There can’t be many Catholic priests who have a wife and nine children present at their ordination. But that’s exactly what awaits Deacon Ian Hellyer next week.
“I’m currently experiencing a funny combination of peace and excitement – with just an occasional moment of fear,” says the 44-year-old from Devon in England who, until a few months ago, was the Anglican vicar of five rural parishes.
“Over the past 10 years, though, I’d increasingly felt uncomfortable in the Church of England and found myself questioning more and more of its decisions and the direction it’s going in,” he told CNA June 9.
Just before Lent this year, Hellyer made an announcement to his Anglican parishioners – he was leaving to become a Catholic.
“They were somewhat shocked, not least because my Anglican bishop wouldn’t let me warn people about the announcement beforehand.”
Hellyer is just one of 68 former Anglican clergymen being ordained this month into the Catholic Church’s Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. It was established by Pope Benedict XVI earlier this year as a “Roman home” for Anglican converts within the Catholic Church.
“I was amazed when the personal ordinariate was announced, amazed at its generosity and the respect it gave to the authentic traditions of Anglicans. It came out the blue. So I said to myself, ‘How could I not respond to that?’”
For Hellyer, though, that decision has meant more than simply a change of religion. It also means giving up a salary, a house and a pension plan. The sacrifice of the move is made all the more obvious by the size of his family: he has a 3-month-old baby girl, four other daughters and four sons.
“My wife Margaret has supported me all the way. She’s always said that if this is what God wants, then we’ll be looked after. It’s an attitude that’s amazed many of her friends. They tell her that they simply couldn’t be that brave. But Margaret is a great woman of great faith.”
Recent media reports in the U.K. have suggested that some English Catholic bishops are giving a rather grudging welcome to the Ordinariate clergy. Hellyer, however, says he’s only met with generosity from both his Catholic bishop and even his former Anglican superiors.
“The Church of England is allowing us to stay in our vicarage until the end of August. At present, we’re also looking at moving to a Catholic presbytery in Plymouth. Hopefully it can be adapted for our use - most presbyteries weren’t built with nine children in mind.”
Interestingly, all of Hellyer’s children are already being raised Catholic since his wife is a cradle Catholic.
“So, at domestic level I longed for unity because I longed for unity with my children, so that we could be around the same altar each Sunday,” says Hellyer whose family, in various ways, seemed to have helped him to make up his mind.
“I remember a few months ago over Sunday lunch, it had just dawned on my second daughter, Theresa, that there were some married priests in the Catholic Church. So she turned to me in an instant and said, ‘Well dad, why aren’t you doing that?’”
Pope Benedict’s visit to England last September also played its part in Hellyer’s story of conversion, in particularly the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman.
“Myself and Margaret went to the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman in Birmingham on the Sunday morning. We both really got a sense that the journey Blessed John Henry made was also the way that God was leading us.”
This next Friday, June 17, Hellyer will be ordained a Catholic priest at Plymouth’s cathedral. He says he doesn’t know quite how he’ll be put to use after his ordination but mostly likely he’ll end up splitting his time between Ordinariate duties and helping the local diocese, perhaps in chaplaincy work at a school or hospital.
“I think that the new Ordinariate is very much part of the ‘new evangelization’ of the western world that Blessed Pope John Paul II outlined. And I think the Catholic Church is waking up to the need to reach out to people and re-evangelize in a way that’s most appropriate in our age.”
Despite the fact that he’s leaving, Hellyer is receiving good wishes from his former Anglican parishioners, many of whom “are watching what happens very closely.” That includes keeping an eye on Hellyer’s online blog where he’s been charting his conversion story.
“So our work is quite missionary, really,” he says.
“And it’s the mission that I find most exciting!”