ROCHESTER, N.Y. — When Father Jason Catania and his then-parish of Mount Calvary in Baltimore left the Episcopal Church to join the Catholic Church’s new Anglican ordinariate, they brought with them the Anglican treasure that planted the desire to join the Catholic faith.
That treasure these Episcopal converts carried with them into the Church is known as Anglo-Catholicism. The journey of Father Catania and the Mount Calvary parish, along with its church property, into the Catholic Church was not only a historic moment for the newly formed Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, but also served as a concrete manifestation of what corporate union with the Chair of St. Peter could look like for Episcopal and Anglican parishes.
As one of the ordinariate’s few celibate priests, who, therefore, can be more quickly assigned to shepherd ordinariate communities where a need arises, Father Catania currently serves the Fellowship of St. Alban in Rochester, N.Y. In this interview with the Register, he explains how he and Mount Calvary, the first parish church to enter the ordinariate after its formation, journeyed into the Catholic Church and how the Church has given the Anglo-Catholic Tradition a new home and permanent mission to proclaim the Gospel through the ages.
Where did your journey to the Catholic Church from the Anglican tradition begin?
I was brought up as a devout Christian — that is not something I ever lost, and I’m thankful for that, due to my stepmother. I was brought up a devout Lutheran and eventually discovered Anglicanism — kind of by accident — when I was in graduate school. I was just looking for a church home at that point, and I had no thoughts of the priesthood. I certainly had Catholic leanings, even then, having been an undergrad at Notre Dame. But I never felt a really strong pull to Catholicism while I was there. This was in the early ’90s.
It was the discovery of Anglicanism that brought out those sort-of-latent Catholic seeds. I very rapidly discovered there was no such thing as one type of Anglicanism. So I rapidly gravitated to Anglo-Catholicism. It wasn’t long after that I discerned a call to the priesthood. But even at the time that I was ordained an Episcopal priest in 2000, I knew on some level that I someday would be a Catholic. I knew that consciously — I just was not ready yet.
How did you discover Anglicanism and the Anglo-Catholic Tradition?
Well, I was in grad school in St. Louis, at Washington University, in a Ph.D. program in musicology. It was the academic study of musicology and music history that led me to an appreciation for the liturgy, and that was and remains an important part of my faith. The reason, perhaps, why I was not inclined to become a Catholic while at Notre Dame was that I saw some of the disconnect between what I was reading about — the history and practice of Catholic liturgical worship — and what happened when I went to Mass [at Notre Dame].
So when I discovered Anglicanism, it was purely at random; I was just looking for a church, and I found it in the suburbs of St. Louis.
How did you discern a call to the priesthood?
Growing up as a Lutheran, I sometimes thought about “the ministry,” as it’s called. When I went to college, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. When I discovered musicology, I was very excited about that, and so my adviser encouraged me to go to a Ph.D. program, and I did. That was a big “aha!” moment because those academic studies really developed my love for the liturgy, and the seeds that had been there growing up started to come to fruition, when I came to understand “the ministry” not simply as the Protestant ministry of preaching, but in the sacramental sense. The more I read and was encouraged by this parish that I was a part of, it all sort of came together with another “aha!” moment.
One night, I remember distinctly in St. Louis — just tossing and turning one night — it just came to me: I didn’t hear God’s voice in a mystical sense, but I had an awareness that this is what I was supposed to do. And I had to do it now, not wait until I finished my Ph.D., which would have taken about seven years. So I switched to a terminal master’s program, and since I was not yet an Episcopalian, where to study was in some ways more flexible. I did not have to go to an Episcopalian seminary. So I ended up providentially going to The Catholic University of America as an Anglican.
It was while I was at CUA that I caught my first serious bout of what Anglicans call “Roman fever.”
It's the urge to enter the Catholic Church.
I sometimes wonder how things would have turned out if I had become Catholic then or if I had as an undergrad. As it turns out, I think God had plans for me. It was divine Providence.
Now you embraced a vocation as a celibate Episcopal priest — is celibacy part of the Anglican patrimony?
It most certainly is. It is not the majority of priests, by any means, but it certainly exists. I mean [Blessed John Henry] Newman himself is a wonderful example. When Newman was at Oxford, the fellows at Oxbridge colleges were still required to be celibate — this is well into the 19th century. So there is that aspect of it, but there was also within Anglo-Catholicism the model of Roman Catholicism, which was adopted in so many ways, including the revival of the religious life and the celibate priesthood. It was more common in England than in the United States, but it very much existed and is very much a part of the mix.
How did the liturgy play a role in your conversion?
I think a big part of my conversion was a sense of connection with the Church throughout the ages in liturgical worship.
The more I learned about the liturgy and its history, the more it connected me with a Church down through the ages. That historical connection was very important to me. It wasn’t just part of something that popped up 50 years ago, or 100 years ago, or 500 years ago, but it was part of a living Tradition going back to Christ and the apostles. The structure and the elements that comprise the liturgy have that historical pedigree.
When did you and your congregation at Mount Calvary in Baltimore finally discern that you had to swim the Tiber?
Well, I had other bouts of “Roman fever” after that first one at CUA, but one practical consideration or another got me off track. Then I was elected rector at Mount Calvary, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 2005.
