Almost a year after being appointed to shepherd Anglican communities seeking to join the Catholic Church, Monsignor Jeffrey N. Steenson says the past months have been showered with blessings.
“I think the real joys have been to see communities that have struggled with the decision of discerning whether to become Catholic and have made that choice, and they have come in,” he told CNA in a November interview.
He described “the joy on their faces” as they enter the Catholic Church and said, “That’s the thing that sticks in my mind the most.”
Msgr. Steenson leads the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, which was canonically erected on Jan. 1, 2012. Pope Benedict XVI approved the creation of the ordinariate, which is similar to a diocese but includes communities throughout the entire U.S. and Canada.
Based in Houston, the ordinariate allows for entire communities to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church while retaining elements of their Anglican heritage and liturgical practices, such as the Book of Common Prayer.
As of Nov. 1, the ordinariate included 1,336 members. It contains 23 priests, 69 seminarians and 35 communities, including large groups in Texas, Maryland, Florida and Pennsylvania.
A former Episcopal bishop, Msgr. Steenson and his wife entered the Catholic Church in 2007, and he was ordained a Catholic priest in 2009.
He holds a doctorate in patristics - the study of the Early Church Fathers - from Oxford University and played an important role in designing the formation program for former Anglican priests who seek to be ordained under the new ordinariate.
Because he is married, Msgr. Steenson cannot be a bishop. Instead, he is an “ordinary,” who carries all the authority of a bishop except that of being able to ordain priests.
The past year has brought both joys and challenges for the new ordinariate. Msgr. Steenson said that he has to be “very patient with people because this is a big, life-changing decision for them,” and for some people, “all of their mind isn’t really there at the same time.”
“Sometimes people think that it’s a very simple matter to become a Catholic, that it’s like changing your uniform,” he reflected. “That’s not the way it is. It requires a profound transformation at so many levels.”
“It’s challenging, because not everybody sees that right away in the middle of this,” he explained.
It is also important to ensure that those who are entering the Church “are genuinely becoming Catholic and not just running away from something,” he said, adding that the ordinariate cannot simply be a “refugee community.”
Among those who have chosen to become members of the ordinariate, Msgr. Steenson has seen a common understanding that “we need Peter.”
“I think they’re very grateful, too, to the Catholic Church for making it possible for them to continue with a tradition of prayer and worship that they’ve known all along,” he said, noting that some people who had previously converted and found themselves missing “the prayers that shaped their lives” are now joining ordinariate communities.
Over the past year, Msgr. Steenson has found great encouragement in the “incredible support” of American Catholics, particularly the U.S. bishops.
“We’re small, we’re starting modestly, and yet the excitement and the support from people have been really, really great,” he said.
He described how numerous diocesan bishops have “gone way beyond the call of duty,” helping to fund initial assessments and health insurance for some men in the ordinariate priesthood and finding positions for them during their transition period.
In addition, Msgr. Steenson said that he has begun to develop a deep friendship with the bishops.
“It’s really quite astonishing how welcoming they’ve been,” he said. “I feel it’s home for me now.”
The current Year of Faith is a special blessing for members of the ordinariate, Msgr. Steenson said. During the year, which runs Oct. 11, 2012 - Nov. 24, 2013, the Holy Father is encouraging Catholics to grow in their faith through prayer and study of Vatican II and the catechism.
Msgr. Steenson explained that the catechism “has been our textbook.” He hopes that both clergy and laity in the ordinariate will come to know the catechism cover-to-cover and recognize it as an incredible resource as they move forward in their new faith.
Even before his conversion, Msgr. Steenson said that he had been using the Catholic catechism. He recalled his time as an Episcopal priest in the 1990s, feeling lost and wondering where he could find the resources to teach his people the faith. He was attracted by the rich substance in the catechism, which he views as “an incredible intellectual achievement.”
Looking forward, Msgr. Steenson hopes that the ordinariate will be able to grow in its relationship with the rest of the Church and provide “a real enrichment of Catholic life with this culture and patrimony.”
“We’re never going to lose our accent,” he said. “And in many different ways, we’ll be able to bring that gift into Catholic life.”