Back in 2009, Pope Benedict invited disgruntled Episcopal male priests to join the Catholic Church, retaining their status as priests, as well as their marriages. He offered to ease the conversion by allowing the men to remain married, but stated that this move would not allow other priests to marry.
"The church has made it very clear that they're not currently entering a conversation or thinking about overturning celibacy," [Sarah Ritchey, Asst. History Professor at UL Lafayette] added.
Some priests are trading in their Episcopal priest collars for a Catholic priest collar.
Sitting inside St. Margaret’s on Friday, still wearing his Episcopal priest collar, [Rev. Jurgen] Liias said, “I feel like this is what God wants me to do.”
The disgruntled and disaffected male priests are upset by the Episcopal and Anglican Churches’ practice of ordaining women and openly gay men into the priesthood. This move officially began in the late 20th century, starting with the ordination of women, following with the ordaining gay clergy, with Gene Robinson as the first ordained openly gay bishop, and more recently, in July 2012, approving the ordination of transgendered men and women.
Allegedly, all that the Episcopal male priests need to do, in order to become a Catholic priest, is apply to become a Catholic priest and if they are married, a letter of support, from their wives, must accompany their application. Accordingly, the wives do not need to convert to Catholicism for their husbands to convert to the Catholic priesthood. They just need to write a letter of support.
The male Episcopal clergy, who convert, do not need to learn a different worship service, because Mass is pretty much the same for both the Catholic and Episcopal Church, and their whole congregation can follow their priest’s conversion. However, the church building and property cannot and, as of late, this issue has been fought in court, with the Episcopal Church winning the majority of the cases. They may, however, keep and use the Book of Common Prayer, during their services as a new Catholic congregation, because there is little difference between the two versions.
Reverend Ian Markham, Dean of Virginia Theological Seminary and Episcopal priest, believes, while there is constant movement between the two churches and the sees the Roman Catholic Church’s invitation as a threat, but yet healthy for the Episcopal Church.
“There’s quite a lot of traffic currently going both ways between the two traditions, especially at the level of congregants. What’s interesting here is you’ve got entire congregations and clergy making the shift. So, yeah, I think the Roman Catholic Church is a threat, because we’ve lost the sense of our theological understanding and identity.
I think this could be quite a healthy movement for the Episcopal Church, because what it does is it keeps the Episcopal Church focused on providing a theological rationale for the things that we do. Too often we couch our changes in terms of policy or positioning on questions like sexuality, in terms of secular discourse. We as a tradition need to be as self-confident as Roman Catholics are. We need to be equally robust in saying, look, we actually think we have discerned what God requires of us as a community in the world. And we need to put our vision up against the Catholic vision.”
The first wave of Episcopal priests becoming Catholic priest began in July, with six clergy, including a father and son, converting to Catholicism.
"We are Catholics now with an Anglican heritage," said one of the ordained priests, the Rev. Charles Hough III, a former high-ranking official in the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. In what officials said was a rare happening, son Charles Hough IV was ordained with his father.
"My feeling is that I'm just overjoyed by the whole thing," the elder Hough said. "I'm blessed to say my son's a part of it, too. That's an added bonus. I am so proud of my son. He's such a fine young priest."
The younger Hough was recently named pastor of Our Lady of Walsingham Ordinariate Parish inHouston, which will be the principal church of the ordinariate under which the former Episcopal priests will serve.
"It's a great honor," the younger Hough said. "And I'm absolutely delighted and honored to be ordained with my dad."
These six former Episcopal priests are the first of 35 priests converting this summer.
However, the six priests stated their conversion was not just because of the Episcopal Church’s stance on women and LGBTs, but rather he views himself as going towards truth. Others stated their issue was also the inner turmoil between the right and the left and they do not like it and some even said that conversion was the natural progression.
The younger Hough also stated that he sees the Episcopal Church as lacking authority, which he believes the Catholic Church has authority.
The younger Hough said: "For me, it's not running away from something or saying the Episcopal Church is falling apart. My decision was going toward truth. To me, the current issues in the Episcopal Church are symptoms of a greater problem, and that was authority. There was no authority to say this was or was not part of Christian practice."
Not all, such as Fr. Mark Lewis, planned to convert and thought the idea of converting to Catholicism was crazy a 20 years ago, but now he does not.
Fr. Liias is part of the next group who will exchange their Episcopal collar for a Catholic one this fall, but is converting to Catholicism on Wednesday, along with 20 members of his congregation.
Liias is married with two adult children and two grandchildren, but his wife is not converting to Catholicism. However, she does support him in becoming a Catholic priest.
“We’ve been married for 42 years, and we’ve managed to make our marriage work with differences,” he said. “It’s important to model marriages that don’t depend on absolute uniformity.”
Twenty years ago, he was ordained in the Episcopal Church, but his religious roots in the Episcopal Church go further back to when he came to the U. S. from Germany after World War II. His said his experience when he first came to the States had a profound effect on him.
“That had a profound influence on me,” Liias said. “From the time I was a little boy, I wanted to be a priest.”
Liias served for 14 years as rector at Christ Church in Hamilton. Concerned about what he said was the Episcopal Church’s move away from “basic Christianity” with its support of abortion and homosexuality, he led the effort to form a breakaway church, Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church in Danvers.
“I found myself moving in a different direction ideologically,” he said. “I began to wonder if the Episcopal Church was the best home for me.”
Liias said he had thought about becoming Catholic ever since Pope John Paul II made a “pastoral provision” in 1980 allowing Episcopalians to join the Catholic Church.
When Pope Benedict renewed the effort this year with the establishment of the ordinariate, he said, “That, to me, was the final sign that this was the time to become a Catholic. I couldn’t say no to that invitation.”
By the end of the year, sixty Episcopal priests are expected to become ordained as Catholic priests by the end of the year.
However, back in March of 2010, Rev. Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, reversed the invitation, by inviting Catholic priests and members, disaffected and disheartened by the sexual abuse scandals, to join the Episcopal Church.
It’s an Episcopal answer to the invitation Pope Benedict XVI issued to disheartened Episcopalians last October to join the Catholic Church if they were dismayed by their church’s ordination of openly gay or lesbian priests and bishops.
Balmer says, in part, “I gather that the lesson from the Vatican is that homosexuality, even on the part of those in loving, committed relationships, is sin, must be exposed to the light of day for its shamefulness and must never be countenanced. It’s okay, however, to turn a blind eye to pedophile priests, to reassign them quietly to do harm elsewhere or simply to ignore the problem. I’ll take my Episcopal Church, warts and all, any day.”
While some leave the Catholic Church and become Episcopalian for various reasons, including, “The church left me. I did not leave her,” but Fr. Mark Lewis says, “We left the Episcopal Church not because we were running away from the issues of the Episcopal Church. We left the Episcopal Church because we were running to the Catholic Church. We came to the point where we realized the theology of the Episcopal Church is what was lacking. The theology of Rome, the authority of Rome, the unity in the Holy See and in the bishops: that was appealing to us.”
Thus, former Catholics join the Episcopal Church for various reasons, but those leaving the Episcopal Church appear to want an authority figure, at least according to this wave of the priests trading their Episcopal collar for a Catholic one.