The Ordinariate: Bringing My Whole Past into My Future, in Faith

February 25, 2022

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Last Sunday at our parish church, we kept the Solemnity of the Chair of St. Peter, moved with special permission from Tuesday, February 22. It was our titular feast as members of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, a distinct liturgical form and pastoral structure within the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church. The Ordinariate in the United States and Canada, like our counterparts in the United Kingdom and Australia, is designed not only to welcome former Anglicans and other Protestants into full communion with the Catholic Church, but also to preserve and share the gifts of the Anglican patrimony within the Catholic Church. To outsiders, the most obvious of these treasures is a different expression of the Mass, as prescribed by Divine Worship: The Missal. There are usually more smells and bells at such a celebration than in a typical diocesan parish Mass; but more importantly, we use the sixteenth-century English of the traditional Book of Common Prayer, along with various prayers and actions imported from the Anglican tradition.

This year’s celebration of our titular feast was particularly special, as it marked ten years since Pope Benedict XVI established the Ordinariate in North America. As always, our mostly convert community got to celebrate certain peculiarities from our Anglican past; but on this day, we focused especially on how our very name connects us directly to the bishop of Rome and the ministry of the universal pontiff himself. Our pastor’s homily was even about remembering to pray for the pope and his intentions. We may seem a little unusual, but we are Catholic. Period. Thus, any Catholic can fulfill his or her Sunday obligation at the Ordinariate and participate fully in Ordinariate parish life. 

It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I wish there were more Ordinariate communities in more places, not only to help shepherd more Protestants into the Catholic Church, but also to enrich ordinary Catholics’ lives with additional resources for their sacramental and devotional well-being. The Ordinariates have been identified by many commentators as examples of the “receptive ecumenism” imagined by the Second Vatican Council. That is, just as the Catholic Church has received and handed on the fullness of faith from the time of the Apostles to the present day, the Church may now receive back into full communion non-Catholic individuals and groups who have by God’s providence developed good and holy practices that rightly belong to all Christians restored as one body.

I want to encourage all Catholics to take seriously the centrality of ecumenism in our everyday practice of our faith.

As I enjoyed the splendid Mass with my family on Sunday, I began to wonder how much a typical Catholic in an ordinary diocesan parish church knows or thinks about the idea of “receptive ecumenism” or its expression in the Ordinariates. Is “ecumenism” even something most Catholics care about or connect to the work of evangelization? By God’s providence, I had the opportunity during the same week to talk to a group at a local parish about Pope St. John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint. And as I continue to encourage non-Catholics to come into the Church, either by way of the Ordinariates, an ordinary territorial diocese, or by some other means, I want to encourage all Catholics to take seriously the centrality of ecumenism in our everyday practice of our faith.

To that end, here are just two of many key insights from Ut Unum Sint, in which Pope St. John Paul II elaborates on the Vatican II documents Unitatis Redintegratio and Lumen Gentium, as well as to a lesser extent Dignitatis Humanae:

1. The time is right for Christians to reunite. The Christian world is very different today than it was at the time of the Reformation, during the Wars of Religion in Europe, and in various eras when different Christian groups sought to suppress or destroy one another. Pope St. John Paul II gives thanks for the appearance of a “necessary purification of past memories” and a “calm, clear-sighted and truthful vision of things,” moving different groups of Christians beyond old animosities and prejudices. For example, I do not recall any significant fights lately over whether Queen Mary was worse to Protestants than Queen Elizabeth was to Catholics. Americans of Dutch and Irish ancestry no longer feud with each other in the Five Points neighborhood of New York. Instead, we must reckon with the indisputable “signs of the times,” which demand Christian solidarity in opposition to a dangerous anti-Christian spirit of the age (§3). The removal of Christianity from many parts of the public square and the distant memory of a truly Christian society puts all of us in a common position of weakness that now makes previously insurmountable differences with each other seem foolish.

Pope St. John Paull II quotes Unitatis Redintegratio, saying:

In recent times [the Lord] has begun to bestow more generously upon divided Christians remorse over their divisions and a longing for unity. Everywhere, large numbers have felt the impulse of this grace. (§7)

Since the publication of the encyclical in 1995, the signs of the times have only become clearer. In the preface to Anglicanorum Coetibus, the apostolic constitution that established the Ordinariates, Pope Benedict XVI echoed his predecessor’s words in the specific ecumenical context of Anglicanism: “In recent times the Holy Spirit has moved groups of Anglicans to petition repeatedly and insistently to be received into full Catholic communion individually as well as corporately.” As the cultural landscape grows ever more treacherous for Christians, we may expect to see more groups and individuals from other traditions moved by the Holy Spirit in the same way. Are we ready to welcome them?

2. Truth and unity go together. Pope St. John Paul II notes that the modern formation of ecumenical dialogues reveals “a tendency toward unity,” even if a vast gulf remains open between the commitments of the Catholic Church and other Christian groups (§14). And yet, ecumenical dialogue “is not a matter of adding together all the riches scattered throughout the various Christian Communities in order to arrive at a Church which God has in mind for the future” (§14).

There is no hypothetical Church waiting to be born out of a mishmash of Christian denominationalism. Nor can we simply hug out our differences or paper them over. Rather, we highlight what we have in common as a starting point for further agreement. The pope identifies many areas in which most or many Christians agree on the bare basics of divine revelation in Scripture and sacraments; but he warns us “to avoid both false irenicism and indifference to the Church’s ordinances” (§79). And he says very plainly, “The Church’s teaching authority is responsible for expressing a definitive judgment” (§81).

Ecumenism matters.

Catholicism is what it is. Being ecumenical, therefore, does not mean mere accommodation. Rather, Catholics affirm the two-fold teaching of Vatican II that “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside her visible confines,” but also, “these are gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, they are forces impelling towards Catholic unity” (Lumen Gentium §8).

 And this brings me back full circle to last Sunday’s wonderful Ordinariate Mass. When I encountered Ut Unum Sint before I was Catholic, it felt like millions of smiling Catholics waving their arms to welcome me home. I could not enter purely on my own terms, but nor did I have to abandon everything that was dear to me from my Anglican past. As we kept the Solemnity of the Chair of St. Peter last weekend, we heard the same Roman Canon that Catholics throughout time and space have heard, and we prayed for Pope Francis, the man entrusted with realizing Christ’s prayer for unity everywhere on the planet Earth. At the same time, we sang the words of the Mass set by the great Anglican composer Healey Willan, and we prayed, as always, Thomas Cranmer’s “Prayer of Humble Access.” I pondered the beauty of the ecumenical triumph in which I get to take part every day, and I choked up a bit, grateful to live in such a weird but potentially fruitful time in the life of the Church. The fact that Bishop Steven Lopes of the Ordinariate—a cradle Catholic of Portuguese-American background—was recently elected chair of the USCCB Liturgy Committee is a hopeful sign. Who knows? There may even be more Ordinariates for other groups in the future.

Ecumenism matters. Here’s to a renewed enthusiasm for ecumenism, and to many more victories for Christ and his kingdom in the years to come.