Nestled deep in the forests of the Ozark Mountains is a small city called Republic. It sits about 15 miles southwest of Springfield, Missouri, otherwise known as the Queen City of the Ozarks. Republic is a small suburban town originally built along the railroad tracks leading into Springfield. Today Republic straddles Highway 60, a major artery going into the Queen City. In comparison to Springfield, Republic is a quiet town. High school sports preoccupy most of the city’s excitement. A farmers’ market meets regularly on Main Street, and the annual celebration of “Pumpkin Days” takes place in the same location every autumn. Like Springfield, Republic is home to many churches of various types. Whatever you’re looking for, you can pretty much find it in Republic. There are at least two contemporary-style Evangelical churches in town, along with some traditional Baptist and Assemblies of God (Pentecostal) churches. There is a beautiful and historic Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), as well as a local Lutheran and Methodist church. However, a new church has come to town, and it’s a little overdue. While Republic is home to hundreds of Roman Catholic residents, it has never had a Catholic Church. Many local Catholics have been commuting to Springfield for weekly mass. That may soon change for some of them, because you see, Republic just got its own Catholic Church.
Saint George Catholic Church meets at the old Franciscan Retreat Centre at the end of Assisi Way on the south side of Republic, near Miller Park. The chapel is hidden from sight from the main road, because it was a Franciscan retreat originally. The idea behind a retreat is seclusion. Since Saint George operates on this property, it is currently tucked away from plain view, but it is very active. Two masses are currently celebrated every week, along with weekly evening prayer, scheduled confession times, and a prayer chapel set aside for visits to the Blessed Sacrament. Though only established in June of this year (2016), the community is alive, well, thriving and growing.
I had the opportunity to speak with Fr. Chori Seraiah, the Catholic priest who lives on the premises of Saint George. Fr. Seraiah is an Anglican convert to Catholicism. He is married and has five children. He was ordained a Catholic priest by special permission from Pope Benedict XVI in 2012…
Mr. Schaetzel: Good evening, Fr. Seraiah. Thank you for doing this interview.
Fr. Seraiah: You’re welcome; I’m glad to be of service.
Mr. Schaetzel: Please tell us, in your own words, what brought you into the Catholic Church and made you decide to become a Catholic priest.
Fr. Seraiah: There were certainly many factors involved in my conversion. At the beginning it was an interest in what the Church of the first and second centuries looked like. Twenty-five years ago a Baptist pastor suggested I read the Church Fathers (the best mistake he ever made), and I was hooked. The more I saw the differences between the early Church and the modern church that I was experiencing, the more I sought to understand why this was so. I started digging deeper to understand the liturgy, the sacraments, and Church authority. Those three overlapping factors (especially Church authority) drove me to realize that only one Church on earth was the same as the one Jesus founded 2000 years ago, and (though it annoyed me at first), I knew it was the Catholic Church.
Mr. Schaetzel: Is that what brings you to Republic, Missouri?
Fr. Seraiah: Not actually, no. I first entered into the Catholic Church in Des Moines, Iowa. That was where I was living when I last served as a pastor in the Anglican Church. The announcement had come in 2009 that the Ordinariate was going to be established here in the U.S. and my family and I were very excited about it. We had been hoping for something like this for a few years, and felt like a “life raft” for those of us who were tired of treading water.
Mr. Schaetzel: Please explain, what is this Ordinariate and how does it work?
Fr. Seraiah: The Ordinariates function much like a diocese, but they do not have the traditional geographic boundaries of a diocese. Ours here in North America covers all of the US and Canada. We have over 40 parishes and communities, and our Bishop is located at our Cathedral Church in Houston, Texas. It was established specifically for those of us who are former Anglicans and Episcopalians to be able to hold on to many of our traditions that we had before we became Catholic. Understand, we did not really ask for this, but Pope Benedict XVI was the one who told us he wanted us to practice these traditions from our Anglican Patrimony, and to use them to “enrich” the rest of the Catholic Church. We overlap with the local diocese, but are not technically a part of it. To help some people grasp the idea better I tell them to think of a similar situation with a monastery: different authority structure, but still geographically in the same area.
Mr. Schaetzel: How do you like our fair city, and the Ozarks in general?
Fr. Seraiah: I like it quite a lot. Years ago when I was a Baptist pastor I lived just a couple hours away from here in Arkansas, so it feels like coming home to an area that my wife and children really enjoy.
Mr. Schaetzel: In addition to your responsibilities at St. George, and the Ordinariate, are you working with the local Diocese of Springfield – Cape Girardeau as well?
Fr. Seraiah: Yes, we are in full cooperation with the local diocese in more ways than one. I was in need of a greater income than the little community of St. George could provide, so the diocese asked me to help them as well by serving as pastor of two of their parishes. I currently have St. George community in Republic, as well as St. Susanne Catholic Church in Mt. Vernon, and St. Patrick Catholic Church in Greenfield.
Mr. Schaetzel: Could you briefly tell us a little about your family?
Fr. Seraiah: My wife and I have been married for 26 wonderful years, and we have five children; two girls and three boys. The oldest girl is 20, then three boys, 17, 16, and 13, and our youngest little girl is 6. We have homeschooled all of them. My wife Catherine stays at home with the children, manages the household, acts as Church secretary for St. George, and basically helps me to keep my head on straight.
Mr. Schaetzel: I imagine some Catholics might be taken back to learn that you are a married priest. Could you briefly explain how this works in the Catholic Church, and what has been the typical Catholic reaction to it so far?
