The evening was hot and sultry, the first really warm day of the year. The church was an ugly modern one, with fans whirling in the ceiling in an unsuccessful attempt to keep the heat at bay.
But nothing could spoil the sense of being at a moment of history. There are occasions when you can hear, even in surroundings that do not seem very grand or important, the beat of time in a special sense. This was one such evening.
We were there to witness the uniting of a group of former Anglicans into full communion with the Catholic Church. They had come together following the call of Pope Benedict XVI in Anglicanorum Coetibus and were led by their former Anglican vicar. The vicar’s wife had asked me to be her sponsor for Confirmation, and it was a great privilege and joy to take my place beside her in church.
It had already been a busy day, because that morning had seen the Chrism Mass at Westminster Cathedral, where the priests of the diocese gather together to receive the sacred oils that will be used in the sacraments during the coming year. The Chrism Mass is very beautiful, with glorious singing from Westminster Cathedral’s world-famous choir. This evening gathering in a church in a small town in Kent was rather different. I had hurried there by train in the heat and arrived feeling flustered. But sitting in church, mopping my brow, I calmed; and as the Mass began, a great awareness of what was taking place overcame all other thoughts.
Four hundred years is a long time. The Reformation in Britain began with King Henry VIII’s declaration of independence from the successor of St. Peter in Rome. Henry was a defiantly “trad Catholic”: He had written a book defending the sacraments; he could never have contemplated a Mass not in Latin; he felt himself part of a Church embedded in history. But his problem was pride — and, of course, ambition to have a son so that his dynasty would be firmly rooted in the nation.
Events following Henry’s reign consolidated the Church of England into something that he probably never really contemplated. By the early 19th century, England was seen as an “Anglican nation,” with Catholicism felt to be something alien and the pope himself a frightening foreign ruler. Catholics had their own sense of identity and heritage that now owed much to the heroism of English martyrs.
We know what happened next: the Oxford Movement, John Henry Cardinal Newman, the Catholic Revival, and more. And in this modern building, on a hot evening with people gathering for Mass, we were witnessing the start of the next chapter, thanks to a 21st-century pope and people with open hearts.
Saying “yes” to Anglicanorum Coetibus was not something done with rash glee or triumphalism. The pope had invited Anglicans to become Catholics as a group, bringing with them their traditions, hymns, liturgy, customs, and their own style and way of doing things. But this particular group was unable to bring their church itself — a building of some beauty, filled with memories and items that were dear and familiar (and which, in some cases, had been funded by their personal generosity). In its place, they will have to share local Catholic facilities. And for the vicar and his wife and young family, of course, there was the loss of home and income, as well as a future of some uncertainty.
But as the Mass began, there was only joy and peace. The local Catholics have been welcoming. The liturgy gave hints as to the beauty that the new Ordinariate parish will have Sunday by Sunday: graciousness of phrasing, good English, splendid hymns. There was a focus on Marian devotion, as the Ordinariate is officially dedicated to Our Lady of Walsingham — her ancient English shrine having been a focus of unity for the past several decades. An image of her statue adorned our Mass books.
As I stood beside the candidate for confirmation, my right hand resting on her shoulder, and watched her receive the anointing on her forehead, I was profoundly moved. The sight of old and young, families with children — more than 70 members of the new Ordinariate all told — coming up one by one was moving, too.
Although it was Holy Week, and all the statues in the church were covered for Passiontide, a single exception had been allowed for the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham, which had been brought specially for this unique event. And we concluded the Mass with a fine hymn, all seven verses, honoring Mary:
May the Mother’s intercessions
on our homes a blessing win
that the children all be prospered
strong and fair and pure within,
following Our Lord’s own footsteps,
firm in faith and free from sin.
Hail Mary, hail Mary, hail Mary, full of grace…
After which we sang (yes, sang!) the Angelus, with the children of the Ordinariate gathered round the statue, and their former Anglican vicar, soon to be a Catholic priest, leading the prayer. Then, of course, there was a cheery gathering in the parish hall and, later, much lively talk over a late-night supper in the vicarage, which the family will soon be leaving.
Pray for the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. It’s all still in its early stages. The former Anglican clergy will be ordained as Catholic priests at Pentecost. Arrangements for the use of Catholic churches and halls are being worked out. Accommodation is being found for the families who need new homes. Funds are being raised.
For England to see a revival of the Christian Faith, unity is needed, as well as a new sense of vigor. The Ordinariate is central to this. On that warm night, a long day came to an end, and we all knew something of real importance had occurred. Join all who are invoking Our Lady of Walsingham over these next weeks and months as — step by step — the Ordinariate continues on its journey.