In recent weeks the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, often referred to colloquially as ‘the Ordinariate’, has had an increase in attention in the Catholic blog-o-sphere, Catholic news outlets, and even in the secular media. This was due to the controversy surrounding a Catholic parish called “Our Lady of the Atonement” (OLA) and its longtime pastor, Father Christopher Phillips, located in San Antonio, Texas. On January 19, 2017 Father Phillips was abruptly removed from ministry by the Archbishop of San Antonio, Gustavo Garcia-Siller. Late that afternoon parishioners were ‘treated’ to a message from the Archbishop informing them of his decision to remove their pastor from ministry, “to dedicate some time to reflect on certain specific concerns that I have shared with him. These specific concerns relate to expressions in the life of the parish that indicate an identity separate from, rather than simply unique, among the parishes of the archdiocese.” Owing to the abruptness of the removal and the vagueness of the Archbishop’s letter, rumors began to swirl that Father Phillips and OLA must be involved in some sort of scandal. Those close to the situation, however, were well aware of the happenings behind the scenes: Father Phillip’s, months earlier, had petitioned Rome for entry into the Ordinariate. Conversely, the Archbishop was trying to fight the move that would result in the loss of a large ‘cash cow’ parish and successful Catholic school, first and foremost by suspending Father Phillips. The entire unfortunate and scandalous situation was not a ‘good look’ for a Catholic Archbishop and for Catholicism.
The entire affair may have average Catholic scratching his/her head wondering the following: What exactly is an Ordinariate? Why would a parish want to move into one? What is the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter? Why specifically was Father Christopher Phillips attempting to move his parish into the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter? Why did the San Antonio Archbishop react in such a hostile and unjust manner? This article will endeavor to answer the first three questions in this series of questions, albeit at a high level, while subsequent articles will address specifically Our Lady of the Atonement’s ordeal and thereby answer the last two.
To answer the question of what an Ordinariate is, we must first recap the concept of a ‘diocese’. Most any Catholic will know what a diocese is, but for the sake of clarity of discussion lets us review. A diocese can be thought of in the same manner as a state or province. Many countries around the world organize themselves into states (ex. USA, Mexico, India) or provinces (ex. Italy, Philippines, Canada). In much the same way, the Catholic Church organizes itself into dioceses which are headed by a bishop just as a state is headed by governor (in the United States). All across the globe, in every country, the worldwide map is partitioned into dioceses of the Catholic Church, all headed by bishops, whom report to the head of all the world’s bishops, the Pope, who is the bishop of the diocese of Rome. Any Roman Catholic parish that falls within the defined boundaries of a diocese is under direct obedience and within the jurisdiction of the bishop of that diocese. All Catholic priests must be obedient to their bishop as he has absolute power over the decisions made within his diocese. A bishop has the power to transfer priests, remove them from active ministry, govern the holy days of obligation, direct the liturgical life of the parishes under his domain, close parishes and found new ones, among many other powers and responsibilities. The point to remember is that bishops have almost absolute power within their dioceses, save for extreme circumstances in which the Vatican may step in and reserve decision making to itself. Ultimately, true absolute power resides with the bishop of Rome, the Pope (as you will see exercised in the case of Our Lady of the Atonement).
Now that you are clear on what a diocese is, what exactly is an Ordinariate? An Ordinariate can be considered a diocese that is not, in a strict sense, defined solely by geography. That is to say, that as conventional dioceses have localized geographical boundaries, (ex. the diocese of San Antonio, TX or the diocese of Nakurua, Kenya), an Ordinariate does not. In almost all else, an Ordinariate functions just as a diocese would with its Bishop or ‘Ordinary’ assuming power and jurisdiction over the parishes and the priests that are members of it. Very simply put, an Ordinariate is another incarnation of a diocese.
What is the need of an ordinariate? Why wouldn’t a parish simply be a part of the diocese in which it geographically exists? The reason for Ordinariates is to bind parishes that have common characteristics and spiritual life under one jurisdiction in order that they may be lead and guided effectively by a Bishop who will care for them in their particular circumstances. A good example are the military ordinariates in the various countries of the world. There are many reasons to organize military Catholics under a worldwide ordinarate (diocese) for their proper governance.
