Why Catholicism? A Former Episcopalian Priest’s Story

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Since announcing my decision to become a Catholic and to seek ordination through the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter, I have had many an inquiry from folk wondering, “Why?” Some of these were authentic expressions of inquisitiveness; others came with perplexity; not a few came with consternation and dismay.

My first reason is this decision is an act of obedience to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As my Spiritual Autobiography details, this has been a long personal journey, of twenty-five years or more. However, I would add that, as personal as it is, it is not just a private or uniquely individual call. It is not simply a private denominational predilection.

There is in the Christian life a force of gravity which draws the believer ever deeper into union with Christ. That union is not only a private mystical union—though it is that–but a deepening union with the mystical body of Christ, the Church. It is a dogmatic principle of the Catholic Church that “this Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church.” (Lumen Gentium). If this is true, then this gravitational pull of Christ’s Spirit is universally active, drawing all humanity to Christ the Head and to the fullness of his saving grace which he mediates through His Body the Church. John Henry Newman, an Anglican convert to Rome, insightfully quipped there was no steady state between Atheism and Catholicism! There is always in the human soul that spiritual battle—the psychomachia—between the centrifugal forces of the world, the flesh, and the devil drawing us away from the Love of God, and the centripetal dynamic of the Holy Spirit pulling us ever deeper into the love of God. There is a gravitas to the Catholic Church, to the See of Peter, that is, I believe, a true and objective  charism intended by Christ to draw his followers into union with him in the fellowship of the Catholic Church. Whatever the individual contours of my own movement into the Catholic church have been, I believe they are part of this larger, universal gravitational grace that emanates from the Heart of Jesus which is in his Body.

 

That, of course, already displays the second reason for my decision: theology. The great divide between the churches of the Reformation and the Catholic church is in the domain of Ecclesiology—What is the church? In the protestant world Anglicanism has sought to maintain a catholic ecclesiology; that is to say an ordering of the body that is organic, universal, and apostolic. Bishops; creeds; sacraments; and conciliarism have been maintained as integral pieces of Anglican ecclesiology – Papal Primacy alone being set aside. Within that catholic structure, Anglicanism has also asserted a principle of theological freedom and diversity: one may believe in spiritual regeneration in baptism, but one may not; one may believe in the Real Presence in the eucharist, but one may not; one may believe in the authority of scripture, but one may not; one may believe in the sanctity of marriage but one may not. For much of my life as an Anglican, that freedom was a pleasant gift; but increasingly it had become a source of distress and a profound impediment to my priestly work as a pastor and preacher. How could I proclaim from the pulpit, “the Bible teaches…” or “Christianity asserts…” when my Bishop says quite the opposite? How could I advise a person in the confessional, when the priest in the neighboring parish would advise the opposite?; and I speak here of matters essential and primary. My authority as a teacher and confessor needed to be based on something other than my own best opinion (of course, this quandary becomes even more confusing, on almost any given point of doctrine or morality, in the vast panoply of protestant denominational theologies).

Flannery O’Connor in her conversion to Catholicism spoke of the glorious freedom she experienced in being delivered from the “tyranny of her intellect.” Fides ut intelligam! That has become my experience. It is the paradox of true intellectual freedom by submission to “the church’s teaching.” It is a glorious freedom, not only in the mind’s love for God, but in the vocation of the priest in theological and spiritual formation of disciples of Jesus. This theological conversion thus is not first of all a conversion to the peculiar Catholic beliefs that my inquirers challenge me about: What about Mary? What about purgatory? What about contraception? Rather it is a conversion to the faithfulness of Christ’s gift to the church of an authentic authority to bind and to loose. At its deepest it is a question of pneumatology even more than ecclesiology—how does the Spirit of Truth actually function in the Church? Whatever complexities and seeming incongruities may be discerned, the Magisterium is (at minimum) a reasonable and practicable answer to the question of Truth that is trustworthy; at best, it is what the church proclaims it to be: the provision by Christ of the gift of unerring guidance to his people.

Finally—and perhaps most urgently—my decision to become a Catholic is driven by our Lord’s high priestly prayer, “May they be one.” The unity of the church has been for me a primary and constant imperative of following Jesus. It has been expressed in my leadership of the local parish where congregational unity has been enfleshed in a principle of unanimity in all decision making. It has been expressed in my vision of shaping a parish to be “fully catholic, fully, evangelical, fully charismatic.” It has been expressed in my collegial work cross-denominationally, not only in the official ecumenism of the mainline churches, but with active fellowship with independent evangelical and pentecostal clergy. “May they be one, that the world might believe.” The unity of the church is not only an imperative for the internal life of God’s people but an essential dimension of her evangelical mission. There is no greater scandal and impediment to the conversion of the world to the love of Christ than her divisions. Pope Benedict established the Ordinariate both as a concrete instrument to begin to heal organically the divisions of the Reformation and as an essential strategy for the sake of “the new Evangelization.” Many have seen in this initiative a bold prophetic action. As an Anglican I have received it as a gracious invitation to reconciliation. I can find no valid faithful reason to decline.


image: Apse Mosaic of San Clemente, Rome. Via Shutterstock 

Jürgen Liias

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Fr. Jurgen Liias was born in post-WWII Germany and emigrated with his parents to the United States as Displaced Persons in 1952, settling eventually in Boston. He was ordained an Episcopal Priest in 1973 and worked for forty years as a parish priest in the Boston area with strong commitments especially to charismatic Renewal and the Pro-life movement. On August 15, 2012 he was received and confirmed into the Catholic Church. On April 20, 2013 he was Ordained a Catholic Priest by Cardinal O’Malley for the Anglican Ordinariate. He is presently serving as Pastor of St. Gregory Ordinariate Church in Beverly Mass.

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