Historic Anglican-Use Parish Faces Challenges in Bid to Join Ordinariate

The archbishop has suspended the pastor of Our Lady of the Atonement amid concerns for the parish’s ecclesiastical communion.

(photo: Jason John Paul Haskins, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, via Flickr)

SAN ANTONIO — The archbishop of San Antonio last month suspended the founding pastor of the first Anglican-use parish in the United States from pastoral ministry. The suspension, which came as a surprise for many in the parish, coincides with the parish’s application in Rome to leave the jurisdiction of the archdiocese and join the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.

Our Lady of the Atonement Church in San Antonio began in 1983 as an Anglican-use parish, operating under a “Pastoral Provision” established by Pope John Paul II in 1980 to provide personal parishes for Episcopalian converts who had entered into full communion with the Catholic Church but wished to preserve liturgical aspects of Anglican worship.

Father Christopher George Phillips, the parish’s first and only pastor, has overseen significant growth in the parish and the school. The parish, which began with 18 members, has grown to 630 families, while the school, started in 1994, has more than 500 students. A priest celebrates the ordinariate form of the Roman rite at Mass daily, and three times on Sunday, as well as an ordinary form Latin Mass on Sunday evenings.

The ordinariate, founded in 2012 under Benedict XVI, is the canonical home for Catholic parishes and communities with a liturgical and spiritual inheritance nurtured in the Anglican tradition.

Several parishioners told the Register the parish has sought to become part of the ordinariate for that reason.

Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller sent a letter Jan. 19 to Our Lady of the Atonement, explaining that he had asked Father Phillips to relinquish his pastoral duties.

In his letter to parishioners, the archbishop wrote, “I have known your parish, in my many pastoral visits, to be a place of contemplation and reverence, a place of beauty in architecture, decor and expression, a place of doctrinal clarity, and a place of close-knit community.”

The archbishop wrote that he respected and supported those aspects of the parish and considered the Pastoral Provision “a great blessing in our archdiocese,” but said he was concerned over “expressions in the life of the parish that indicate an identity separate from, rather than simply unique, among the parishes of the archdiocese.”

“Because of the pastoral concern that I have for your parish’s ecclesial communion, I have asked your pastor, Father Christopher Phillips, effective today, Jan. 19, 2017, to dedicate some time to reflect on certain specific concerns that I have shared with him,” Archbishop Garcia-Siller said, and then asked for their prayers.

During Father Phillips’ time of reflection, the archbishop has appointed Msgr. Frank Kurzaj parish administrator. 


Reflection or Removal?

In his letter, the archbishop made no mention of removing Father Phillips as pastor. But a press release sent to the Register by the archdiocese’s communications department said the archbishop was praying for Our Lady of the Atonement community “during this difficult period of transition from their founding pastor to new priestly leadership.”

The email sent by the parish office to parishioners after the archbishop’s letter arrived said that they were notified of a “canonical process being instigated by the archdiocese to remove Father Phillips as the pastor of Our Lady of the Atonement Parish as well as the head of The Atonement Academy.”

“The archbishop stated that Father Phillips has done nothing wrong, but his ministry is detrimental to the faith of the people and keeps the people of the parish separate from the communal activities of the archdiocese,” it stated.

Kurt Martens, a professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America, told the Register bishops can remove pastors when “the ministry of the pastor has become harmful or ineffective. A pastor is supposed to be a stable shepherd, so removal can only be done because there are serious reasons to remove someone.”

The reasons behind Father Phillips’ suspension and possible removal have not been detailed. In a statement emailed to the Register along with the press release, Jordan McMorrough, the archdiocese’s communications director, said, “It is a priest personnel issue, and the Archdiocese of San Antonio is not commenting beyond the statement at this time.”

The new parish administrator, Msgr. Kurzaj, in his Jan. 29 homily, told parishioners the archbishop had asked him to be there for a few weeks. He told parishioners that there is not a conflict between Father Phillips and the archbishop, but they have to know “who is responsible for this beautiful place.”

“Our Lady of the Atonement: Is it a part of the Archdiocese of San Antonio or the ordinariate? We don’t know, and we have to know. Who is the bishop? This has to be solved — not here, but in Rome,” he said.


Who Has Responsibility?