First, military members frequently move around the globe, being stationed at multiple installations over the course of their careers. The locations of these installations would cause them to move into different territorial dioceses every year, many times across country lines. An undue burden would be placed on families and the church for the tracking of members for purposes of sacraments of initiation. Remember, military families are usually young and still in their growth phase; having an ordinariate that one belongs to streamlines the tracking of its people and their documentation. I, the author, can attest to this for I was born on a military installation abroad and baptized in its chapel. Recently, I had need of tracking down my baptismal certificate which I had unfortunately lost track of. The base where I was baptized no longer exists and, to make matters a little more complex, it was in a foreign country. If all the records reverted to the local diocese in that foreign country, tracking them down could very well have been a painful process. Thankfully, all I had to do was to contact the military ordinariate headquartered in Washington, DC to obtain my copy.
Secondly and perhaps more importantly, the ordinariate has the task of managing the military property it utilizes and clergy it maintains within the military. To divide this task across a multiplicity of dioceses and bishops around the world could potentially create an unorganized and turbulent experience for church’s leadership in its handling of its relations with the military. Centralizing the leadership at the ordinariate level allows for the development of specialized roles to better maintain its military relationship. While the ordinariate makes the laity’s life more convenient, the governance and maintenance of the military relationship is the overarching reason for its existence.
Finally, we will answer the need of the Personal Ordinariate of the the Chair of St. Peter. The origins of the Anglican Ordinariate within the Catholic Church date back to the 1970s. At this time the Episcopal Church was falling apart at the seams; its doctrine started to crumble. No more was the traditional teaching on marriage to be upheld, women were being ordained to the diaconate, and its stance on abortion was weakening. Clergy and laity together had started to have their eyes opened to the truth and the rock of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church and sought union with her. Until this time converting Episcopalians came into the church as individuals, but with the upheaval in Episcopalianism entire parishes breaking from the Episcopal church sought to enter and be recognized as parishes by Rome. They requested also to keep their liturgy and traditions and obtain Catholic holy orders. In response, Rome created the ‘pastoral provision’ which allowed these converting Anglican communities to form parishes under the jurisdiction of the local Catholic bishop in their respective areas. This created a situation in which communities sharing the same liturgy (called Anglican Use), spirituality, and patrimony were not unified under a single bishop. The obvious difficulty is that while these parishes were united by common liturgy and traditions, they were divided across dioceses; this was an impediment to growth and a risk to the preservation of their patrimony. For the good of the Anglican Use Catholic communities, Pope Benedict XVI brought the pastoral provision to its logical next step and created an ordinariate for the assurance of their future prosperity. In the USA and Canada the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter was born, in England it is the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham and in Australia, Our Lady of the the Southern Cross. These Ordinariates are comprised of Catholic clergy who were formerly Anglican and largely of laity who converted from Anglicanism. There has however been a steady stream of people who were born Catholic that have found their way into the Ordinariates, attracted by the beauty of the traditional liturgy and spiritual life. It is this beauty and traditional liturgy that Pope Benedict XVI wanted preserved and under the protection of Ordinariates.
Why would Anglicans wish to keep their liturgy and traditions while becoming Catholic? It is precisely because their liturgy is very Catholic indeed and very reverent form of the Roman rite. The Anglican Use liturgy, while liturgically new, has its roots in the Book of Common Prayer which itself had been influenced by the Catholic Sarum Rite of the Mass. Thus, while the Anglicans separated from Rome, they did in fact keep a sort of continuity of liturgy though it was increasingly more ‘protestantized’. This ‘protestantization’ of the liturgy began to be rolled back at advent of the Oxford movement which brought with it the return to a more Catholic liturgy among high church Anglicans. The Anglican Use Mass then is a descendant of the Catholic Sarum Rite by way of the the Book of Common Prayer, which was moved closer to Catholic practice during the Oxford Movement. Then, when the pastoral provision was put in place, the liturgy was scraped clean of any leftover ‘protestantization’, amended where necessary, and brought into Holy Mother Church a fully Catholic liturgy. In the end, the church was blessed with a liturgy that reaches into the English Catholic past via Anglicanism making that which is old, new again.