I didn’t know it then, but my conversion to Catholicism began even before my Episcopal bishop sent me off to seminary. A lifelong Episcopalian, I took a job after college at my childhood parish, one that required my presence at every wedding. One Saturday afternoon, in the sacristy with the groom and his groomsmen, I met a Catholic priest from a nearby parish, Fr. Vincent York, who had come to bless his parishioner’s marriage. Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), Pope John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical, had just been published, and Fr. York and I chatted briefly about it. A couple days later he showed up on my doorstep with a copy of the encyclical in his hand. Thus began the journey that 14 years later would lead to ordination, making me the first married man to be ordained a Latin-rite priest in the state of Pennsylvania.
No Truth, No Evangelization
In 1994 I matriculated at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut. I brought my copy of Veritatis Splendor, which had taught me that the moral chaos into which our culture is descending results from the widespread repudiation of objective truth. The rejection of any moral authority outside of ourselves, our late Holy Father helped me understand, results in the sort of disorder I encountered almost as soon as I stepped foot on the Yale campus.
Much to my chagrin, I discovered early in my studies that many of my classmates at Yale’s ecumenical seminary rejected creedal Christianity and the Christian’s obligation to chastity. Though I was not ready to embrace the entirety of the Catholic faith, Veritatis Splendor had helped me realize that I am not the ultimate arbiter of what is right, true, good, and holy. At the same time, as an Anglican, I could not point decisively to an authority to which all are accountable. Though we all used the Book of Common Prayer to worship, classroom discussions indicated that no commonality existed about what Anglicans actually believe. I began to understand that the absence of authority within Anglicanism compromised evangelization, as Anglican clergy regularly contradicted each other on doctrinal matters. Moreover, each person insisted all the while that his beliefs truly represented Anglican theology, and there was no way to sort out who was really right. I wondered, "How can we as a body begin to make converts to the faith, if we don’t even know what we believe?"
More Anglican Difficulties
Studying the Protestant Reformation at Yale also introduced me to what I have dubbed the "problem of Luther’s son," the reality that he who rejects his father’s’ traditions cannot expect his son will listen to him. This problem manifested itself within the Episcopal church quite starkly, as the denomination gradually foreswore the age-old moral norm of chastity before marriage. Moreover, the Episcopal church has been advocating for legalized abortion since 1967.
The dramatic change I witnessed in the church’s moral theology troubled me, so I sought answers to the questions my seminary education had not addressed.
Again, I found the answers in the teachings of the Vicar of Christ, when I attended a conference on The Theology of the Body, Pope John Paul II’s master work. This book elucidated the beauty inherent in the complementarity of the sexes and enabled me to trace the moral decline of our nation to its endemic contraceptive mentality. Our Holy Father taught that the widespread use of artificial contraception and the orientation this mortal sin fosters lead many to view both their spouse and their children as threats and burdens, instead of seeing them as the gifts and blessings they truly are. As the son of two history majors, I asked myself the question, "If the effects of contraception are so destructive, how did its use become acceptable?"
My research led me back to Anglican theologians. To my dismay, I learned that the Anglican Communion—which I had served as a clergyman for seven years—was the first Christian body to countenance the use of contraception. This 1930 decision marked the beginning of the Anglican Communion’s departure from traditional Christian morality. By blessing intentional sterility it opened the door to the common acceptance of sexual relations outside the bonds of matrimony. With these realizations I needed only to connect the dots: As long as Anglicans held as sacrosanct the license to use contraception, the Anglican Communion could not be a faithful witness to the moral decline afflicting our culture. Anglican theology promoted unchastity even as I sought to combat its detrimental consequences, consequences that as the pastor of an Episcopal parish I saw on a daily basis.
On retreat in Maryland, I paddled a kayak far out into the Chesapeake Bay and pondered what to do about this contradiction. While resting, letting the small waves gently rock me, I prayed. In that silence the Lord revealed to me that I could not ignore or explain away Anglicanism’s theological difficulties any longer. Nor could I assure my parishioners that all was well. Many of them had told me they too were conflicted about the changes they had witnessed. At that moment my conscience became too afflicted for me to remain an Episcopalian. I resolved right then that I would renounce my Anglican orders and seek to be reconciled to Holy Mother Church.
