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Ordinariate-bound priests engage in Saturday Seminary online training

Ordinariate-bound priests engage in Saturday Seminary online training


By Mary Ann Mueller in Houston
Special Correspondent
April 3, 2012

HOUSTON, TEXAS---It's a Saturday in March. While other men are busy with early spring weekend household chores or yard work, 62 Episcopal and Anglican priests head for their computers to make sure the webcam is working and focused, the computer microphone is squelched, and the system's speakers are turned to full volume. It's almost time for another in a series of Ordinariate online Saturday Seminary sessions bringing them one step closer to their cherished goal: the Catholic priesthood.

The weekly-appointed hour for the short intense seminary sessions is 9:30 a.m. Central time. The beating heart of this unique online seminary comes from Vianney Hall at St. Mary's Seminary in Houston. However, the online seminarians are scattered all over the United States and Canada with one military chaplain listening in from Afghanistan. So Houston's 9:30 a.m. is 10:30 a.m. in Virginia, Maryland and Florida, but an early 7:30 a.m. in California. But because it is 8 p.m. in the Afghani desert the military chaplain's online Saturday Seminary session will go into the wee hours of the morning by the time the live Houston session signs off.

This is a transformation unlike any other. The online Catholic seminarians are all previously ordained Episcopal or Anglican or Continuing Anglican clerics who have decided to follow their Anglo-Catholic conscience into the Roman Catholic Church and ultimately seek the living out of their own priesthood as fully-fledged Catholic priests. In order to accomplish this goal, they must undergo some tweaking in their own priestly academic and ministerial formation to gain greater insight into the history, theology, sacerdotal practice of Catholicism, and the soul-etching character of the priesthood.

This is not only a challenge to what they have been originally taught and held deeply as Anglicans, but it is also an unfolding joy to fully discover the Catholic aspects of their priesthood and to mine their own understanding of the deeper dimensions of Catholicism. Focusing on the formation needs in the historic theological divergences in the Catholic understanding of the priesthood, the Houston seminary has devised an intense nine-month program of religious studies for those previously trained Episcopal and Anglican priests who are seeking to continue their priesthood in the Catholic Church.

St. Mary's Saturday Seminary is dealing with trained and experienced Episcopal and Anglican clergymen who have celebrated Anglican Sacraments. They have visited the sick and conducted funerals. They have taught and preached. They have lived their lives as Anglican priests. They are not going back to Square One. They are building upon their own priestly foundation as they discover the priesthood in the Catholic Church.

Anglicans and Catholics have some faith elements in common including the nature of baptism and the truth of Christ's resurrection. However, there several notable differences in the theological understanding of Catholic faith and practice including the Sacraments such as in the nature of the Eucharist - Transubstantiation or the Real Presence - Marian devotion and the historic claims of the Papacy which need to be addressed through the initial concentrated online seminary priestly training program.

St. Mary's Seminary's early roots date back to 1856 and the University of St. Mary's on Galveston Island, which is the founding location of the mother diocese in Texas. The seminary was moved to La Port at the turn of the 20th Century and eventually permanently settled in Houston in 1954 where the seat of the Catholic diocese was established. Since then the seminary has trained many Catholic priests who have served in Texas with honor and distinction. The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston still honors its humble beginnings with its hyphenated name. Now a new leaf is being added St. Mary's Seminary's tree as it incorporates the unique training of Ordinariate priests. Msgr. Jeffrey Steenson has been at the epicenter of helping to develop the intensive nine-month formation program.

The monsignor, himself a convert from The Episcopal Church, first walked the path from Episcopal orders as the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande to the Catholic priesthood through the Pastoral Provision process. His own Catholic priestly formation, leading to his Catholic ordination, came in Rome where he was taking sabbatical studies at the Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum. He was in residence at the Pontifical Irish College and interacting with American seminarians from the Pontifical North American College at the time.

