The Path to Rome
The ‘Path to Rome’ is one which has been travelled by many people, including former clergy. The Society’s Secretary and its four District Organisers are all among that number and have first hand experience of this journey.
In 1999 Fr Dwight Longnecker, convert clergyman and now a Catholic Priest serving in America, edited a collection of individual accounts describing this journey as they have experienced it, from a range of backgrounds and walks of life. Appropriately, this book was entitled ‘The Path to Rome’. To mark the tenth anniversary, one of the Society’s District Organisers, Dr Cyprian Blamires, undertook the task of expanding and revising this book, incorporating seven new accounts.
Below are personal testimonies from Fr Longenecker and Dr Blamires which you might find to be an inspiration and encouragement:
Fr Dwight Longenecker
“In 1995, when my wife and two children left the ministry of the Church of England to be received into full communion of the Catholic Church we had no idea where God would lead us, and what he wanted us to do. I had a sense of calling to the Catholic priesthood, but wanted to test this for a time living and working as a Catholic layman.
After being received into the Church at Quarr Abbey we moved to Lancashire where I began work as script editor with a small video production company. The company soon went out of business and I was left unemployed. It was then that Cyprian Blamires heard of me and got in touch. Keith Jarrett, former secretary of the St Barnabas Society, like Cyprian and me, had come from an Evangelical Protestant background and had been schooled for Anglican ministry at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. So when I traveled to the society’s headquarters in Wolvercote to meet Keith there was an instant rapport.
A job opening as one of the society’s organizers had come up, so we moved from Lancashire to Wiltshire. During this time I continued to pursue the possibility of ordination to the Catholic priesthood in England. It was not to be. For various reasons, the Catholic bishops did not reject me for ordination, but neither did they take any action to move my forward to serve as a priest. I worked for seven years with the St Barnabas Society, we were blessed with two more children, and I also developed a ministry writing and speaking on Catholic matters in the UK and my native United States.
It was during one of my visits home that I met the Bishop of Charleston in South Carolina and he encouraged me to consider being ordained in his diocese. It was to be another three years before a suitable job opened up. I was reading an American Catholic newspaper in England when I spotted a Catholic high school in my hometown of Greenville advertising for a chaplain. I emailed the headmaster saying, “I hope you have a creative search committee because I would like to apply for the chaplain’s post, but I am not a Catholic priest, I’m married and I live in England.”
St Joseph’s Catholic School is one school in the United States with a very creative and positive approach. After interview they were very enthusiastic about my application and worked with the Bishop so that I could complete my studies, forward my paperwork to Rome to be processed to pave the way for my ordination. In 2006, after a three month trial period as lay chaplain at the school, I returned to England to pack up, put our house on the market, and move our family to the USA.
The St Barnabas Society was extremely supportive and generous in our exciting transition to South Carolina. The board listened to our needs, helped with practical details, provided moving expenses, and helped with our air fares.
By July the paperwork came back from Rome in record time, and in November I was ordained deacon, and a few weeks later, in December 2006 I was ordained priest. It was a joy to have Marcus Grodi of The Coming Home Network and my old friend Cyprian Blamires present to read the Scriptures at the ordination service. All of this happened just a few hundred yards down the road from a little Anglican Church in Greenville South Carolina where I had been baptized about thirty years before.
Three of our children attend the school where I serve as chaplain, so we go to school
together each day. St Joseph’s Catholic School has 550 students. It is an independently owned and operated Catholic school with full approval of the diocese. I also serve as weekend assistant and co ordinator of RCIA at St Mary’s–a large downtown parish in Greenville.
Alison is getting used to life in the American suburbs, and the children are happily involved in excellent Catholic schools and are busy with a range of extra activities. A special joy is for two of my sons to serve Mass for me on a weekly basis.
We continue to keep up to date on the news of the St Barnabas Society, and remain grateful for the happy years we worked with the society, and for the generous help the society has been able to ”
Fr Longenecker is currently Pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Parish, Diocese of Charleston, USA, as well as Chaplain to St Joseph’s Catholic School.
Dr Cyprian Blamires
In the past year I have visited many parishes where the priest is a convert cleric. I have been moved to see the great work these men are doing and way they have settled into their new roles. One who has been ordained for many years told me ‘we couldn’t have done it without the St Barnabas Society’; a beautiful testimony to the importance of our work. The Society of course has no position over the Catholic ordination of convert clerics, which is purely a matter for our bishops, but we are always very pleased to encounter individuals progressing to the priesthood and doing well in that role.
This brings out the plight of those for whom the door is closed to ordination all the more starkly. I have known ministers be received into the Church, apparently settle down as Catholics, but then be so shocked at being turned down for ordination that they have returned to their denomination. Theoretically this makes no sense at all: either the Catholic Church is the Mother Church, the one true Church, the natural home for all who want to follow Christ, or she is not. What difference does it make to that whether I am ordained a Catholic priest or not? Logically, it cannot affect the issue. But the fact that some react in this way speaks volumes about how we function as human beings. If a person seeks ordination in a denomination, it is generally because he or she sees that as a response to a call of God to ministry.
Confronted with the challenge of the Catholic Church, the natural reaction is: ‘It was God who called me to ministry in the first place, so how can He be calling me to sacrifice that ministry in order to become a Catholic?’ In talking to those ministers who are contemplating being received into the Church, I have to confirm that they will have to offer up their ministry to God, because there can be no guarantees of ordination to the Catholic priesthood. On the human level it seems crazy – has God changed his mind? – but it is in such apparently contradictory and confusing situations that we enter into the mystery of God and of his will for us. Think of Abraham’s readiness to offer up Isaac in sacrifice. How crazy was that? For me it was this moment of surrender of my ministry that took me into the sea of faith, in which I have been swimming ever since as a Catholic. Up to that point I had talked a great deal about faith, only now when I was doing something humanly crazy in response to God did I begin to learn how to live it. But I have much sympathy with those for whom the step is just too demanding. I have been much helped by a saying of St John of the Cross that faith is about holding out your hand in the dark and hanging on to the hand of God. I can’t make much sense of anything that has happened in my life since I became a Catholic, but it doesn’t matter, because what we really need is not to understand but to love. I am in contact with ministers hesitating on the brink of the Church and I long to be able to convey this to them, but it is difficult.
For all of us, our sense of what we should be doing or where we should be in life may come into conflict with what our faith requires of us. My great hero is St Thomas More; I often reflect on the immensity of his sacrifice, a man who had the world at his feet – but he gave it all up for the sake of witnessing to the fundamental importance of England’s relationship to the Holy Father. At the Feast day of St Gregory the Great, I am reminded of how much of our Christian inheritance in this country we owe to the missionary St Augustine of Canterbury – and who sent him to us? A pope, St Gregory the Great. Our faith came to us from Rome, why do so many harden their hearts against Rome? Part of the answer is that in the face of the call to surrender the thing that is most prized, logic often goes out of the window. Only grace can conquer this.
Dr Blamires is District Organiser for the West