WASHINGTON — As people filed into the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception Oct. 9, Mark Lewis was wearing a layman’s tie rather than the clerical collar he had worn for years.
Accompanied by his wife, daughter and grandson, Lewis was preparing to lead his flock at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in suburban Maryland into full communion with the Catholic Church.
Lewis is the former rector of St. Luke’s, the first Episcopal church in the Washington metropolitan area to come into the Church under provisions created for Episcopalians and Anglicans by Pope Benedict XVI.
The ceremony took place during a Rite of Reception and Mass celebrated by Cardinal Donald Wuerl on an appropriate date — the feast day of the recently beatified John Henry Newman, perhaps Anglicanism’s most famous convert to Catholicism.
St. Luke’s first Catholic Mass, a historic event, was to be celebrated Oct. 16 by Msgr. Keith Newton. Msgr. Newton, formerly a bishop in the Church of England, is now ordinary of the personal ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, the U.K.’s ordinariate for former Anglicans.
An obviously moved Cardinal Wuerl called the Oct. 9 Mass and Rite of Reception “a historic moment.”
In his brief sermon in the basilica’s crypt church, the cardinal stressed the importance of the Petrine ministry and apostolic succession. Cardinal Wuerl, who has been in charge of arrangements for the reception of formerly Anglican groups in the United States, noted that an Anglican-use ordinariate is being set up, but that, meanwhile, Lewis had approached the Catholic archdiocese and said, “We’re ready.”
The vestry of St. Luke’s voted to seek admission into the Catholic Church in June, and this historic ceremony brought those plans to fruition. The Mass was a Novus Ordo Mass, but Benedict’s apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus (“concerning groups of Anglicans”) allows groups of former Episcopalians to retain certain elements of their tradition.
A number of St. Luke’s parishioners are immigrants from African countries, and one of them, Osita Okafor, 56, a Nigerian, had the honor of being first in line to be received into the Church by Cardinal Wuerl. “Oh, my God, I must be blessed,” he told The Washington Post.
Lewis held back until he had made sure that everybody else had gone before him to be anointed by Cardinal Wuerl. Then he presented himself to the cardinal. As Lewis and his family returned to their pew, one member of the congregation whispered, “Look at him — he’s so happy he can’t stop grinning.”
Seventy-one of St. Luke’s approximately 100 parishioners were received into the Church, with an additional 10 planning to be received later (health concerns prevented one from being there). Ten who had been Catholic before but worshipped at St. Luke’s returned to the Church. Several members of another Episcopal church, St. Paul’s on K Street in Washington, were received into the Catholic Church with the St. Luke’s group.
After a rousing recessional of Lift High the Cross, the newly received and their well-wishers gathered for a cheese-and-fruit reception. Patrick Delaney, a St. Luke’s layman, seemed to be ecstatic. “I’m floating in the clouds,” he told The Washington Post.“I don’t know if there’s a tangible feeling, other than the joy and exuberance and the weight and awesome responsibility of what this means.”
The ceremony seemed to have made a deep impression on many of those present. Two women clutching handkerchiefs admitted they had been moved to tears. A man sporting a Canterbury cross on his lapel, a cross popular with Anglicans and former Anglicans, also seemed moved. “I’ve been going back and forth with this issue [of whether to become Catholic] for more than 20 years,” he said, adding that he hoped to begin a course of instruction soon.
The cardinal referred to Lewis as “Father Lewis” at the beginning of the ceremony and merely as “Mark” when he thanked him at the end. It was recognition of his new status as a Catholic layman, a status that Lewis hopes will be temporary. He is headed for an accelerated course of theology classes, after which he plans to return to St. Luke’s as their pastor.
Meanwhile, Father Scott Hurd, another former Episcopal priest, will help out at St. Luke’s.
Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.