On Becoming a Catholic Priest

While it was a big step for me, emotionally as well as ministerially, in some ways it should not have been that big a deal for my evangelical friends. I had been an Episcopal priest for 34 years and no one seemed to blink at that. I suppose with people like the Rev. John R. W. Stott, the Rt. Rev. N. T. Wright, and indeed the Rev. J. I. Packer, among others, in the Anglican/ Episcopal camp it was difficult for evangelicals to disapprove. And then there were well-known Anglican lay people, like C. S. Lewis who were evangelical heroes. The Anglican Communion was viewed by Protestants in general (and some evangelical Anglicans) as being very much Reformed and Protestant, even if officially it declared itself a middle way, neither Protestant nor Catholic. In my case, I had also been associated with other free church groups, such as the Vineyard movement and the Plymouth Brethren. While I was not secret about it, only my wife seemed to notice that while I was at times employed as a teacher by churches or organizations within both these groups, I had always kept up a ministry in an Anglican or Episcopal congregation.

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What people did not know or at least did not realize was that I was horrified at the fractiousness of Protestant groups and that I realized that this was endemic, since splits tend to create splits. This was my family emotional systems training being applied to the church. Nor did people realize that ever since the National Catholic Charismatic Conference for Priests and Deacons in 1980, I was heartbroken by the schism in the church. Others were, perhaps, more cognizant that I had a love for the great spiritual tradition that starts with the Apostolic Fathers, goes through the Desert Fathers and then into the west with John Cassian and Benedict of Nursia. I was drawn to St. Francis and the devotion of Ignatius of Loyola and many others. Various Protestants have used and drawn from these people and their traditions (I think of the Renovaré movement in particular), but often this is done by picking and choosing. How can one really get at the essence of what they have to teach without being in total communion with them? This is especially true when one considers the possibility that the “cloud of witnesses” of Heb 12 may be more than a figure of speech.
I was aware of all the above and it was this that probably as much as anything drove me to seek the community that would support my values. I had thought of these values as Anabaptist once, but later concluded that the Anabaptists were rooted in the Devotio Moderna and earlier monastic expressions of Christianity. They were, in essence, an evangelistic third order, not unlike the Franciscan Tertiaries. So I explored some such groups which included Episcopalians.from within the Episcopal Church It was by accident that I came across John Michael Talbot and the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, to whose Domestic expression we now belong. We did find there a community that incorporated and reinforced our values: centered on the Eucharist, deep into contemplation, enriched by charismatic experience and gifts, concerned for the poor, committed to a simple lifestyle, etc. But there was a hitch in that so long as we were not Catholics we could go forward for a blessing during communion in the mass, but we could not partake. We were one, but we still experienced the brokenness of the body of Christ. Some in the BSCD are comfortable with such a situation – they are in churches that are not Eucharist-centered so come to terms with not partaking so long as the others in the BSCD accept them (as they do indeed). I was not comfortable! I did not know it, but God was drawing me, and eventually I gave in to him.
From my point of view there was little change in theology. I suspect that that is not the view of some others, for they judge the Catholic Church on the basis of either the more poorly catechized portions of the Church (which unfortunately are many) or on post-Reformation criticisms of the Church (which are often inaccurate, especially since they rarely interact with Vatican II). I took the time to work through the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is a post-Vatican II document. It is also carefully argued and thoroughly supported by scripture and the teaching of the church down through the ages. It might surprise some of my friends and colleagues to discover that if anything, it moved me back into a more Augustinian (some might say Reformed) stance on such things as original sin and grace. And, of course, it is fully Trinitarian and incarnational (which, unfortunately is not always the case in evangelical theology, at least in my experience not at the level of the local pastor). I did have to take Heb 12 as more than a metaphor and join that with what Jesus says about people having authority in the age to come (which arrives for the individual at death, when they enter the eternal dimension, if that is viewed as beyond time as God is beyond time). I did have to take the image of Mary in Rev 12 seriously (which I had already done for decades in teaching Revelation) and think about Mary as an icon of the Church and as the Mother of God (God-bearer to use the literal translation of theotokos). I wonder how many of my evangelical friends realize that that title was developed to say something about Jesus being really God incarnate and not to say something about Mary per se? And I did have to realize that Paul exercised a type of patriarchal authority over churches in 1 – 2 Timothy and Titus (and in Acts), appointing presbyters and authorizing delegates to continue to appoint them and that 1 Peter in particular shows Peter in Rome writing authoritatively to churches it is highly unlikely he founded. This is not developed Petrine primacy in action, but this is the roots out of which it developed. I also had to take seriously the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church so that as Israel in the Old Testament developed from primitive nomadic tribes worshipping in a relatively simple shrine to the grandeur of the Solomonic Temple, so the Church has developed (and both have had problems with going after false gods and the like). (Obviously, this is a far too brief discussion of what I either had thought through over the years or needed to work through as I carefully studied the Catechism, but this is a blog, not a book. I would refer those interested in the Catechism and its supporting documents to  Scott Hahn and also to his writings, among others, although I ran into his work only after I was already committed to my transition.)