Fr. Seraiah: Yes, the most common question I get when people find out I’m married is “how does that work?” When I’m in a playful mood I say “I said, ‘will you marry me?’ and she said ‘yes’, it was pretty easy.” When I am in a more technical mood I tell people that there is nothing really new here. It has always been the case that the Pope can give permission for a married man to be ordained as a priest, it just usually happens only with converts who used to serve in the Anglican/Episcopal churches (and occasionally in the Lutheran church). Those of us in this situation are given a dispensation not to abide by the rule of celibacy. This only applies, however, as long as my wife is alive; in other words, if she were to pass before me, my vow would become a vow of celibacy immediately. Another way to put it is that a married man can become a priest (if the Pope says it is OK), but a priest never gets married. I am not here to change anything about the priestly custom of celibacy. In fact, I have great respect for my brother priests who are celibate, and do not think it would be a wise thing to just “open the doors” and allow any married man to become a priest. Married priests are not simply “priests with a special bonus package”. A priest does have to be “spiritually married” to the Church whether he has a physical marriage or not, and that means that both a married priest and his wife have to give up certain privileges that other married couples are allowed to keep. Time together, certain freedoms, home privacy, and especially transparency in the relationship (i.e. I cannot talk to her about the sacrament of confession).
Mr. Schaetzel: How do non-Catholics typically react?
Fr. Seraiah: Many do not even notice, but the few who do usually get the wrong idea. I have heard comments like, “well its about time that the Catholic Church got a little bit more modernized”, or “well, you’re finally learning from the protestants now?”
Mr. Schaetzel: Having a married Roman Catholic priest in Republic, Missouri, sort of puts our city on the map (so to speak). This sounds like an historic thing, on a global level, which our little city is playing a very big role in. What is your sense about how the Vatican is studying you, and other married priests like you?
Fr. Seraiah: I could not guess what Rome is thinking specifically, but I would assume that we are being watched closely to make sure that we do not give the wrong impression about what is going on, and that we also do not misrepresent Church teaching on holy orders.
Mr. Schaetzel: Tell us a little about Saint George. What type of a Roman Catholic parish is it? Why is it different from other Roman Catholic parishes?
Fr. Seraiah: In one way, it is just another Catholic parish. Yet, we have a different form of the Mass, a different form of Daily Prayer, and there are proportionally more converts to Catholicism than the average parish. Each of these unique qualities is intentional. As I said above, Pope Benedict XVI said he wanted us to retain some of those traditions that we had before we converted. Also, we have a strong focus on evangelism; especially toward our protestant brethren. We were once there, so we understand much of what they are going through.
Mr. Schaetzel: Wow! This sounds historic too. Is it?
Fr. Seraiah: Yes, in many ways something is happening through the Ordinariate congregations that has never happened before. God clearly was working in the Anglican churches for the last 500 years, and allowing His truth to remain just enough in there so that we today could bring the English heritage back into the Church so that it can be both reconciled and protected for ever.
Mr. Schaetzel: Does this mean it’s traditional or contemporary?
Fr. Seraiah: It is both. We in the Ordinariate like very old traditional Catholic practices, yet we are truly heirs of Vatican II. Without that great council, it is not likely that anything like the Ordinariates would ever have happened. This is truly a new development of the Church, and it is also truly an old heritage restored.
Mr. Schaetzel: Would a regular Roman Catholic, diocesan as opposed to ordinariate, be able to understand things at Saint George and easily adapt to the way liturgy is celebrated there?
Fr. Seraiah: Very easily, yes; there is nothing in the old English language of our liturgy that is not easily understood. There are a number of prayers that we are used to which will sound new to most “diocesan” Catholics, as well as a couple things that are different about the structure of our Mass, but nothing that would shock anyone.
Mr. Schaetzel: So I take it this means that regular Roman Catholics can attend mass at Saint George, and meet their Sunday obligation there if so inclined?
Fr. Seraiah: Absolutely, in fact, we often have people from other local parishes stop in for a visit. Sometimes it is just because they are curious about our differences, other times it is because the time or location just happened to be convenient for them that week. Any Catholic is able to come to St. George and fulfill their Sunday or Holy day obligation, and even become a part of the parish if they wish to do so.
Mr. Schaetzel: What about Catholics who have a history as Anglicans, Episcopalians or Methodists, would they find all of this form of worship familiar or appealing?
Fr. Seraiah: They would all find it very familiar.
Mr. Schaetzel: This area is made up primarily of Baptists and Pentecostals. What about them, do they show any interest in this type of community and style of worship?
Fr. Seraiah: We do occasionally get some questions from Baptists and Pentecostals, but not a lot. It is not uncommon for someone in those traditions, however, to begin to struggle with issues (like Church authority) and end up seeing that the Catholic Church really has those answers that they are looking for. In that situation, St. George is ideally suited to help them since we know much of the struggle they are having.
Mr. Schaetzel: Saint George is small right now, and meeting in a relatively secluded part of Republic. Is this part of your long-term plan, or is the congregation looking to build something bigger eventually?
Fr. Seraiah: Actually, we are very grateful for the support of the diocese (whose property we are using for our services currently), but our long term plan is to be able to build our own Church on the same property that we are using right now. There is an ideal place that we have picked out right now.
Mr. Schaetzel: Does this mean it would eventually be visible from the street and Miller Park?
Fr. Seraiah: Yes, it will be visible; in fact, Lord willing, it will be visible from quite a distance (I’m picturing a gigantic steeple with a few gargoyles on the sides!). The property where we meet right now is on the south-east corner of Miller and Lynn in Republic, and it is our hope that someday in the future we would be able to build a Church right on Miller street.
Mr. Schaetzel: Thank you for sharing your time and information with us Father. We look forward to watching the progress of Saint George Catholic Church, as well as the growth of your historic ministry and the progress of your wonderful family.
Fr. Seraiah: Glad to be of service. God bless you!
Fr. Seraiah can be contacted at St. George Catholic Church in Republic, Missouri. http://www.SaintGeorgeChurch.net