson: We’ve had great success cooperating between our communities and the dioceses. Many of the bishops routinely invite Ordinariate clergy to participate in clergy conferences, retreats and prayer services. Particularly in the area of witnessing to the sanctity of human life, Ordinariate groups are very involved in pro-life activities and have wonderful connections with their Latin brothers and sisters.
OSV: How is the Ordinariate meant to be an instrument of Christian unity?
Msgr. Steenson: The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, which has been meeting since the 1960s, has always had as its goal full communion, corporate reunion, between Anglicans and Catholics. The Catholic Church has always been very clear as to what that would look like. Anglicans would keep their liturgical traditions, their patrimony, but also acknowledge the primacy of the See of Rome. That is the way the Catholic Church envisaged groups coming into full communion with the Catholic Church; the Ordinariate was created from that ecumenical perspective. In the Ordinariate, one of the things that from the beginning we wanted to do was not get involved in litigation over church property. We will not permit a group to come into the Ordinariate that is pursing litigation against their old church; that is a firm principle for us. We want to be ministers of reconciliation, and you can’t do that if you’re suing your fellow Christians. We tell them, “You gotta work this out.” You have to resolve these problems first and reach the highest degree of reconciliation you can with your old ecclesial home before coming into the Catholic Church.
OSV: How has entering into full communion with the Catholic Church affected your relationships with your former Anglican coreligionists?
Msgr. Steenson: When I left the Episcopal Church, I left on the best possible terms. I worked very carefully with my presiding bishop to make the journey. I had good relationships then, and I hope to keep those going. What makes it challenging is that there were all these theological issues going on when many people left the Episcopal Church, things like the ordination of women, the blessing of same-sex unions. Because of all the political tension there, I suppose for some people, it was a painful parting. But I hope that we’ve gotten rid of our anger. We just want to reach out because these are our brothers and sisters in Christ who are separated from us. We don’t ever want to lose sight that they are baptized Christian people, and the goal is Christian unity, as always taught by the Catholic Church, gathered around the See of Peter.
(from Our Sunday Visitor)