Becoming Catholic in a Time of Scandal: An Episcopal Priest’s Journey of Grace
Canon Andrew Petiprin wrote a book on the Church’s doctrine and realized that, like Blessed John Henry Newman, he had to embrace Christ’s call and enter the Catholic Church.
Why would a high-ranking priest in the Episcopal Church decide with his family to come into full communion with the Catholic Church?
Some might therefore look at Andrew Petriprin as a man who has sold everything to run into a burning house. He left his priestly ministry and position as a canon to the bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee to follow Jesus Christ’s call to enter the Catholic Church Jan. 1, the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God.
But Petiprin told the Register that amid the Church’s worst scandal since the Reformation era, there is an “outpouring of grace happening now” — and that, for whatever reason in the midst of this present crisis, God has drawn him and other Christian disciples of Jesus Christ into the fullness of communion and truth found in his Catholic Church.
Andrew, many people no doubt are wondering: How does a canon of the Episcopal Church decide to come into full communion with the Catholic Church at a time like this?
A lot of people have asked me that. I actually think that there is a kind of outpouring of grace happening right now, drawing people in precisely at this time. I think in some way that doesn’t make a lot of sense to people, who might think it is a little bit strange that I and others would feel now is the right moment, in the midst of so much confusion in the Catholic Church, to come in.
But to me, it makes all the sense in the world. The difficulties of the Catholic Church do not make its truths any less true. And that’s really what has drawn me in. This is the moment, for whatever reason, that God has called.
So how did you know God was saying, “Canon Andrew, now is the moment for you to leave the Episcopal Church and come into full communion with the Catholic Church?”
Well, a lot happened to me over the last year and a half. My ministry in the Episcopal Church for the last year and a half or so (or up until the time that I converted) was working on the diocesan staff. I wasn’t ministering in a parish to people in the same way that I had before, and in some ways seeing the operation of the Episcopal Church more from the inside and sort of looking ahead to the future clarified a lot of things for me.
It also just allowed me to get my head up a little bit. When you’re in parish ministry, in whatever tradition it is, you’re just so busy with tending to people’s needs; and in some ways, that makes it kind of difficult to contemplate the larger questions of whether you’re in the right place or not. For me, getting out of parish ministry and coming into diocesan ministry just gave me some space to think about some of these questions and to look ahead to the future.
Interestingly, though, my time on the diocesan staff in the diocese of Tennessee here in Nashville also opened up some possibilities for me to encounter some Catholics in ways that I hadn’t before.
Really! How did that happen?
I ended up participating in this ecumenical reading group with a couple of Dominican sisters, a priest and a Catholic layman. And that was really, really enriching for me.
The idea of it definitely wasn’t that converts were going to be made, but it happened to me in that situation. So that was very pivotal and among a lot of other people and things that God just put in my life unexpectedly. With Catholics and non-Catholics, it was one conversation and encounter after another with others that made it clear that God was calling [me into the Catholic Church], and he was calling now.
How did you experience “the cost of discipleship” (to quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer) by responding to Christ’s call to come into the Catholic Church?
I felt comfortable as an Anglican for a lot of years, but it really occurred to me increasingly that there was a fullness in the Catholic Church that was calling me. Even though my faith was not nothing — and I appreciated that especially about the Catholic ecumenical documents from the last decade that my ministry and faith wasn’t nothing — there was a fullness that I just couldn’t stay away from — even though it meant a cost, at least in the short term; I had to leave my ministry, give up my livelihood, at least for a time. And it unsettled things in terms of my family and our church life, and all of that.
But there’s always a cost. John Henry Newman talked about that in his novel Loss and Gain, and he experienced huge loss by his conversion, but gained; ultimately, he gains everything.
Here in our day, the loss that you experience is nothing like Newman’s day, where he was ostracized from the establishment and all of that sort of thing. Not a lot of people cared that my family and I have converted. … The leaving behind our tradition and our kind of ecclesial community comes with some grief, for sure, but the gain is enormous in the long run.
Did soon-to-be St. John Henry Newman have an impact on your own journey to the Catholic Church?
Yes, very much so. I had read Newman in seminary, and I’ve been aware of him and connected to him over the years. But it really has only been over the last two years or so that I have come back to him and read him with more of an open heart and more seriously.
So revisiting his Apologia, reading the essay on the development of Christian doctrine, and reading his novel Loss and Gain have all been important things for me over the last couple of years. And to be honest, I really think that his prayers have been extremely powerful on my behalf. Just from my own personal story, I think his becoming a saint is extremely significant. I sort of half-jokingly have said if they hadn’t found that second miracle for him, then they just need to talk to me and maybe I can provide them with it. Because I really do believe that he has played a role in my coming into full communion now.
Can you tell me about the book you wrote and how that played a role in your conversion story?
My book is called Truth Matters: Knowing God and Yourself, and it developed out of my desire in parish ministry in the Episcopal Church to teach my people some of the basics of Christian doctrine that go all the way back to the first few centuries of the Church and beyond.
