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Our Lady of the Atonement becomes jewel in the Ordinariate's crown

Our Lady of the Atonement becomes jewel in the Ordinariate's crown
Parish lands safely in the Houston-based Ordinariate

By Mary Ann Mueller
VOL Special Correspondent
March 22, 2017

SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS -- On January 19, Our Lady of the Atonement parish unexpectedly started Lent early when its founding priest was abruptly removed as pastor. The stunned parishioners were immediately plunged into an elongated season of wrenching prayer, separation, suffering, anxiety, grief and deep spiritual pain. For two months, parishioners rattled the gates of heaven and the doors of the Vatican, pleading for an equitable and just answer to their heartfelt plea to safely enter into the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter and the return their beloved priest to the OLA altar.

That prayer was not answered until Pope Francis, himself, responding to a request made by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to transfer the parish, stepped in to issue a degree dictating that Our Lady of the Atonement Catholic Church, a special pastoral provision parish erected by his sainted predecessor -- Pope St. John Paul II -- would safely pass from the Catholic Archdiocese of San Antonio into the hands of the American ordinariate, home-based in Houston. Our Lady of Atonement parish, Atonement Academy, and their pastor -- Fr. Christopher Phillips -- would all be jurisdictionally transferred to the Ordinariate, thus allowing Bishop Steven Lopes to become their new bishop, as he places them under the protection of his episcopal authority.

This action officially took place on Tuesday (March 21). The first thing Bishop Lopes did, was to immediately travel from Houston to San Antonio -- 200 miles away -- to personally meet his new congregation that very evening and assuage their worries with a parish wide meeting, in which he explained the ins and outs of joining the Ordinariate and answered parishioners' fears and many questions.

"Our Lady of the Atonement Catholic Church and its school, the Atonement Academy, have been transferred to the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter, effective March 21," the Ordinariate announced on its website. "At the direction of the Holy See, all parishes of the Pastoral Provision are to be incorporated into the Ordinariate: a special diocese for Roman Catholics who were nurtured in the Anglican tradition or whose faith has been renewed by the liturgy and evangelizing mission of the Ordinariate."

The Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter was officially erected in January, 2012. At the time, Our Lady of Walsingham (Houston) and St. Mary the Virgin (Arlington), two pastoral provisions parishes in Texas, easily stepped into the Ordinariate. But Fr. Phillips quietly bided his time and continued to faithfully labor as a Pastoral Provision priest with an Anglican Use parish in the boundaries of the Catholic Archdiocese of San Antonio until he felt it was the appropriate time to make a jurisdictional move. OLA's founding pastor always had his eye on joining the Ordinariate in the fullness of time.

Five years later, when Fr. Phillips felt the timing was right to shepherd his large, growing and flourishing parish into the Ordinariate, San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo- García-Siller, M.Sp.S. (VI San Antonio) balked at the idea and brought plans to enter into the Ordinariate to a screeching halt. The Archbishop unceremoniously removed the popular Pastoral Provision priest from OLA, ordering him to enter into a 15 day period of time to "reflect on certain specific concerns that I have shared with him."

The Archbishop's concerns are that OLA's unique style of worship and its successful school are drawing non-Anglican Use, lifelong Catholics away from other area Archdiocesan parishes. The only other Catholic parish in the 78255 zip code is St. Elizabeth Ann Seton on Cross Mountain Trail. The Archdiocese of San Antonio's Latino population is especially attracted to Our Lady of the Atonement's piety and reverence coupled, with Atonement Academy's strong emphasis on classical education and finds Hispanics travelling across town to attend the distinctive parish and its award-winning parochial school.

The 15 days period of imposed reflection became four weeks. Then one month stretched into two with no end of the siege in sight. Fr. Phillips was removed from his altar, his pulpit and his church office and forbidden to go on OLA church or school property. So the ousted priest remained hidden and out of sight behind the closed doors of his rectory, as he patiently waited for prayers to be answered.