Well, when I went for my interview at Mount Calvary in November of 2005, they had me meet with a committee, celebrate the main Sunday Mass at the parish, and then they decided that they were going to have an open forum afterwards. I knew enough about the history of the parish — that it was a conservative Anglo-Catholic parish, so I knew what I was getting into — but then somebody popped up and asked me, “What do you think about ecumenical relations?” I forget exactly how the question was phrased, but I said something along the lines of: “Well, as far as I’m concerned, as Anglo-Catholics, there is really only one objective, and that is corporate reunion with Rome.” The room just exploded. People were on their feet, so I thought to myself, “This will be a good fit.”
I was elected rector a few weeks later. By the fall of 2007, we had a weekend vestry retreat in October to discuss the parish’s future, because, for many people, Mount Calvary was their last stop before leaving the Episcopal Church.
We talked about all the different options, and by the end of the weekend, everyone present, which included everyone then on the vestry, as well as several former vestrymen, was unanimous: Rome is the answer. This was the fall of 2007, two years before the ordinariate was even announced, let alone established.
What happened after you came to this decision?
All those present asked me to approach the Archdiocese of Baltimore to begin the conversation, which I did.
I got on the archbishop’s calendar, and by the spring of 2008, I met with then-Archbishop (now Cardinal) Edwin O’Brien. We had a cordial meeting, but it was clear that he was not so sure of the idea. At that point, what we were thinking of was becoming a pastoral-provision parish of the archdiocese.
So you wanted to use the option from the pastoral provision to become an Anglican-use parish in the archdiocese?
Yes, we did not want to break up the flock; we wanted to stay together. There was a very strong sense of parish identity, because they had been through a lot. They had to weather the storms of being the conservative Anglo-Catholic parish in the increasingly liberal Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.
There was a definite sense that if the parish was going to survive, we had to get out of the Episcopal Church.
So the conversation died down when the archbishop thought you should enter as individuals, not as a body. When did that all change?
Two very big things happened. The first one was the All Saints’ Sisters of the Poor in Catonsville, Md. This is a community of Episcopalian Anglo-Catholic nuns in the suburbs of Baltimore. On Sept. 3, 2009, they were received into the Catholic Church.
That was very significant for Mount Calvary, because of our history in connection with the sisters. They had been our parish sisters, and even though they’ve been out in the suburbs since 1918, the sisters would come downtown and teach Sunday school at Mount Calvary. On All Saints’ Day, all the sisters would come to Mass at Mount Calvary. There was a very close relationship.
Then, in November, came the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, which was the other big sign. So I emailed Archbishop O’Brien’s priest-secretary, and said, “I think it might be time to resume our conversation.” He immediately emailed me back and said the archbishop wanted to meet with me, along with the chancellor of the archdiocese and the vicar general. The meeting took place two days before Christmas 2009. They basically told us, “We’ve got your back: We want to do what we can to help Mount Calvary come into the Catholic Church under the auspices of this new provision.”
At that point, we really resumed the conversation within the parish.
When your congregation voted to leave the Episcopal Church and enter the Catholic Church under the terms of Anglicanorum Coetibus, well over 90% voted in favor. What was the delay?
The original plan was for us to be received on Easter 2011, but the Episcopalians were dragging their feet on the negotiations over the property, and we didn’t reach an agreement until right before Christmas of 2011. By this point, also, things were being done to establish an ordinariate in the United States.
What was that moment like, in January 2012, when you and your parish were finally received into the Church?
That was such an extraordinary day. I was the MC [master of ceremonies] of the Mass, having taken off my collar. The church was packed with press, and people came from far and wide. I decided that after we made the profession of faith (right before the Creed, which was our custom to sing), and went up individually to be confirmed, that I would go up last. I wanted to see each of them, and so I stood off to the side. When one of the vestry members, a dear friend of mine, got up from being confirmed — and then came up and threw her arms around me, and said, “Father, we did it!” — we both lost it. It was so emotional. It was such an extraordinary moment, for all we have been through, going back to 2007.
Then, I was ordained a deacon in May — and then a priest in June .
Later, we had these banners made: “Mount Calvary Catholic Church: Baltimore’s newest Catholic parish — founded 1842.”
In your view, what is the biggest challenge for other Anglicans looking at the Catholic Church to make a similar journey into the ordinariate?
Well, Anglicans have to come at least to the recognition that the Anglican claim to Catholicity is ultimately untenable. There are many Anglicans, including many Anglo-Catholics, who still believe that they are a branch of the Catholic Church. In this so-called branch theory, the Catholic Church has three branches: the Roman, the Orthodox and the Anglican. Unless you can overcome that, you’re never going to become Catholic.
For Anglicans who have come to that point, how can the ordinariate be a bridge for them into the Church?
As I’ve said to many of my Anglo-Catholic friends, and to anyone who is attached to this really beautiful tradition of Anglo-Catholicism, the ordinariate is the only place that this tradition is going to survive. It has barely hung on in Anglicanism; it has been marginalized by the ascendancy of liberal Anglicanism, and in some places by evangelical Anglicanism. If you treasure that tradition, the ordinariate is where it’s not only going to survive, but thrive, because of the provision that we have been given.
It is an extraordinary, generous thing that Pope Benedict did. We have this missal, which is an amazing book that is quite literally extraordinary — with a capital “E” — and now we have our bishop in Bishop [Steven] Lopes. This thing is not a temporary bridge — it is a permanent structure within the life of the Catholic Church.
So the ordinariate means the Anglo-Catholic Tradition has a lasting place in the Catholic Church?
Exactly. And that is what I would say to Anglo-Catholics out there who are wavering: That tradition that you love has now been given a permanent home within the Roman Catholic Church, and we are respected and cherished in a way that we never were as Anglicans.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.