Kingdom theology that came into my life in seminary in the works of George Eldon Ladd and came to a new dimension with my contact with John Wimber and then developed further as I was influenced by N. T. Wright is very much alive in the Catholic Church (see the DVD series Catholicism by Fr. Robert Barron, especially the first one on Jesus). What I saw as Anabaptist theology is, as I have noted, a type of Franciscan spirituality in a Reformation context. I have been Eucharistic-centered since my upbringing in the Plymouth Brethren. (This has made many Vineyard and Baptist services rather unsatisfying – for from my point of view they lack the core of worship, which is the Eucharist, and when they do celebrate it, it is less than central.) And when it comes to proclaiming the good news, Pope Francis in The Joy of the Gospel is true to Vatican II, true to the New Evangelism strain of Catholic thought, and is just as true to Louis Palau (who is his personal friend) and Billy Graham. All of the streams of my previous thought are there in the life and teaching of the Catholic Church that I have experienced (and I also know that there are many parts of the Catholic Church that are defective, just as there are many parts of evangelical groups and the Episcopal Church that are defective, which the Catholic leaders I know and, from his writings, Pope Francis, wish to reform). So I am as much an evangelical as I ever was, so long as evangelical is not defined as free church, do-your-own-thing. But it was that very do-you-own-thing fractiousness that I emphatically did not think was in tune with the New Testament I was reading.
It does sadden me when I hear people talk about “Christians and Catholics” as if they were two groups. They mean something like “evangelicals and Catholics,” but say that without realizing that the Catholic Church is their mother. The faith was not invented in 1500, nor is there such a thing in reality as sola Scriptura, but rather Luther and others were steeped in the thought of the Patristic period and read their Bible through the lens of this, later tradition and the developing Renaissance, just as we all must read Scripture through the lens of some tradition or other. (I first realized some of this when I read the Lutheran scholar Krister Stendhal’s Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West, and of course there is now the agreement between major Lutheran scholars and the Catholic Church on key issues such as the meaning of faith and works.) My background in psychology and my reading in hermeneutics made me realize that I-and-my Bible-alone is a myth – there is always a perspective inside our head that helps us make sense of the disparate genres of the Scripture, conscious or unconscious. If we say that that is the Holy Spirit, then we need to read Scripture carefully and note that the Spirit is a gift to the Church as a body, so that even the great Paul submitted his understanding of the good news to the scrutiny of the leaders of the larger body (Gal 2).
 It does sadden me when some few people reject me for having made this move (most are happy for me and glad that God called me to where I am, even if they have no impulse themselves to move in that direction). I realize that for the most part either they never really knew me or else they are reacting to a caricature of the Catholic Church. That caricature is not helped by the fact that, as I have noted, there are many Catholics that need to hear the good news – as Pope Francis has so ably said. But I have for years observed that there are many people who have had a “born again” experience that show no signs of the Spirit and thus give us good reason to believe that if Jesus returned he would say to them, “I never knew you.” Both evangelicals and Catholics have the same problem with needing to re-evangelize their churches (although evangelicals prefer to say “revive”). And there have been periodic revivals and reforms in the Catholic Church (some of the abuses that Luther rightly criticized were corrected by renewal movements that remained within the Church; some these corrections became canon law in the Council of Trent). But the caricature of the Catholic Church is a caricature that can only stay alive if one has never immersed oneself in a good parish and if one has never bothered to read the official literature (not an easy job, for it is carefully written, but a rewarding job).
Well, I have crossed the English Channel (according to Sheldon Vanauken, whom I met in 1978) or swum the Tiber (the more usual expression). And not only have I done so, but, by the grace of God through Pope Benedict XVI’s provision and Pope Francis actualization of this permission for me personally, I have been allowed to take something of my ministry with me. I was ordained in the Catholic Church – my ordination in the Episcopal Church did not simply transfer, so I had to be re-ordained. But I was ordinand because I had been an Episcopal priest for 34 years and because the rest of my life was in order. Celibacy was waived as long as Judy is alive. The whole process from resignation from my Episcopal orders to Catholic ordination only took 10 months – lightning speed for Rome. I have made the transition.
What my friends will need to accept is that being a Catholic priest is not a role that one can shed when convenient. It is not a job. Holy Orders is a sacrament, and in a sense one becomes a sacrament. One is always to act and be “in persona Christi.” Now, in a sense every Christian should act that way, but for a priest it is part of his vows and part of his public life on behalf of Jesus and the Church. And, in a sense it is a profession, not like profession= job, but like a monastic profession. One promises to keep the Liturgy of the Hours, one vows obedience to one’s Ordinary. There is a type of stability in that only 5% of Catholic priests ever change the diocese of their incardination. That is important, for the call is to go deep and out of the depths of spirituality to hear confessions, to preach the word, to celebrate the mass. This same spirituality is to be expressed in everyday life.
So in one way I have just taken my bearings “further in and higher up” (as the call is in C. S. Lewis’ The Last Battle). I have finished the preparation and now need to live into this calling from God. My life in the past has been an adventure, and now I continue that adventure. Part of that adventure is, according to Cardinal DiNardo, bridge-building. Rather than withdrawing into a Catholic enclave, I will continue my relationships with biblical scholarship, with evangelical friends, with Episcopal friends. I will live out my life as a Catholic priest in continuity with my previous life or (at least to some) lives. Let the adventure begin.
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About Peter H. Davids

I am Director of Clergy Formation for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, a professor at Houston Graduate School of Theology, and a Catholic priest (and former Episcopal priest for 34 years). I am also a husband, father, and grandfather.
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