"During this time of reflection and prayer, Father Phillips will not have the responsibility of pastoral care or authority in the parish," San Antonio's Archbishop informed the parish in January. A parish administrator was installed to oversee the day-to-day operation of the church and school and to keep the parish on even keel until a solution to the deadlock could be found. Monsignor Franciszek Kurzaj became the temporary parish overseer in Fr. Phillips' absence, but the bulk of the many daily and Sunday distinctive Anglican Use liturgical celebrations fell on the shoulders of the curate, Fr. Jeffrey Moore. Fr. Phillips was forbidden from celebrating at his own altar, which, for a priest, produces great spiritual anguish.

The displaced priest suffered in obedient silence. But others were taking up the cause in his defense. A dedicated band of parishioners surrounded him in ardent daily prayer, pleading for Our Lady of the Atonement -- the parish's patron saint -- to intercede in heavenly places for a swift and just outcome to their dilemma. They also prayerfully petitioned Pope St. John Paul II, who, as pontiff, in 1983, when he erected Our Lady of the Atonement as a Pastoral Provision parish, to include his saintly prayers to the cause and they also appealed to the Archangel Michael to add his angelic prayers to the mix. Michael is known from Scripture to have fought Satan in a bruising spiritual battle. Many times the powerful archangel is depicted in iconography with wings fully unfurled and having an upraised sword in his hand while he crushes the defeated devil beneath his feet. OLA parishioners knew they were in a spiritual battle for the Anglican Use soul of their parish.

Our Lady of the Atonement's parishioners' prayers not only went to the highest reaches of heaven, their plea, for safe passage into the Ordinariate also went to the hallowed halls of the Vatican. Numerous views and insights were heard as the problem was canonically examined, unraveled and solved.

Bishop Lopes likens the process to "trying to untangle fish hooks." Perhaps it will be more like unraveling tangled rosaries.

Many voices had much to say: Bishop Lopes and Archbishop García-Siller were the closest to the OLA's canonical impasse. Others had insight through practical knowledge: Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, the cardinal archbishop in Houston, has experience in transferring a Pastoral Provision parish into the Ordinariate. He graciously allowed Our Lady of Walsingham go in unimpeded. Now OLW is the cathedral, and the Ordinariate's chancery is built on its grounds. Donald Cardinal Wuerl was the Congregation of the Doctrine and Faith (CDF) delegate in Washington, DC, who helped to bring the American ordinariate into being. Bishop Kevin Vann is now the Ecclesiastical Delegate for the Pastoral Provision. While he was the Catholic Bishop of Fort Worth, he transferred St. Mary the Virgin into the Ordinariate. Gerhard Cardinal Müller is the current prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It is the CDF which has oversight for Pastoral Provision priests and parishes, as well as all Ordinariates. However, it was Pope Francis who finally issued the documents directing that OLA, a Pastoral Provision parish, be disengaged from the Archdiocese of San Antonio and immediately be received into the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. No more questions asked. No other arguments accepted. Rome has spoken, the matter is settled.

On Tuesday evening, when Bishop Lopes arrived to meet his new flock in San Antonio, he was met with a full house. The good bishop was accompanied to OLA by his "vicar general," which is Catholic parlance for "canon to the ordinary." There was standing room only in St. Anthony's Hall. Finally, when Fr. Phillips, escorted by Fr. Moore, entered the parish hall, the hall exploded in sustained applause as parishioners leapt to their feet to give their beleaguered pastor an enthusiastic, standing ovation.

Our Lady of the Atonement parishioners learned that all problems facing them can and will be solved. Although it might take upwards of two years to iron out all the bugs. Canon Timothy Perkins, the Ordinariate's Vicar General (Canon to the Ordinary), is going to step in as parish administrator to deal with the complexity of untangling financial, legal and parochial school issues from the Archdiocese of San Antonio to help smooth OLA's passage into the Ordinariate.

"Our Lady of the Atonement Parish ... will now continue as a parish community under the jurisdiction of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter," the Archdiocese of San Antonio announced on Tuesday. "With this decision the Pastoral Provision no longer exists in the Archdiocese of San Antonio. Parishioners of Our Lady of the Atonement Parish ... and staff of Our Lady of the Atonement Parish, will be responsible to Bishop Steven J. Lopes, Bishop of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, as a permanent relationship. The responsibility for the parish, to include its properties and school, now transfers from the Archdiocese of San Antonio to the Ordinariate."

