What is going to be required for Benedict XVI’s Personal Ordinariate for Anglicans to succeed?

First and foremost, I believe that what is required is a ‘paradigm shift’ on the part of Anglicans. Very often Rome is perceived as ossified, inflexible, unimaginative and legalistic. Both Pope John Paul II (“Be generous to these men.”) and now Pope Benedict XVI have been exactly the opposite. They have put together daring initiatives. They have stepped out in faith and made amazingly generous offers. They’ve taken risks for the unity of the Church. As the successor of Peter and the focus of unity this is part of their job and they have taken it very seriously.

Now we await the response of Anglicans. There are going to be huge difficulties for many, and this is where the paradigm shift is necessary. There are two seismic shifts in understanding that will be required for many. The first of these is a fresh missionary spirit. Instead of seeing themselves as members of an established, educated and well financed church Anglican clergy and people who hold to the historic faith will need to re-imagine themselves as primarily a missionary people.

To respond to the Holy Father’s offer they may have to walk away from their buildings. They may have to set up and ‘do church’ in a living room, a school hall or a borrowed or rented or abandoned church building. Priests may have to walk away from a salary and do some other work to get their congregation started. (The Apostolic Constitution provides for this possibility) The priests will need to take leadership and may need to start again and ‘plant a church.’ They might do this with a remnant of their people from the parish they walk away from or they might have to move to another part of the country or even the world to serve a congregation of like minded faithful.

This new missionary spirit will have to be part of the people’s step of faith as well for they will have to work hard and dig deep to finance the Personal Ordinariate. Sacrifices will have to be made. They will have to find a way to pay for their priest and support his family. If they own buildings they may have to hand the keys over to the ordinariate. If they enjoy a congregational form of government they may have to sacrifice some measure of their power. (However the Constitution does provide for a conciliar form of government for the ordinariate)

To do this they will be doing no more than our ancestors in various ages did. Furthermore, they are following in the footsteps of the courageous recusant families who kept the faith in England alive during the penal times. They are following in the footsteps of the courageous, humble and hardworking ‘slum priests’ of the Victorian Oxford movement. They too stepped out and endured misunderstanding and persecution for their faith. They went into the places nobody else wanted to go and endured poverty and difficulties for our glorious faith. They are following in the footsteps of the great Jesuit missionary priests and the apostles and all the greatest of the Catholic saints.

This brings me to the second mind shift that will be required. I hate being a prophet of doom, but all the signs point to an increasing antipathy to the Catholic faith in Western Europe and the USA. Perhaps things are not so bad presently, but they could go bad–if not quickly, then in due time. I believe Benedict XVI sees that the Church will continue to contract and that she will continue to be in conflict with an increasingly secular and increasingly aggressive society, and that small faith communities of all kinds will shine like a brilliant light in the darkening world and that the small Anglican Catholic communities will be part of that constellation.

If this is the case than his is a truly Benedictine vision, for the first Benedict went out into the wilderness with his monks at a time when lights were going out all across Europe. They lived in peace. They lived lives of study, prayer and work. They kept the light alive and planted the seeds for the greatest flourishing of Christendom in the Middle Ages.

For those who are considering this step the time is now. Those who have taken the step to Rome or who are contemplating such a move are the ones who will plant those seeds and lay those foundations. If you are an Anglican priest or layperson, do not think about what you are giving up. Think about what you are planting for the future.

Finally, in my experience, when God pours out his graces upon us we must (like a good surfer) first spot the wave, the position ourselves and then ride the wave. If we only take a small move to co operate with God’s grace that grace is multiplied. We can never out give God. We can never foresee the fruits of our obedience, but God takes our little act of obedience and turns it into something far greater and more magnificent than we can see. On the other hand, to turn away from an offered grace is to turn away from the Spirit and the soul must rely increasingly on its own resources for that moment of grace may have been missed forever.

A Catholic bishop asked me some time ago what qualities I would look for in an applicant for ordination who was a convert. I said that their resume and education and experience was important, but that it was secondary to another quality that was more difficult to assess. He asked what that was. I replied, “That the man is able to walk by faith not by sight. He has to be able to step out,  not knowing what the future holds and trust in Divine Providence. He has to have a missionary martyr spirit. If he has that, or even wants to have that, then he is a good candidate, for that is what will be required for this great new effort to succeed.