For many parishioners, Msgr. Kurzaj’s words confirm their perception that Archbishop Garcia-Siller suspended Father Phillips because of his petition, as the parish representative, to join the ordinariate. Several sources in the parish told the Register that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is currently considering the parish’s petition to join the ordinariate.

“All of this is because Father applied to join the ordinariate in the fall,” said Allison Wiggins, a longtime parishioner.

Other sources in the parish agreed, telling the Register that they perceived Archbishop Garcia-Siller believed Father Phillips was harming ecclesiastical communion by attempting to bring the parish to the ordinariate. After Father Phillips submitted the petition to join the ordinariate to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in September, relations between the parish and archdiocese became fraught.

Charles Wilson, a founding parishioner and canon lawyer, told the Register that Father Phillips’ suspension would have no effect on the petition to join the ordinariate.

In 2012, Father Phillips examined joining the ordinariate, but decided that the stability of the community, and its integrity as a parish, would have suffered in the transition. In a May 2012 email, he wrote, “The archbishop is not preventing the parish from seeking entrance into the ordinariate at this time, or at some future time. He was clear about that and is very respectful of our right to make that request anytime.”

The ordinariate did not respond to the Register’s requests for comment.


Pastoral Provision to Ordinariate

Five of the seven Pastoral Provision parishes in operation in 2012 have entered the North American ordinariate.  

In Texas, the cathedral-parish of the ordinariate, Our Lady of Walsingham, began in 1984 as a Pastoral Provision parish in the now-Archdiocese of Houston-Galveston, before joining the ordinariate in 2012, along with all its parishioners and property. Elsewhere in Texas, St. Mary the Virgin in the Diocese of Fort Worth and St. Anselm of Canterbury in the Diocese of Corpus Christi were both Pastoral Provision parishes before entering the ordinariate.

“It was always the plan [at Our Lady of the Atonement] to join the ordinariate,” said Wiggins.

The ordinariate and Pastoral Provision parishes celebrate the same English form of the Roman liturgy, Divine Worship: The Missal. A 2012 survey conducted by the parish found that the majority of Our Lady of the Atonement parishioners have backgrounds as converts, or children of converts, from Anglican churches and have a common desire to preserve the Anglican patrimony within the Catholic Church.

Pastoral Provision parishes originated in a decision by Pope St. John Paul II to allow ordination for married Episcopalian clergy who entered the Catholic Church. That decision also permitted the creation of personal parishes for Episcopalian laity who wished to retain parts of their Anglican patrimony. These parishes were erected within a diocese by the local bishop and were under his jurisdiction.

Since the decision establishing the Pastoral Provision came in 1980, some of these parishes, such as Our Lady of the Atonement and Our Lady of Walsingham, significantly predate the founding of the ordinariate. 

No new Pastoral Provision parishes have been erected since 2012, when the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter began. Congregations from the Anglican tradition coming into communion with the Church now enter the ordinariate instead. The Pastoral Provision remains in effect only for married clergy from several Anglican churches in North America who wish to continue their ministry as diocesan priests.

According to the ordinariate’s membership requirements, Catholics who have received, or could receive, any of the sacraments of initiation through a Pastoral Provision or ordinariate parish, are eligible for canonical membership in the ordinariate. Their families are also eligible to join. However, a Catholic does not need to join the ordinariate in order to register as a member of an ordinariate parish. Many Catholics are registered at parishes outside the territorial boundaries of their canonical parish, such as Catholics who register at a parish because it offers the extraordinary form of the Mass.


Vatican to Decide

Parishioners have been thrown into confusion by the suspension of Father Phillips, but continue to look forward to joining the ordinariate together with their pastor, should Rome give its blessing.

“As far as the archbishop of San Antonio is concerned, he is my bishop, I respect him, and I will do everything I can to discharge my responsibility as a member of the faithful of the Archdiocese of San Antonio,” Wilson told the Register. “But we want to be in the ordinariate.”

Professor Martens cautioned against forming premature opinions of the case. “If you don’t know what’s really going on in a case, it’s very difficult to comment on it,” he said. “You’re talking about a people, about the parish, and also about the history, and you don’t know what has been going on. There might be that one piece of information we don’t have.”

The Vatican will ultimately determine the jurisdiction of the parish. Until the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith makes its decision, all parties involved continue to pray for the good of Our Lady of the Atonement.


Nicholas Wolfram Smith is a Register correspondent.