Friday, January 27, 2017

San Antonio Archdiocese removes priest from a parish of Anglican converts

In a move that surprised members of Our Lady of the Atonement parish, the Archdiocese of San Antonio has replaced Father Christopher Phillips as pastor, citing “pastoral concerns” about the former Anglican priest ordained a Catholic clergyman in the 1980s.

Several church members said they were “heartsick” about the removal and fearful of a potential shift from the parish’s traditional Anglican-style worship services.

The archdiocese’s decision was effective Thursday. 

It has appointed Monsignor Frank Kurzaj as parish administrator to assume Phillips’ role. 

Kurzaj, most recently pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Floresville, has served in several other parishes in the archdiocese.

A few parishioners credited Phillips with increasing the flock and focusing on Scriptural study and sacred music. He also has been managing a major expansion of its school, Atonement Academy, they added.

Many of the founding members of the parish were former Episcopalians who converted to Catholicism. Phillips, the parish’s first and only pastor, was ordained by then-Archbishop Patrick Flores, who died Jan. 9.

In a one-page letter to parishioners, Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller called the Catholic Church’s “pastoral provision” to bring Anglicans into the fold “a great blessing in our archdiocese, and a path for many of our separated (Anglican) brothers and sisters.”

But he noted that his concerns “relate to expressions in the life of the parish that indicate an identity separate from, rather than simply unique, among the parishes of the archdiocese” and that he has asked Phillips “to dedicate some time to reflect on certain specific concerns that I have shared with him.”

The letter praised the parish as one that attracts many Catholics who want “clarity of doctrine and traditional liturgical expression.”

In a separate statement, García-Siller noted “serious concerns regarding a lack of ecclesial communion with the parish and the Archdiocese of San Antonio.”

Two parishioners and one former parishioner said they interpreted the archbishop’s concern as a reference to a longtime hope by Phillips and other members of Our Lady of the Atonement to someday leave the auspices of the archdiocese and join the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.

The Houston-based ordinariate is a Catholic diocese or jurisdiction that oversees about 40 churches of converts from the Anglican tradition in the U.S. and Canada.

One former parishioner, James Griffin, who now belongs to a Catholic church in Philadelphia that’s under the ordinariate, said joining that diocese was the hope at Atonement.

“This has been an ongoing process, but I don’t know how long that has been the case,” said Griffin, a parishioner at Atonement for about 10 years who was baptized by Phillips.

Parishioner Allison Wiggins said leaving the archdiocese “was always the plan.”

Archdiocese officials did not respond to questions. Its statement said it would make “no further comment at this time out of respect to Father Phillips and the faithful at Our Lady of Atonement.”

Like many former Anglican priests who converted and became Catholic priests, Phillips is married. He has several adult children.

A story in October by the Catholic website Crux described Atonement’s worship as “high-church Anglican liturgy … celebrated with solemnity, grace and beauty, but the parish is happily free of the right-wing extremism and apocalyptic conspiracy theories too often associated with the Catholic traditionalist movement.”

Wiggins said she’s “heartbroken that this has happened to Father Phillips, and we look forward to his return to the pulpit.”

In an unsigned email from the church office to parishioners, provided by a founding parishioner, Chuck Wilson, the parish staff seemed surprised at Phillips’ removal from the parish operations, including its school.

“We were notified today of the canonical process being instigated by the archdiocese to remove Fr. Phillips,” it said. “The archbishop stated that Fr. Phillips has done nothing wrong, but his ministry is detrimental to the faith of the people and keeps the people of the parish separate from the communal activities of the archdiocese.”

The email said Phillips has been removed from the parish grounds for 15 days. Wilson said Phillips’ personal residence is at the parish.

“It hit me right between the eyes,” said Wilson, who founded the St. Joseph’s Foundation, which specializes in canon law. He said the foundation’s canonical lawyer will represent Phillips. The foundation is based in Ohio.

“I’m heartsick over this,” Wilson said. “I can’t tell you — I literally weep over it. He’s being removed as pastor, and he did nothing wrong.”

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