A longtime North Shore clergyman is in line to become one of the first Episcopal priests in the country to be ordained as a Roman Catholic priest.
The Rev. Jurgen Liias, who led Christ Church in Hamilton for 14 years before forming a breakaway Episcopal church in Danvers, has applied to the Vatican to be ordained into a new U.S. ordinariate created by Pope Benedict XVI on Jan. 1.
Liias said he will resign as an Episcopal priest and will be confirmed as a Catholic in a Mass on Wednesday at St. Margaret Church in Beverly Farms. If his application is approved by the Vatican, he will be ordained as a Catholic priest this fall.
Sitting inside St. Margaret’s on Friday, still wearing his Episcopal priest collar, Liias said, “I feel like this is what God wants me to do.”
Liias is among the first wave of Episcopal priests who have responded to Pope Benedict’s invitation to join the Catholic Church through the ordinariate, which is designed to allow Anglicans to become Catholic while retaining elements of their Anglican heritage. Church officials describe an ordinariate as a parish without geographic boundaries.
Liias said that about 20 members of his former church, Christ the Redeemer in Danvers, plan to convert to Catholicism. The group would like to form its own parish within the Catholic church, with Liias serving as their priest and services held at St. Margaret’s.
Liias said he would also seek permission from Cardinal Sean O’Malley to assist the Rev. David Barnes, the pastor at St. Mary’s in Beverly and administrator at St. Margaret’s, in saying Masses and hearing confessions. St. Margaret’s does not have its own priest.
Barnes said he could not comment on Liias’ ordination because it has not yet been approved but said he is excited to have him join the Catholic faith.
“He’s definitely a leader,” Barnes said. “He’s got a lot of spirit and a lot of creativity. He’s dedicated to the Scriptures and to the Lord and to the church. I’m sure where he goes, a lot will follow.”
Liias, 64, is married with two grown children and two grandchildren. Priests who join the ordinariate are allowed to remain married but must submit a written letter of support from their wives in their applications for ordination.
Liias’ wife, Gloria, a member of Christ the Redeemer, is not converting but is supportive of his decision, he said.
“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.”
Liias has been an Episcopal priest for 40 years, but his ties to the religion go even deeper.
He was born in Germany in 1948, just after World War II. His father was an Estonian who was wounded during the war and conscripted into the German army during the Nazi occupation. His mother was separated from her family in East Germany.
His parents applied for emigration after the war, and his family, which now included his younger brother, moved to the United States and lived in a camp for displaced persons in western Massachusetts.
The family was eventually taken in by the priest of an Episcopal Church in Charlestown and lived in the church rectory for 10 years.
“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.”