The first head of a new ordinariate created for former Anglican parishes and individuals is a one-time sportswriter and a pilot and Houston seminary instructor who was ordained a Catholic priest in 2009.
Pope Benedict XVI announced the creation of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter Jan. 1. It is intended to function like a diocese, but nationwide in scope, for former members of the Anglican Communion who have become Catholic.
The ordinariate will be based in Houston and led by Fr. Jeffrey Steenson, who was bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande, based in Albuquerque, NM, for three years before leaving to become a Catholic in 2007. He and his wife, Debra, have three adult children and one grandchild.
“What propels a person to leave his or her ecclesial home and make this journey into the Catholic Church is a desire to be in full communion with everything that the Catholic Church teaches is true,” Fr. Steenson said at a news conference in Houston Jan. 2. “One of those things is to be in communion with the pope. It is that desire to connect with that apostolic rock that will make a person make sacrifices.”
Fr. Steenson will be installed as the ordinary Feb. 19 in Houston. Because he is married, the 59-year-old Fr. Steenson will not be ordained a bishop and will not be able to ordain priests. He will, however, otherwise function as a bishop and will be a voting member of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), making him the only married member of that body.
At the Houston news conference, Card. Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston called Fr. Steenson “a wise and prudent administrator who will bring a vibrant intellect and humility to his role as head of the ordinariate.”
Since soon after his ordination as a Catholic priest for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, he has taught patristics, the study of the Church fathers, at St. Mary Seminary in Houston.
The day after the announcement in Rome, Card. DiNardo introduced Fr. Steenson at the news conference at Our Lady of Walsingham Catholic Church, which will be the principal church for the US ordinariate.
The Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter is the first structure of its kind in the US and the second in the world. The other ordinariate is Our Lady of Walsingham, which was established in 2011 to serve England and Wales.
The ordinariates are the result of appeals from Anglican communities to become Catholic as groups. In November 2009, Pope Benedict XVI issued an apostolic constitution, “Anglicanorum coetibus,” which authorized the ordinariates.
The US ordinariate will include parishes, groups and individuals of Anglican heritage, which in the US can include Episcopalian individuals and parishes. Parishes will be fully Roman Catholic, while retaining elements of the Anglican tradition in terms of music, liturgy, structure, and prayers.
“Particularly in the area of worship and liturgy, Anglicans have a goodly heritage and the Catholic Church has always understood and appreciated that Anglican heritage,” Fr. Steenson said. “We hope the personal ordinariate can bring this Anglican literary culture into the life of the Church.”
Card. DiNardo and Fr. Steenson said Houston was selected as the base for the ordinariate in part because of St. Mary Seminary. Fr. Steenson was a key player in the establishment of a formation program for Anglican priests applying for the Catholic priesthood at the seminary. St. Mary has developed and the Vatican has approved a nine-month program of priestly formation for Anglican clergy who wish to become Catholic priests.
More than 100 former Anglican priests have applied to become Catholic priests for the US ordinariate. To date, 47 have been accepted for the second stage of a multi-stage process to become Catholic priests. Most of them will begin their formation at St. Mary’s Seminary at the end of January.
In addition to clergy, nearly 1,400 individuals from 22 communities have inquired about entering the ordinariate. Two former Episcopal parishes–St. Peter of the Rock in Fort Worth and St. Luke’s in Bladensburg, MD–became Catholic this fall, with the intention of joining the ordinariate once it was established.
Ordained an Anglican priest in 1980, Fr. Steenson served Episcopal parishes in suburban Philadelphia and Fort Worth before becoming the chief pastoral assistant for the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande, which serves New Mexico and far west Texas. In 2004, he was elected bishop of that diocese.
He grew up on a family farm in North Dakota and received his theological training at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago, Harvard Divinity School and the University of Oxford, where he received his doctorate in patristic studies in 1983. He spent a sabbatical year in Rome as he prepared for the Catholic priesthood, studying with seminarians from the Pontifical North American College and living with his wife at the Pontifical Irish College.
Fr. Steenson was once a sportswriter for The News-Sun of Waukegan, IL. He also has a deep interest in general aviation, having restored a 1947 Cessna 120, which he has flown around the US, and built a floatplane.
Since 2009, Fr. Steenson has been the Carl and Lois Davis professor in patristic studies at the University of St. Thomas and an assisting priest at St. Cyril of Alexandria parish in Houston.
“This is the culmination and the beginning of something new and exciting, and the ending of a lot of hard work, sacrifice, and prayer on the part of many people,” Cassandra D’Antoni, a parishioner at Our Lady of Walsingham for 10 years, told the Texas Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese.
“It is like excavating a buried treasure that we have all known about and cherished with love and prayer,” said Clint Brand, a long-time parishioner at Our Lady of Walsingham. “To have the opportunity to share this with the local church, with the nation and the world, and to feel that we are participating and acting with the wider church and the Holy Father, is spectacular, and the evangelistic opportunities are absolutely incredible.”