I ended up writing the book for New Growth Press, and therefore it had to be a very ecumenical approach to exploring some of the basics of the doctrine of the Trinity and Christology and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and all those sorts of things. It’s a very ecumenical book, in the vein of C.S. Lewis, or others like that I’ve always tried to follow.
As I wrote the book, especially as I was finishing it and getting it to publication, I really just couldn’t believe any more that these truths and doctrines could be detached from their place within the Church, the community that had been established in the apostles on the rock of Peter, and that had been carried through all of these centuries down to the present day. So I ended up concluding (as I’m publishing this very ecumenical book about the doctrines of the Church) that the possessor of those doctrines is the Catholic Church. And so, getting that to press really impressed upon me the need to come into full communion sooner rather than later.
For a lot of fellow Christians who have not come into full communion with the Catholic Church, they say, “I love Jesus. I feel very close to the Lord. I don’t quite see how embracing all these doctrines of the Catholic Church is going to make me love Jesus more or serve him better.” How would you help them connect that full knowledge of the Church’s doctrine to their love and service of Jesus?
Well, I was raised evangelical, and so, for us, it was all about a personal relationship with Jesus and this relational aspect of faith. And what I found increasingly as an Anglican and now just so much more as a Catholic is that is what Catholicism is all about. It is all about relationship with God. That is most of all the case in the real presence of Christ in the [Eucharist]. And so I tell my Protestant friends that if they want a fuller relationship with Jesus, then they can take him into their very bodies and commune with him here in reality.
Something that I didn’t fully grasp for a long, long time as a Christian was that the promises of God are certainly ahead of us in the future, and they are our hope for eternity; but they are on offer now; really communing with God in the Person of Jesus Christ in the sacrament is before us right now. And all of the doctrines of the Catholic Church are in the service of that reality, of really experiencing God now.
What is the next step for you? As you know, almost 10 years ago with the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, Benedict XVI established three special dioceses in the Catholic Church, the personal ordinariates for the Anglican patrimony. Have you considered joining the American Ordinariate, the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter?
My short-term goals are just to find good and meaningful work that will allow me to provide for my family, and so prayers are appreciated there! I want to continue writing, and I’ve got other projects in the works. So I’m very much looking forward to writing now as a Catholic. But as far as future ministry in the Church, or my role in connection to the ordinariate and things like that, I’m wide-open to discernment, and we’ll just see as things develop.
I think the ordinariate is an incredible answer to prayer, both on the Anglican side and on the Catholic side. I think it’s just a wonderful thing for Anglicans to be able to bring gifts into the Catholic Church that can enrich the Church as a whole, and I would love to be a bearer of those gifts. So we’ll see what the future holds. I just know, in the short term, I’m just excited about being a Catholic husband and dad and getting used to the new world that I inhabit.
Being that you’re a Catholic husband and dad, what was the conversion process like for your whole family?
It’s something that my wife and I had talked about for a long time, but it only was something we talked about seriously for about a year or so before our conversion. It’s something that we both thought a lot about, prayed about, and talked to our kids about.
We’re very much in an adjustment phase now: getting used to worshipping in a new church and getting to know a new community. But we all believe that this is where the Lord has led us, and we’re excited to be doing it together as a family.
You mentioned that Anglicans can bring certain gifts into the Catholic Church that can really enrich Catholic life and faith. Could you expound on that a little bit?
Those looking at this situation need to remember that the Catholic Church in a sense decides what the gifts are that Anglicans bring into the Church. So that’s an important thing to note. But the thing that delights me is thinking about the liturgical and musical tradition. Anglicans have a wonderful tradition, too, of using Scripture in a way that I think can really speak deeply to the Catholic Church: the tradition of praying the daily offices [Morning and Evening Prayer, also called Mattins and Evensong] and praying the Psalms are not just things that are done in monasteries (although it’s wonderful that they are done in monasteries), but those things are done in a parish church or indeed even in a home, in a family context. Those are really wonderful things.
Anglicans are also used to (with the exception of just a few kind of very large parishes) a smaller church context with more of an intimate social life and that sort of thing. I think that could be something that could speak deeply to people’s needs in the wider Catholic Church, as well: that going to church isn’t just about fulfilling your Sunday obligation and then going home, but it could actually be a smaller-scale thing where you’re actually sharing your lives more deeply [with fellow parishioners] and celebrating the Lord’s Day in a more holistic way.
The experience of parish fellowship, sharing time together at the coffee hour after having received Christ in the Mass is definitely a hallmark of Anglican as well as ordinariate Catholic parish life …
That was something my family really cherished in our years as Anglicans. Honestly, it’s something that we kind of miss now as Catholics. … I do hope we can be somehow bearers of that kind of gift.
Ultimately, what has coming into full communion with Christ’s Catholic Church meant for you and your family?
At the end of John Henry Newman’s memoir, the Apologia pro Vita Sua, he says “life is short and eternity is long.” On the one hand, life is short and eternity is long. But on the other hand, life is to be lived and life is kind of long in its own right. I’m really delighted that we can live our lives here on earth now in full communion, in the hope of what lies ahead for eternity. So whether these years ahead are going to be easy or difficult or something in between, it’s just a great relief to know that we’re doing life now in the fullness of communion with the Catholic Church.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.