CLEBURNE, Texas — Charles Hough already had quite a career, including 18 years in the prestigious post of canon to the ordinary in the Episcopal Church’s Fort Worth Diocese. Now he wants to become a Catholic priest.

Hough hopes to lead a group of former Episcopalians in Cleburne, Texas, who have asked to belong to the new Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, created by Rome for former Episcopalians. Every Saturday, from 9 to 4, he participates in a newly developed program of training for former Episcopal clergy.

He and approximately 60 other former Episcopal priests around the United States, many of whom are married, are studying for the priesthood using a teleconferencing system to hear lectures and discuss their intense course of readings. While some men join the teleconference alone, Hough gathers with several other men at a Catholic church.

A similar group meets in Baltimore for the weekly teleconference. Hough has special ties to one of the other Texas participants — Charles Hough IV, his son, another former Episcopal clergyman who hopes to become a Catholic priest.

Msgr. Jeffrey Steenson, who was installed as ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter on Feb. 12, said the planning for the program of study for these men began late in the spring of 2010 and is based on a document prepared specifically for former Episcopal clergymen by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This was in turn based on Pope John Paul II’s pastoral exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (I Will Give You Shepherds) on preparing men for the priesthood. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith document is the basis for course preparation in both the U.S. and the U.K. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, papal documents, and other assigned readings are the backbone of the studies in both countries.

Randy Sly, who became a Catholic in 2006, believes that the reliance on papal documents as teaching guides is particularly important. 

“The thing I especially like about our course,” said Sly, a former bishop in the Charismatic Episcopal Church, a breakaway group that stresses both Anglican and evangelical traditions, “is that it is giving not just Catholic theology, but an immersion into the Catholic worldview. This will help us think like Catholic priests.”

Serious Study

Msgr. Steenson has also assigned one of his favorite books, New York’s Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan’s Priests for the Third Millennium, which he describes as “the finest book I have ever read on how a priest should be prepared for the priesthood.”

“The goal is that every ordinariate priest should be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with our Latin-rite counterparts,” said Msgr. Steenson. “I am going to tell ordinariate priests that it is smart to learn to celebrate the Novus Ordo very well because that will make them more useful.”

But onetime Anglican priests will not have to reject the traditions of their former communion, and, indeed, Pope Benedict XVI has called upon them to preserve some of the beauty of Anglicanism as they come into the Catholic Church.

Ordinariate priests will have the option of using the Book of Divine Worship, a book of liturgical services and prayers that has been vetted by Rome and which uses much of the beautiful language of the Book of Common Prayer so beloved by Anglicans.

Although most of the aspirants to the Catholic priesthood already have been granted the necessary “nulla obsta” from Rome, all candidates will be evaluated a second time by Rome after they have completed their course of studies and been examined on it. If Rome is satisfied, then the Vatican grants a “rescript,” and the path to ordination is clear.

“The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wants to review our candidates one last time,” said Msgr. Steenson, stressing that it is key that “everything is done decently and in good order” before the go-ahead for ordination is granted.

If all goes well, the men in Msgr. Steenson’s teleconferencing course will be ordained deacons and then priests by the end of the year.

Because he is married, Msgr. Steenson cannot be ordained a bishop, and so he will have to ask bishops of the Catholic Church to ordain men for the ordinariate. 

The course of studies, which has been accelerated to allow men to begin to work with people who in many cases came into the Church with them, ends May 14, but many of the candidates will continue some type of formal study even after they are ordained. All candidates who did not come into the Church with a master’s degree in theology will be required to do further formal study.

While former Anglican clergymen preparing to be Catholic priests for the U.K.’s Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham were able to gather for formation at Allen Hall in London, the seminary for the Diocese of Westminster, men in the far-flung U.S. were less able to do this. They got together for a weekend in Houston with Msgr. Steenson, but the teleconference is their primary mode of instruction.

Emphasis on Aquinas

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston kicked off the first session for the Americans with a talk on the Church’s authority. He seems to have been quite a hit.

“After listening to Cardinal DiNardo, I wanted to go out and do battle for the Church,” said Mark Lewis.

Lewis is the former Episcopal clergyman who led his congregation at St. Luke’s in Bladensburg, Md., to become the first U.S. church received into the Catholic Church as a group under Pope Benedict XVI’s Coetibus Anglicanorum. The 2009 apostolic constitution, subtitled “Providing for Personal Ordinariates for Anglicans Entering Into Full Communion With the Catholic Church,” paved the way for groups of Anglicans to come into the Catholic Church together.

The elder Charles Hough was also impressed by Cardinal DiNardo’s session, calling its content “everything we have been looking for” and adding that it is “exhilarating” to have theology presented with more certainty than in the Episcopal Church, which often emphasizes “exploration” over certainty.

Msgr. Steenson has also enlisted as lecturers for his candidates to the priesthood such notables as Capuchin Father Thomas Weinandy, executive director of the Secretariat for Doctrine at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Jeremy Wilkins, an expert on the theology of the late Father Bernard Lonergan, the important 20th-century philosopher. 

The course of preparation, said Msgr. Steenson, focuses on the human, the spiritual, the pastoral and the intellectual formation of future priests. The course was designed for men who have already been through seminary training once but will encounter significant differences in Catholic theology.

Msgr. Steenson said the program for formation for former Episcopalians deals in particular with Catholic ecclesiology, the papacy, Marian teachings, Catholic moral theology, and includes “a big, heavy emphasis on Thomas Aquinas.”

“Anglican moral theology,” said Msgr. Steenson, “is partly very scriptural. What does Scripture say? But in the moral theology of the Catholic Church, there is a whole philosophical system.”

Msgr. Steenson, who holds a master’s degree from the Harvard Divinity School and a doctorate in theology from England’s Oxford University, said the candidates will study philosophical realism, which is important in Catholic thought.

Father Stephen Wang of London’s Allen Hall Seminary, who was in charge of the formation of priests for the U.K.’s Our Lady of Walsingham Ordinariate, concurred. “Each former Anglican clergyman,” said Father Wang, “comes with a different academic background. But there are patterns as well. Part of the course was designed to supplement the areas of study that were missing or less prominent in Anglican formation.” 

“Our Anglican theological college training and formation would have differed for many of us,” echoed Father Jonathan Redvers Harris, a former Church of England canon lawyer who was ordained a Catholic priest last June. “I, certainly, did no ecclesiology as a studied subject, but am in the middle of it now, desk awash with papers, books, conciliar documents, trying to get [the] next essay completed.”

Practical Matters

Asked about the differences in his Anglican and Catholic theological training, Father Ian Hellyer, a father of nine, who was also ordained a Catholic priest last June in the U.K., replied, “One of the most immediately noticeable differences is the systematic and integrated nature of Catholic doctrine. Now, looking back on my Anglican experience, it seems very fragmented and disconnected. Subjects such as sacramentology were regarded as optional aspects of theology — fine if one was interested, but certainly not regarded as essential.”

The course ends with practical instruction on how to celebrate the Mass according to the Third Edition of the Roman Missal and such aspects of priestly ministry as hearing confessions. Charles Hough IV says he has “baptized many babies, but it will be different with the Roman Missal.”

Hearing confessions will not be entirely new to many of the former Anglicans — but, then again, it will be new. “I heard confessions as an Anglican,” said Father Hellyer, “but not very often. We needed to learn the finer points of Catholic moral teaching and canon law that apply to the confessional — that was different.

“But, generally, the mechanics were familiar. I would say that a major part of the ‘training’ to hear confessions is practice. Substantially, the people of God train the priests to hear confessions, as well as the priest’s own confessions.”

Register correspondent Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.