It’s gotta sting.
The Vatican has just whupped Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio, upholding the right of the parish of Our Lady of the Atonement to place itself under the authority of a more congenial bishop. What should have been no more than a dust-up in the sacristy unexpectedly reached its “This Time He’s Gone Too Far” moment when Archbishop Garcia-Siller yanked the parish’s beloved and long-time pastor, Father Christopher Phillips.
In a letter dated January 19, 2017, and addressed to the parishioners of OLA, the archbishop explained that Father Phillips would leave the parish “to dedicate some time to reflect on certain specific concerns that I have shared with him.” Foremost among the archbishop’s “concerns” is the possible existence of “expressions in the life of the parish that indicate an identity separate from, rather than simply unique, among the parishes of the archdiocese.” (Huh?) During his time of reflection, Father Phillips “will not have the responsibility of pastoral care or authority in the parish.”
As excuses go, this one is about as flabby as a greenhorn’s hand-shake.
So, here’s the back story.
In 1983, about 20 Episcopalians who converted to the Catholic faith applied to the then-archbishop of San Antonio, Patrick Flores, for their own parish. As Catholics, they were in full union with Rome, but they wanted to keep some of their Anglican liturgical traditions — a privilege Pope John Paul II had granted to other communities of Episcopalians-turned-Catholic. Archbishop Flores gave his approval, and the parish of Our Lady of the Atonement was born.
OLA attracted other Episcopalians dismayed by the confusion in their church, as well as Protestants from other denominations who sought a refuge from the leftward doctrinal drift of their churches. Even cradle Catholics joined OLA — they were attracted by the warm community life of the parish, the fine music, the excellent preaching, and the beautiful liturgies drawn from The Book of Common Prayer. Say what you want about Henry VIII’s archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer (and I have), but the man put together a damn fine prayerbook.
And OLA had a parish school — something that had become increasingly rare in Catholic parishes. The school, Atonement Academy, was founded in 1994 by Father Phillips, and today has over 500 students in classes that range from pre-K through high school. That’s pretty impressive these days, when so many parish schools limp along with barely more than 100 students enrolled.
As more and more American Episcopalians and Anglicans “swam the Tiber” — the tongue-in-check expression for converting to Catholicism — it became apparent in Rome that these newcomers needed some kind of structure that would defend their rights, foster their traditions, and support what was unique in these parishes. For example, the rule of celibacy would not apply to married Episcopalian/Anglican priests who asked to be ordained as Catholic priests.
Pope Benedict XVI had a solution. He created an “ordinariate,” or organization for the Episcopalian/Anglican converts. Henceforth, they would have their own Anglican Rite, or liturgy, and would be under the authority of their own ordinariate bishop, not the bishop of the region where they lived.
Since the Anglican Rite clergy and parishioners tend be conservative in matters of doctrine and religious practice, they are not popular with bishops and even those members of the Catholic laity who favor a more progressive church. Archbishop Garcia-Siller was among the Anglican ordinariate’s opponents.
Yet, Benedict’s ruling remains solidly in place and Pope Francis has made no effort to erase it from the books. Consequently, Archbishop Garcia-Siller’s attempt to strong-arm the people of Our Lady of the Atonement was doomed. In February 2017, the parishioners appealed to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and on March 21 the CDF’s ruling in favor of OLA was announced by the ordinariate’s bishop for the United States, Stephen Lopes. The congregation cheered. Bishop Lopes deadpanned that rarely do canonical rulings get that type of reaction.
Ownership of the parish’s real estate will be disputed by the archdiocese (of course). But while the lawyers hash that out, parish life at OLA is secure. And Father Phillips’ responsibilities and authority have been restored under the title “pastor emeritus.”
At Our Lady of the Atonement, the old sheriff is back in town.