The Road to Reconciliation
As I drove back to my home in Scranton, I recalled hearing about the Pastoral Provision of Pope John Paul II. The Pastoral Provision was created as one of the Holy See’s means to reconcile Anglicans to the Church. Through it, former Episcopalians can, as Catholics, retain an "Anglican style" liturgy—commonly called the Anglican Use and published in The Book of Divine Worship. Moreover, these groups of former Episcopalians can retain their pastor, because the Holy See is willing to make exceptions to the Latin rite’s discipline of priestly celibacy if it will aid in the reconciliation of her separated brethren.
As I considered the possibilities I knew the first person who needed to agree was my wife, Kristina. We had married in 1996, and she had never been anything less than wholly committed to my ministry, even taking a semester off from school to put me through seminary. Devoutly committed to the sanctity of human life, she began volunteering at the local pro-life advocacy center when we moved to Scranton. Thus, when after seven years of marriage, I told her I believed God was calling us home to the Catholic Church, it came as no surprise to her. She needed no convincing. Since entry into the Pastoral Provision process requires the assent of the candidate’s wife, her support was especially welcome.
The second person needed to bring to fruition our call to Rome was the Bishop of Scranton, Joseph Martino. Therefore, I made contact with a friend of mine, a Catholic priest of the diocese, who arranged for me to meet the bishop. Bishop Martino knew all about the Pastoral Provision and indicated his willingness to implement it locally. Encouraged by the Church’s generosity, more than 60 parishioners from the Church of the Good Shepherd, where I had served as rector since 1999, left the Episcopal church with me on December 31, 2004. With Bishop Martino’s help, we formed the St. Thomas More Society, the sixth Anglican Use community in the world. We hoped our fledgling society would grow into a Catholic parish and that I would be ordained a Catholic priest, able to serve my former Episcopal flock as their Catholic pastor.
Reasons for My Hope
Bishop John Dougherty, the Auxiliary Bishop of Scranton, became my mentor. Assigned oversight of the Society’s progress as well as my ordination process, we met at least monthly so he could help me guide my former parishioners through the transition from Anglicanism to Catholicism. During one of our conversations Bishop Dougherty offered the most valuable piece of advice a convert can receive. He said, "Make a distinction between the occasion for your conversion and the reasons for your conversion. You are not becoming Catholic simply because you reject the errors of Anglicanism. Hence, you must be able to articulate precisely why you seek reconciliation to Mother Church." I understood that the lack of authority in Anglican polity, Anglicanism’s departure from traditional Christian morality, and my inability to evangelize shackled by such conditions had all been catalysts that propelled me out of the Episcopal church. They were the occasion for my conversion. To be an effective evangelist, I would need to explain the reasons I embraced Catholicism.
My first reason for converting was the Gospel of Life, not only John Paul’s 1995 encyclical by that name, but the orientation it describes. In the Catholic Church I found the world’s one consistent and constant advocate for the sanctity of human life. The Church’s invitation from God to receive, give, and defend the gift of life was for me an invitation to become Catholic. The Church also insists that man must exercise his freedom rightly to serve God and his fellow man. This definition of our purpose constituted the second reason I happily embraced the faith. Third, the Church defends marriage, a defense that implies the promotion of the very complementarity from which life proceeds. The diversity inherent in every marriage helped me understand that unity in the faith does not have to mean uniformity in how we practice it. Thus, I became a Catholic, finally, because Christ’s one Church authoritatively proclaims one truth, while nurturing many different vocations and rites by which her members can live out the truth. I was reconciled to Mother Church because these various gifts in the promotion of one faith bring life to the world.
That They May Be One
Bishop Martino confirmed the members of the St. Thomas More Society and me in October 2005. A year and a half later my mentor, Bishop Dougherty, ordained me a Catholic priest. Appointed the chaplain of the St. Thomas More Society, I once again became a pastor to my parishioners. For them I have been privileged to offer Mass daily according to the Anglican Usage of the Roman rite, and as a result we are honored regularly with visitors from near and far who are in the midst of their own conversion stories.
Fifteen years have passed since Fr. York gave me that copy of Veritatis Splendor. I still have it, and the splendor it describes becomes more magnificent with every passing day. Today the Anglican Use community I serve is blessed to share the truth with those who realize that to retain the good things Anglicanism has given them, they must leave the storm behind for the safety, comfort, and promise of the barque of St. Peter. We relish the role and we pray that more of our separated brethren will find, as did we, the shelter they require. Thus, step by step we will help bring about the unity for which Jesus prayed in John 17, that all the followers of Christ, "may become perfectly one" (Jn 17:23).