Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher: pray for us!

St. Thomas More
St. John Fisher

Today is the feast day of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher: two Catholic martyrs during the English Reformation. Both men had been important figures in pre-Reformation England; both men were loyal to the Church when asked to abandon their faith; both men were publicly executed for their Catholic faith. Just prior to these deaths, the Catholic Church in England was officially suppressed and the Church of England (aka the Anglican Church) was founded by the king of England himself. The year was 1534.

The movement which gave rise to the martyrdom of these two saints (among many, many others) is a remarkable one in the history of the Catholic Church. Although it may be hard to imagine this now, before the 16th century, England had been one of the most staunchly Catholic countries in Europe. Catholicism was part of the very fabric of English society, so much so that the land of England was nicknamed "Our Lady's Dowry," implying that the ancient faith of English Catholics was worthy of comparison to a dowry given for Mary, Our Lady.

Catholic England?

Our Lady of Walsingham
The shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham near Norfolk, and the shrine of St. Thomas Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral were two of the most popular shrines in pre-Reformation Europe. Pilgrims came from all over the world on pilgrimage to these holy sites. The see (i.e. bishop's seat) of Canterbury was founded in AD 597 and was one of the most ancient and most important sees in Western Europe. Until 1534, there was an unbroken chain of English bishops in communion with Rome which reached back nearly 1,000 years.

After King Henry VIII's decision to break communion with Rome and found an English national church, the Catholic Church in England was officially suppressed. Over the succeeding years, Catholicism waxed and waned in official favor and popular acceptance. In the 18th century, the Church was allowed to set up  "apostolic vicariates", a form of jurisdiction set up in mission territories where dioceses are not possible to establish.  It was not until the 1829 that many of the old anti-Catholic laws began to be removed from the books. In 1850 (just ten years before the American Civil War), the Catholic Church was finally allowed to re-establish dioceses throughout England.

The "Oxford Movement" and the unique situation of "Anglo-Catholics"

In the 1830s and 1840s, just a few years before the Catholic Church was officially re-established in England, a popular movement arose in English high society. Many prominent intellectuals and clerics within the Anglican Church began to argue that the Church of England is one of three branches of ancient Christianity (the other two branches, in this view, being the Catholic and Orthodox churches). They worked to inspire their Anglican brothers and sisters to reclaim many lost Catholic practices and traditions. This movement, which became known as the Oxford Movement, helped to re-establish the regular use of vestments and liturgical art within Anglican parishes and led to a renaissance of Anglican church music and to a "fuller" Anglican church calendar with more traditional feast days, etc. Those Anglicans which follow these traditions often call themselves "Anglo-Catholics" or are referred to as "high church" Anglicans.

Bl. John Henry Newman
Many within the Oxford Movement eventually became convinced that they should become Catholic and did so. Among the more well-known Anglicans who became Catholic during this period were Augustus Pugin (famed church architect), Ronald Knox (former Anglican priest and biblical expert) and, the most famous of all, John Henry Newman, a popular Anglican priest who eventually became a Cardinal in the Catholic Church and is now on the road to sainthood.

The popularity and widespread effects of the Oxford Movement within the worldwide Anglican Communion (the confederation of national churches, such as the Episcopal Church here in the United States, who are in communion with the Church of England) has had other, far-reaching consequences in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. It has created groups of Anglicans that want to become Catholic but also want to retain what is good and beautiful in their Anglican heritage, in terms of worship, music and liturgical art.

In 1980, Pope John Paul II first responded to the requests of these Anglicans by issuing a "Pastoral Provision". This provision allowed the establishment of so-called "Anglican Use" Catholic parishes in the United States (the provision was limited to the U.S.) wherein some groups of Episcopalians were accepted into the Catholic Church and were allowed to establish their own parishes. These parishes use a form of the Mass based closely on the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. These "Anglican Use" parishes were admitted on a case-by-case basis.

Here's another interesting fact: the 1980 Pastoral Provision also allows for the possibility of married Protestant clergy to be trained and ordained as Catholic priests. Over the past 30 years, most of the men accepted to the priesthood under this provision have been Episcopalian converts, but there have also been others: Lutherans, Methodists and even Baptists. Online stories about these men abound. Here is one. Here is another, just for examples. More examples are here, and here.