It was while in Rome that Bernard Cardinal Law, who initially was instrumental in helping implement Pope John Paul II's Pastoral Provision in 1981, received the resigned Episcopal Bishop of the Rio Grande was received into the fullness of the Catholic Church on St. Andrew's Day, 2007, One year later in 2008, Cardinal Law ordained Jeffrey Steenson to the Catholic diaconate. His Catholic priesting came 14 months later in February 2009 at the hands of Catholic Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan, in Rio Rancho, New Mexico.

Msgr. Steenson is leading the way from active Anglican orders into the Catholic priesthood through his example. He went into the Catholic priesthood, using the decades old Pastoral Provision as his springboard, even before Anglicanorum coetibus was announced in October 2009.

Never far from academia, even as a transitional Catholic deacon laboring towards his own priestly ordination, then Deacon Steenson undertook teaching Western Theological Tradition at the Roman Campus of the University of Dallas. This was his first turn at teaching in a Catholic setting. He focused on an in-depth study of the foundations of Christendom from early Church Fathers through the Second Vatican Council.

After returning to the United States for priestly ordination, he ended up coming to Houston where he first encountered the University of St. Thomas and St. Mary's Seminary. He is the Carl & Lois Davis Professor in Patristic Studies. His expertise and passion is the history and writings of the early Church Fathers. As such he teaches Patristics, Patrology, the Doctrine of God, Christology, Homiletics and the Doctrine of the Trinity. It was through his involvement with St. Thomas and St. Mary's that he first met Daniel Cardinal DiNardo. Steenson has since forged a close working relationship with the Catholic Cardinal, which would come into play when Texas' first Catholic Cardinal and the eventual leader of the unique Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter helped to develop the details implementing the formation Ordinariate-bound priests at St. Mary's Seminary. In addition, the Archbishop of Washington, Donald Cardinal Wuerl, who was the Vatican's delegate for the implementation of the Ordinariate in the United States, was also deeply involved in designing the online seminary program for Ordinariate-bound priests.

Last June, Cardinal Wuerl explained to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that he had in hand 67 dossiers of Episcopal and Anglican clerics who initially indicated their desire to be a part of the Ordinariate and seek the Catholic priesthood. These dossiers detailed the priests' background with theological training history of ministerial assignments.

Currently all names are being held in confidence to protect the identities and privacy of the in-coming Anglican priests as they go through this discernment and study. A few of the candidates have already dropped by the wayside for various reasons. And some have determined that it is just enough to be Catholic, they have fulfilled their heart's desire, and upon further prayerful discernment have decided not to pursue the priesthood and remain a member of the Catholic laity.

Just a few weeks after the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter was erected, 62 men, who are the first wave of Anglican priests to delve deeper into Catholic priestly formation at St. Mary's, began their priestly studies. They and their wives came to Houston to see the seminary first hand, meet each other face to face, and begin their common journey into the Catholic priesthood with a prayer-laced retreat. While in Houston, they met their new Ordinary and toured the seminary. In early February, Cardinal DiNardo, who is a powerful preacher and an engaging teacher, kicked off the online classes with an explanation of the Petrine Ministry and Catholic Ecclesiology. Week by week, other guest lecturers build upon the foundation lay by Cardinal DiNardo and outlined in the syllabus.

It is hoped that the first ordinations will start taking place during Pentecost, less than two months away. These ordinations will be staggered since it will be the local Catholic bishop, in the local Catholic diocese where the soon-to-be-ordained priest resides, who does the actual ordination. Msgr. Steenson would like to be able to attend each ordination and celebration of ministry.

The transformation of the Anglican priests is critical to the success of the Ordinariate. It is these former Anglican priests who will minister and lead their converting congregants. This is why there is so much immediate focus put on the Catholic formation of converting Anglican priests. As a part of the over all process, the Anglican priests are required to relinquish their orders and cease from celebrating the Sacraments until they are again ordained as Catholic priests. The priests and their Anglican congregations seek, pray and travel together as they cross the bridge over the Tiber. It is a common and shared journey of faith.

