Dozens of Episcopalians Follow Leader into Catholic Church

SCRANTON, Pa. — Eric Bergman gave up friendships, his home and his priesthood in the Episcopal Church for his beliefs. The 34-year-old renounced his priesthood Dec. 31 and now wants to win souls as a priest of the Roman Catholic Church.

Joining him in the move to Catholicism are his wife, Kristina, and his three children, all under the age of 3. Bergman also brings with him some 60 parishioners from his former congregation, the Church of the Good Shepherd in Scranton, Pa., where he served as rector for five years, and 10 Episcopalians from a nearby parish.

Bergman is petitioning the Holy See to be ordained a priest under the “Pastoral Provision Decision,” a Vatican-approved process that allows married, former Episcopal priests to become Catholic priests while retaining elements of their Anglican customs and heritage.

“Jesus said the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church,” said the Yale Divinity School alumnus. “The Church should be on the offensive. If we adopt the defensive posture, that means we’re adopting the posture of the devil. That’s not what God intends for us, and I don’t want to be part of that. I want to be on the offensive to win souls for Jesus.”

Bergman cited the provision — along with Pope John Paul II’s commitment to the culture of life, the Church’s teaching authority and its “steadfastness and unwillingness to waver with regard to the moral teachings that are the foundation to the life of holiness” — as among reasons he decided to convert.

The pastoral provision, which the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith approved in 1980 with the blessing of Pope John Paul II, makes clear that the Church is not changing its stance on priestly celibacy, only that it will make an exception for married Episcopal Church clergy who want to become Catholic priests, according to Maria Orzel, executive director of communications for the Diocese of Scranton.

Issues that have long set Rome and Canterbury at odds — and some new ones — spurred Bergman. One of them harks back to the Anglican Communion’s 1930 Lambeth Conference, which sanctioned the use of contraception.

“When you get down to it, if the (Episcopal) Church is not going to back you up on the issue of (the immorality of using) contraception, there’s no way you’re going to be able to preach the whole gospel of life,” Bergman said. “I understood on my own that I had to leave; I didn’t know anyone would come with me.”

‘Logical Outcome’

His disillusionment with the Episcopal Church had been building for several years, Bergman said, culminating in August, when he attended a retreat with other Episcopal priests and their families. Many of the priests held conservative views in regard to the homosexual agenda in the church, but as he looked around, he said he noticed that a lot of them had only one or two children.

He wondered if contraception had limited the size of the other priests’ families. And he recalls thinking that if they had used contraception, then he wasn’t on the same wavelength as they — among the most orthodox — were. And this, he thought, meant he shouldn’t remain an Episcopal priest.

In a Dec. 31 letter to Bishop Paul Marshall of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem, Pa., he renounced his orders as a priest. Bergman cited contraception and the 2003 ordination of V. Gene Robinson, the first openly homosexual Episcopal bishop, as two major reasons for his dissatisfaction.

Bishop Robinson’s ordination was the “logical outcome” of the 1930 Lambeth decision, he said.

Some dioceses in the Episcopal Church allow a blessing of same-sex couples, and Bergman wrote: “When an ecclesial community pronounces intentional sterility among married couples to be blessed by God, that church all but formally invites into her midst the advocacy of blessings upon relationships that in the absence of sexual complementarity are of their very essence sterile. Those conservatives within Anglicanism who attempt to refute the sterile agenda of the homosexual lobby…have engaged in a self-contradictory and thus futile quest.”

He also pointed out that a contraceptive mentality that views children as “a burden instead of a blessing” only encourages abortion. He said the Episcopal Church has pushed for the legalization of abortion since 1967. 

 “By His great grace and kindness our Lord has cured me of my former spiritual blindness and thus has compelled me to seek entry into, and full communion with, that part of Christ’s Body the Church that continues to engage the moral issues of our day at their most foundational level,” Bergman wrote.

Evolving Parish

Bergman is now considered a layman. If the Vatican consents to his ordination, he could become a priest in about two years, after sacramental preparation and theological formation, he said.

For now, he has been named by Scranton Bishop Joseph Martino to be the executive director of the newly formed St. Thomas More Society of St. Clare’s Church in Scranton. His former parishioners, and those from the other Episcopal church who want to convert, are receiving sacramental preparation and are members of the society, he said. The goal of the St. Thomas More Society, he added, is to establish a “Pastoral Provision Parish for Anglican Use” in the Diocese of Scranton.

Even if Bergman had not left the Episcopal Church, Judith Sanderson, a former parishioner at the Church of the Good Shepherd who is converting to Catholicism, said she would have eventually left.

“I’ve been a little bit disgruntled in the Episcopal Church for a long time,” said Sanderson, 65, who cited the ordination of women as one reason for her dissatisfaction. The Episcopal Church began ordaining women as priests in 1974 and named its first woman bishop in 1989.

Sanderson said she has been feeling the call to convert to Catholicism for years. When Bergman announced he was leaving, she discussed it with her husband, who agreed it was time to leave, too. But Sanderson said she is happy that they and their friends will be able to retain the Anglican-style liturgy under the Vatican provision.

Bergman said he and other former Episcopalians have been heartened by the reception they’ve received at St. Clare’s and by the Catholic Church in general.

“I warmly welcome Mr. Bergman, his family and members of his former lay community on their new faith journey to become Roman Catholic,” Bishop Martino said in a statement in early January. “We assure them all of our prayers and complete cooperation as they take the initial steps toward full communion with the Roman Catholic Church in the Diocese of Scranton.”

Bergman’s wife, Kristina, said it hasn’t been easy to move out of their former home and leave behind friends who are angry at her husband. Still, she said, becoming part of the Catholic Church is the right thing to do.

“We have to follow the truth, so it doesn’t matter what sacrifices we have to make,” she said. “We just have to do it.”

Carlos Briceño writes

from Seminole, Florida.