Benediction and Exposition at Our Lady of the Atonement.
Anyway, the above-mentioned Anglican Use parishes have always been a small group. As this point, there are 14 Anglican Use Catholic parishes and missions (along with an order of consecrated religious sisters) throughout the U.S. Arguably, the largest and most successful Anglican Use parishes have been in Texas. Our Lady of the Atonement in San Antonio and Our Lady of Walsingham in Houston are two of the largest. To reiterate: these are fully Catholic parishes, in union with Rome (and their local bishops). Their worship and parish traditions, however, have a distinctly Anglican flavor. And this has been deemed to be a very good thing.

A new chapter: Birth of the "Personal Ordinariate"

On November 4, 2009, Pope Benedict released a document which many describe as a bombshell. The document was called Anglicanorum Coetibus, and it established a new structure within the Catholic Church specifically set up to allow Anglicans from anywhere in the world to join the Catholic Church en masse. Each country's council of Catholic bishops has been encouraged to established their own "ordinariates" to this end.

Previously, Anglicans could join the Catholic Church the way that any other adult would join the church: individually, through RCIA. The old Pastoral Provision of 1980 was deemed too slow and very cumbersome (a big reason why there have only been a handful of Anglican Use parishes created in the past 30 years), and it unintentionally created a process which ultimately discouraged groups of Anglicans from joining the Church together. This new document is supportive of groups (even entire parishes) of Anglicans who want to become Catholic and encourages them "to maintain the liturgical, spiritual, and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion within the Catholic Church, as a precious gift ... and a treasure to be shared."

Former Anglican bishops newly ordained as Catholic priests.

In response to the pope's initiative, on January 15, 2011, the first ordinariate was established in England and Wales. Appropriately, it is named "Our Lady of Walsingham." So far, three former Anglican bishops have been received into the Catholic Church under the ordinariate, along with about 900 laypersons and around 60 Anglican priests. Most recently, the Catholic bishops of Australia and of the U.S. have begun work on establishing ordinariates in their respective countries.

What does the future hold?

So, what does all this mean? Well, for starters, it's important to realize that things are not as they once were. Instead of only recognizing "dialogue," the Catholic Church has now paved the way for Anglicans to realize full, corporate unity with the See of Peter. It is also important to point out that the establishment of the ordinariate is not meant to be seen as a threat to our Anglican (and Episcopalian) brothers and sisters or to their beloved church. Will some Episcopalians become Catholic because of the ordinariate? Probably so. But the numbers will almost certainly be small.

Other groups of Anglicans that are already separated from the Episcopal Church will probably contribute a larger number of converts, proportionally. But all in all, the establishment of the ordinariate should be viewed as a way to more fully welcome those who were already "on their way to Rome," as it were. Far from being an attempt at "parish poaching," the ordinariate is truly a gracious gesture of outreach from our pope to fellow Christians who are seeking to be united with the successor of Peter. This is why Pope Benedict has already been called by some "the pope of Christian unity."

By establishing the ordinariate, Pope Benedict has also given explicit recognition to the beauty and good within the Anglican patrimony. He has acknowledged that there is much that is good in Anglican traditions and that those traditions are worthy of being preserved even within the Catholic Church. In a sense, Anglican heritage (many elements of which actually stretch beyond the Reformation, preserving unique aspects of pre-Reformation English Catholicism) is the heritage of the Catholic Church. The fact that this is being recognized is a very positive step.

Especially in areas of liturgy and music, the Anglican heritage certainly has much to offer the Catholic Church as a whole. By and large, in these areas the Catholic Church in the U.S. (by most accounts), fumbled the ball after the important changes of the Second Vatican Council. During the Council, good and important reforms were made in the area of liturgy (such as the re-introduction of vernacular languages), but the ways in which these changes were implemented created confusion and allowed for the introduction of many elements of change that went far beyond anything the Council fathers envisioned.

In traditional Anglican worship, we can often find the best marriage of beauty, tradition, and liturgical reform. The choral and musical elements of Anglican worship are hard to match. We American Catholics would do well by allowing ourselves to be influenced by them.

On this day, which commemorates the martyrdom of those who would have preferred to remain both Anglican (i.e. English) and Catholic, let us offer our prayers for those who are now coming back home to Rome. As a convert myself, I know that "coming home" is no easy feat. Pray, through the intercession of Our Lady of Walsingham, for unity and reconciliation within Christ's Church.