"The Ordinariate expresses its deepest gratitude to the Archdiocese of San Antonio for welcoming and caring for Our Lady of the Atonement since its inception, and for the Archdiocese's ongoing commitment to the Church's care for the unity of Christians," the Ordinariate's news release said in grateful thanksgiving to the Archdiocese. "Through continued collaboration in the coming months, the Archdiocese and the Ordinariate will remain dedicated to supporting the natural evolution of this Pastoral Provision parish into the Ordinariate."

"As of today we return to being the parish family we have always been, but poised for even greater adventures," Fr. Phillips said Tuesday. "I am grateful for our years in the Archdiocese of San Antonio -- it was the soil in which we grew and flourished."

With Canon Perkins shouldering the transition headaches, Fr. Phillips, now as the honored pastor emeritus, will be freed up to do what he does best -- be a simple parish priest -- celebrating Mass, teaching Bible study, leading Inquirer's Classes, or teaching high school theology.

However, Bishop Lopes noted that he wanted to tap Fr. Phillips' vast expertise in parish growth to reach out and help fledgling Ordinariate congregations be firmly established, grow and flourish.

Fr. Phillips founded Our Lady of the Atonement in 1982, with a mere 18 souls. Over the years, it has grown into a sparkling jewel, which is now being placed in the Ordinariate's crown.

"This has been an historic day," Fr. Phillips joyfully e-mailed his happy flock. "Our Lady of the Atonement is now a parish of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. Fr. Moore and I are incardinated as priests of the Ordinariate."

The joyful priest continued: "I am delighted with this! As I told some of our people today, 'I get to continue to do all the things I love, and poor Fr. Perkins has to do all the hard stuff!' "

Fr. Phillips first Mass back at the OLA altar was Wednesday's student Mass. The students were gleeful with delight to see their priest back and hear his rich baritone voice pronounce the sacred words of Consecration.

Reaction to OLA's move into the Ordinariate was swift, once the news started leaking out late Monday. "Too bad we put the 'Alleluias' away...... YIPPEE!" Pat Steffen replied on Face Book.

Save Our Lady of Atonement website posted: "Ut In Omnibus Glorificetur Dei" Latin for "That in all things God may be glorified."

" Well, things are piecing together quite nicely for us," Epoch responded on Church Militant after the Catholic website initially broke the news story of OLA going into the Ordinariate. Long Island Michael added: "Outstanding news!" While Steven Rabanal chimed in with "This is great news!"

Over on the VOL website, Peregrinus explained: "It is a profoundly significant change. The parish now comes under an Ordinariate bishop, can preserve Anglican patrimony not as an anomaly but as part of a growing branch of the Catholic Church with its own Governing Council, seminary program and distinct mission."

Bruce Atkinson responded: "You are right, it does not change what they have been. What it does is to give them the official OK to be it -- that is, an Anglicized version of the RCC."

"They were already that -- for over 30 years," Shane R. noted. "This might allow them to retain their priest, since he passes out of a diocese into the ordinariate."

"It is significant," Scientiaet Ratio responds. "The former Anglicans become part of a full particular church which has all the rights in law to preserve Anglican spirituality in the Roman Catholic Church. ... Rome has the power to protect this (parish) of former Anglicans reconciled with Rome from a liberal leaning Roman Catholic diocese."

"Hip, hip, hooray. Thank God!" an anonymous poster said on The Toronto Catholic Witness website.

The North American Ordinariate encompasses both the United States and Canada, while Our Lady of Walsingham Ordinariate covers England and Wales, with the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of the Southern Cross being established in Australia.

"What wonderful news for the community at Atonement Parish," Vox Cantoris wrote. "Atonement Parish in San Antonio finally home to the Ordinariate! After a recent action against this community and its Pastor, justice has been done!"

VOL requests for comment from the Ordinariate were met with silence.

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

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