“O God, you have taught me since I was young,
and to this day I tell of your wonderful works.
And now that I am old and gray-headed,
O God, do not forsake me, till I make known your strength to this generation
and your power to all who are to come” (Psalm 71:17-18).
This post has been a long time coming. There are things about the human heart that can’t be rushed. The spiritual autobiography of Augustine of Hippo, entitled Confessions, reminds us that “our hearts are restless, O God, until they rest in you.”
All of my life I have been beset by this restlessness for the one whom Augustine calls the “Beauty ever old, ever new.”
I’ve seen the black-and-white photographs of my baptism at St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. That was August of 1960. The baptismal font was located in the old parish church building, now gone, demolished years ago to make way for a school expansion and parish hall. I still remember that as children in summer religious education programs we were able to go into “the old church” to snoop around. It was used for raucous youth gatherings deemed inappropriate for “the new church.”
It was in the newer sanctuary that I served as an altar boy, and in which I celebrated the other sacraments. I have fond memories from years of worship in that yellow-brick building with its small, square windows of stained glass and its candle-lit alcove dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Above the altar there hangs a large, gold-colored figure shaped like a descending dove. I remember asking my mother about it at mass one day when I was very young. “That’s the Holy Spirit,” she informed me.
I grew up feeling God’s presence always in my life. It was as natural as breathing.
Two realities brought me to the conviction that God had called me to the ordained priesthood. One was the experience of celebrating faith through the rituals of my parish; the other was my own reading and study of human religiousness and the fulfillment that it brings. As a young teen I was captivated by books on early Christianity but also by Huston’s Smith’s The Religions of Man (which has since been aptly re-titled as The World’s Religions). My own sense of personal vocation was accompanied by a parallel recognition that there are others in the world whose faith differs from mine but in whom God surely is at work.
Since that time I have never not known that I was called to sacramental service as a priest. The leaders of my beloved Roman Church agreed. Studying in the US and in Italy, I was prepared for the day of my ordination to the transitional diaconate. It was planned for May 1987 and was to take place at the Altar of the Chair in the Basilica of St. Peter, Rome, in accordance with the tradition of the Pontifical North American College (the American seminary in Rome). Plans were also in the works for a year later when I was to be ordained to the priesthood. Bishop Joseph Lawson Howze, my bishop (Ordinary for the Diocese of Biloxi at that time), had decided that the priestly ordination should take place at St. Alphonsus rather than in the cathedral in Biloxi. He thought it would be a fine way to recognize the wonderful people of the parish who had inspired me to study for ordination in the first place.
But loneliness got in the way. Like many men in the Roman Church, I believe I have a vocation to the priesthood–but I don’t have a vocation to a life of celibacy. Are there thousands of others who would agree? I suspect so.
I departed Roman Catholic seminary in the fall of 1986. Two years later I was married to my talented chef-wife, Patsy, and we have just celebrated twenty-five years of marriage. But my religious vocation has never left me.
In the days of my youth I relished the experience of being a Boy Scout in Ocean Springs. Troop 210 met at St. John’s Episcopal Church. Though I had occasionally wandered in to the parish sanctuary and noticed how “catholic” it felt, I did not attend an Episcopalian celebration of eucharist until I was in seminary in Covington, Louisiana. One of our classes took a Sunday field trip to the local Episcopal church. I don’t remember all the feelings and thoughts that crossed my mind that day, but I do remember the communion song. It was the haunting melody known as Picardy, carrying the words of the fourth-century Liturgy of St. James:
“Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth
Our full homage to demand.”
In some way that I did not understand at the time, I embarked on a new journey that day. Years later, cut off from a lifelong sense of vocation for no other reason than the fact that I was married, I would venture again into an Episcopalian church. There I would find another community that was faithfully catholic–one that didn’t imagine that God only calls celibate men to the priesthood.
Since at least the late 1990s I’ve had what I affectionately call an “affair with two sisters,” referring to the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion (to which the Episcopal Church belongs). In a visit with Anglican Archbishop Michael Ramsey of Canterbury in 1966, Pope Paul VI spoke of the Anglican Communion as “our beloved sister church.” Nonetheless, it still seemed impossible to my mind for me to be anything but a Roman Catholic.
That changed about a year ago. Spiritual discernment is a funny thing. We pray. We study. We yearn. We inquire of the divine. We wait. Then, one day, sometimes … a clear answer emerges. For me it was the very quiet voice of Christ: “John, what are you waiting for?”
On June 9, 2013, I was received into the Episcopal Church at St. John’s in Ocean Springs. After renewing my baptismal covenant–the same vows I had often repeated in the Roman Church–Bishop Duncan M. Gray III of the Diocese of Mississippi received me with these beautiful words from The Book of Common Prayer: “we recognize you as a member of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church, and we receive you into the fellowship of this Communion.”
If the good people of the Episcopal Church will have me, I intend to fulfill my vocation as a priest in their midst, as a sacramental servant. To those who would ask why I left the Catholic Church I would happily reply that I haven’t left anything at all. I have simply discovered that the Catholic Church is quite a bit bigger than I realized before. God really does write with crooked lines. I’m living proof of that.
What I have done has not been out of anger. I have no axe to grind. Like Christ himself, the church is not only divine. It is also human. As such, it exists in time and in space, and with all the mortality and limitations that this implies. When God offers a vocational invitation, it is offered in an historical setting. I shall be here for only a brief period and then I shall be gone. I am responding to God’s call as I am able, hoping all the while that my life will be a bridge toward future ecumenical cooperation and perhaps full church unity.