Some priests will be ordained to the diaconate, the first step to the priesthood, relatively quickly. They have a solid Anglican foundation and their needed documents and permissions are in hand. Even while they progress through the online seminary training, there is a specific ministry awaiting them. Other Anglican priests, who have a thinner seminary background, will have to take some additional extended and on-going priestly formation classes to bring them up to par with the rest before they feel the hands of a bishop on their heads in ordination. Each Ordinariate-bound priest's progress is carefully monitored and assessed as they go along. All in all, it is a complicated process with no easy answers undergirded by a lot of prayerful discernment.

The new Texas monsignor may have been the perfect person to be tapped by the Catholic Church to create the American Ordinariate priestly formation program. He has a strong background in seminary training and leadership from which to draw. His own higher education comes from Trinity College and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill; Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, Mass., and the University of Oxford in England. He then taught as an adjunct at the General Theological Seminary in New York and Anglican Theology at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He has also been a trustee for Nashotah House, the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest, and Sewanee: The University of the South.

It's a bright sunny Lenten Saturday. Flowers are already in bloom in the carefully groomed flowerbeds that dot the Houston seminary grounds. Cars are starting to fill the parking lot because other activities have been scheduled at the seminary. Little notice is taken of the unique Saturday by all-important formation of priests.

In Vianny Hall, the early morning sun streams though the geometrically designed stained glass window panels. The room is in fact the classroom for one lone Houston-area Episcopal priest who is able to be on grounds to for the Saturday seminary sessions. He does keep a laptop computer close at hand as his fellow classmates check in from around the country.

On the wall in front of him and behind him are massive flat screens. To the side is a bare wooden podium. As the time inches toward 9:30 the flat screens come alive with faces popping up. The outer edge of the screen is encircled with small square set ins. The center of the screen is open and as a voice is heard that face fully comes into view. Other faces come into focus as the rest of the class signs on one by one. Their name and location are super imposed identifying each. The imagines keep popping up and changing. It is reminiscent of The Episcopal Church's new "stained glass" interactive website graphic.

The massive computer system that allows 63 people to be connected at the same time is the gift of the Knights of Columbus. That well known fraternal Catholic organization underwrote the $100,000 system allowing the teleconferencing to happen. It is in incredible set up to see in action.

Monsignor Jeffrey Steenson comes into the room. He is simply dressed as a Catholic priest. The St. Mary's Seminary professor is in part the genius behind this online seminary, but more than that he is the newly-minted Catholic monsignor who is the founding Ordinary - senior cleric with jurisdiction - for the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, Pope Benedict XVI's gift of acceptance and inclusion for Episcopalians and Anglicans who feel a driving spiritual need to be united with the Church of Rome. The Ordinariate is built upon the foundation laid by the Pastoral Provision which made accommodation for individual Anglican priests to become Catholic and recover their priesthood and sacerdotal ministry through the apostolic lines connected to the Barque of Peter.

A phone rings. "I'll get it," someone says explaining it's the military chaplain calling in from half way around the world just in time to join the session that is about to start.

The special spiritual focus for the week is the History of the Catholic Church after the Western Schism with special emphasis on the timeline spanning Reformation to Vatican II. Catholics have a different view of Church history than classic Anglicans do. This is one area where the Catholics and Anglicans have a divergence in their understanding of history that needs to be carefully addressed during the advanced seminary training allowing the Anglican seminarians to view both sides of the same coin.

The guest lecturer for the week is the Rev. Charles Talar, a professor of Systematic Theology at St. Mary's Seminary and a noted Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman scholar. He will tackle the subject of Life in the Catholic Church after the Reformation through the eyes of John Henry Newman.

