Nicholas Wolfram Smith is a freelance journalist for the National Catholic Register and other Catholic media outlets. Growing up in the Finger Lakes region of New York, he graduated from a small Catholic liberal arts school in New Hampshire with a degree in philosophy. He enjoys fishing in the summer and writing poetry.
The old saying about laws and sausages – no one should watch them being made – could apply just as well to disagreements over canon law. After a few months, Our Lady of the Atonement has passed through its trials and emerged as the newest parish of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.
In a packed, standing room only meeting of more than 300 on Tuesday, March 21, filled with laughter, exuberance, and several standing ovations, Bishop Steven Lopes, who heads the Ordinariate, discussed the news about the parish and answered questions about its future.
The parish, which in January found itself thrown into turmoil over the unexpected removal of its founding pastor, Father Christopher Phillips, has been transferred to the jurisdiction of the Ordinariate by a decree of the Holy See. The parish keeps all its assets, such as land and savings, and retains ownership of Atonement Academy.
Most importantly, to many of the parishioners, Father Phillips will be joining them. He and Father Moore, the assistant pastor at Our Lady of the Atonement, have been incardinated, or transferred, into the Ordinariate. The news brought a standing ovation, and Bishop Lopes quipped that “perhaps never in the Church has canon law been greeted with such enthusiasm.”
The decree from the Holy See had two further effects: the end of the pastoral provision for parishes (which now affects only St. Athanasius, in Boston) and the appointment of a new pastor for Our Lady of the Atonement.
In the decree Pope Francis signed, Bishop Lopes was asked to appoint a new pastor for the parish in 2018. While the Holy Father’s reasons were not explained, given the complicated nature of transferring a parish from one diocese to another, and the constant negotiations with the chancery of the Archdiocese of San Antonio a move like this involves, a fresh hand would be welcome.
The vicar general of the Ordinariate, Father Timothy Perkins, has been assigned as the parish administrator and will lead the parish’s transition into the Ordinariate, making frequent visits to San Antonio from his assignment in Houston.
The pastoral and spiritual life of the parish will continue to be nurtured by Father Moore and Father Phillips. “They’ll continue to build the life of the parish while Father Perkins works with them and the administration to effect a transition,” said Bishop Lopes. While Father Phillips has relinquished the authority of a canonical pastor, he retains a central role in the life of the community as pastor emeritus.
For his part, Father Phillips seemed pleased by the new arrangement. He told the enthusiastic crowd that after 33 years of administration, “I get to keep doing all the stuff I love, and Father Perkins gets all the dirty stuff.”
Bishop Lopes said that he looked forward to Father Phillips’s counsel on parishes in the Ordinariate that are trying to build up their communities and gain stability.
“Not all of my priests are startup men – you don’t go into the seminary and necessarily come out Mark Zuckerberg. But all of my communities are startup communities.”
Our Lady of the Atonement, established in 1983, had been blessed with stability for 33 years, but with a new bishop, new canonical home, and new pastor in sight, things were bound to change. Father Perkins, the new administrator, gently reminded those gathered that things were not going to simply go back to the way they were before.
“There will of necessity be other changes, most of which I think you’ll like, some of which will make you slightly uncomfortable,” he said. Ordinariate leadership will be examining parish rolls and finances, sacramental preparation, and other aspects of the parish to become acquainted with the parish and address any needs that aren’t being met.
Although the parish now belongs to the Ordinariate, no parishioner will automatically become a canonical member of the Ordinariate. Instead, anyone who wishes to join the Ordinariate will need to fill out a form. If parishioners don’t wish to join, that doesn’t affect their membership in the parish, only the bishop to whom they are subject.
Bishop Lopes told the crowd that the difference between canonical membership in the Ordinariate and parish membership in practice wouldn’t be noted.
“There’s no distinction,” he said. “You’ll all get the bishop’s appeal.”
During the evening, Bishop Lopes conveyed the “sincere prayers and good wishes” of Archbishop Garcia-Siller and praised the archbishop as “a man of great integrity” who wanted to clarify the jurisdiction of the parish, and asked that any hard feelings be forgotten.
Father Phillips told the parishioners that “We have much to be thankful for when it comes to the Archdiocese.”
“It is in the rich Texas soil of the Archdiocese of San Antonio that we received our growth,” he said. “We were so blessed to have been planted here.”
Father Moore, before the meeting ended in prayer, said, “We are at peace now.”