Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church in East Mt. Airy hosted a truly groundbreaking event on Sunday, May 20.
The event, accompanied by a Mass, marked the formal introduction of the Anglican Catholic parish of St. Michael the Archangel, which worships at Holy Cross, into the Roman Catholic communion. St. Michael’s is the first Anglican parish in Greater Philadelphia to be received into the U.S. Ordinariate and one of the first nationwide.
The Mass was celebrated by Monsignor Jeffrey Steenson, Ordinary of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, a non-geographical structure established by Pope Benedict to provide Anglicans with distinctive liturgical elements of their church while moving them to full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.
The Church of St. Michael the Archangel began as the Episcopal Church of St. James the Less in East Falls, which was founded in 1846.
The congregation of St. James the Less left its historic property in East Falls in 2006 and has not had its own church since then. The congregation had disaffiliated itself from the Episcopal Church in 1999 and had become a member of the Anglican Church in America.
The local Episcopal diocese sued for the property in 2001 and subsequently won the case.
The Rev. David Ousley, its rector since 1983, is one of 60 Anglican priests preparing to be ordained as Catholic priests, starting in June of this year. He was ordained a Catholic transitional deacon at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput on Saturday, May 12. The parish and all its members had already been accepted into the Catholic Church on April 2.
Explaining his decision and that of his parish to leave the Episcopal Church, Ousley said, “The root issue was authority of Scripture, as understood within the tradition.”
While individual dioceses and the Episcopal Church as a whole were moving in the direction of following the spirit of the times, Ousley and his fellow parishioners at St. James the Less were not willing to do so. Upon disaffiliating from the Episcopal Church, the parish joined the more traditional Anglican Church in America.
When asked why he and the parish decided to join the newly established Anglican Ordinariate, Ousley said the move to reconvene with the Catholic Church seemed like the right thing to do, “The catholicity of the church is important to us, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to be assured of the catholicity of any of the Anglican church bodies in the United States,” he said. “We were afraid of ending up with the externals of the faith but losing the substance.
“Then Pope Benedict’s offer and his stated desire to preserve the Anglican patrimony moved us to consider whether the schism, which began in the 16th century between the Church of England and Rome, was any longer defensible.
In other words, have the Reformation issues been substantially resolved? These factors all moved us to reconsider the things that divided us from the Roman Church, and to consider the opportunity that the Holy Father put before us. This entailed study and lengthy discussions, which eventually led us to where we are now.”
Ousley explained that while St. Michael the Archangel Church is located within the geographical boundaries of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, it is not actually within its hierarchical structure and has its own Ordinary, Monsignor Steenson.
He has all the powers of a typical Catholic bishop, but he heads a diocese constituted of all those formerly Episcopal parishes and priests who are now full members of the Catholic Church, rather than a geographical territory typical of a Catholic diocese.
In his sermon at Sunday’s Mass, Steenson recalled that he and Ousley had been friends since 1983 and that they and many traditionalist Episcopalians had suffered many wounds during the intervening years. But now, he affirmed, was the time for joy in celebrating their entrance into full communion with the See of St. Peter.
“The parish [of St. Michael the Archangel] has, I would say, a sense of joyful anticipation,” Ousley said. “This is a time of many changes, but we are looking forward to what God will do with us in the days ahead, rather than backward to what we have lost. The parish is in one way 165 years old. Yet we are also new. This is a new start for us, which is exciting and more than a little daunting.”