The 19 Century Church of England Anglican priest and Oxford professor was an early Anglo-Catholic and a mover and shaker in the founding of the Oxford Movement. Newman eventually became a Catholic. Just as the online seminarians are doing, he studied and became ordained as a Catholic priest. He eventually rose to the rank of Cardinal. Fr Talar is honored in both the Anglican and Catholic worlds. Last year he was named the patron of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham when it was established in England.

Msgr. Steenson opens the session with Cardinal Newman's Prayer on Christian Unity: ".... Break down the walls of separation which divide one part and denomination of Christians from another. Teach all that the See of St Peter, the Holy Church of Rome, is the foundation, centre and instrument of unity ..."

Then he joyfully announces that the Vatican has approved a special Anglican Use liturgical calendar for use by the ordinariates of the Chair of St. Peter in North America and Our Lady of Walsingham in Britain. A cheer goes up as the Monsignor explains that "Ordinary Time" -- in Catholic parlance -- would be restored to Sundays after Epiphany following Christmastide and Sundays after Trinity following Eastertide. Also restored are the historic names of "Septuagesima", "Sexagesima" and "Quinquagesima" for the Sundays leading up to Lent as well as Ember Days and Rogation Days.

After Fr. Talar was introduced, Msgr. Steenson stays on. The monsignor makes himself comfortable at one of the empty classroom tables. Stretching his long legs out sideways in the aisle he keeps an attentive eye and ear on the proceedings, while he catches up on his e-mail. Eventually he loosens his shoelaces and sheds his footwear to wiggle his toes.

Fr. Talar takes his place behind the teaching podium and faces the camera. He is ready to reveal some nuggets of Catholic history for his scattered class.

"We're online," Fr. Talar said. "I can hear you but not see you," he explains to the 61 online seminarians. Some immediate adjustments need to be made to make the screen Fr. Talar sees pick up the online images in cyber space. However he reminds his "invisible" students to keep their computer mics muted unless they want to comment or ask a question because background noises are being heard.

Many of the seminarians are at home. Others have gathered in a common room such as in a parish hall. As the individual pictures pop up on the flattop screen, the men are pictured in their living rooms, kitchens, and dens. Bookshelves, recliners, and tables belie their locations. Flowered wallpaper and purple paisley drapes provide multicolored backdrops as each priest's face comes into view. Most of the priests are in their civilian clothes, only a few are wearing their clericals.

As Fr. Talar begins his teaching he breaks his subject down into workable sections taking a broad sweeping approach to the historical, political and spiritual events during 16th Century Europe, the Counter Reformation of the Council of Trent, the period between Trent and Vatican II, then Vatican II and beyond which is in the lifetime of everyone present. There was much to cover in a short period of time.

"You need to see that the Reformation did not come from the top down but from the bottom up," Fr. Talar said warming up to his subject.

He also touched upon how Gallicanism and the French Revolution impacted on Catholics in the 18th Century and the uniqueness of how American Catholics live out their faith including mentioning the Baltimore Catechism, the standard used by the Catholic parochial school system from the late 19th Century until the rethinking of Vatican II.

Fr. Talar was engaging and funny regaling his students with his memories of the Baltimore Catechism that reflected the mentality of the times and is a lasting memory of many older Catholics who progressed through the parochial school system before Vatican II.

The priest's trek through history is just a portion of what the online seminarians are learning. Fr. Talar's subject matter is fascinating. It is interesting to hear how hundreds of years of church history is capsulated and skillfully presented during such a short period of time. Each online Saturday seminary session has about six hours of intense instruction with a quick lunch sandwiched in the middle.

Before the accelerated sessions are completed the Anglican priests will touch upon canon law, moral teaching, social teaching, Sacramental theology, Mariology, as well as prayer and spirituality from a Catholic prospective. The various topics are grounded in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the church's official reference text of teachings outlining the Catholic understanding of God, faith, the creeds, the sacraments, prayer, the Ten Commandments, and living one's life in Christ. Other subjects to be scrutinized are priestly conduct, the mechanics of celebrating the Sacraments, and Catholic culture.

---- Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline

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