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A Church of Love: Reflections on the celebration of my 15th Anniversary of Ordination

Christmas in Iraq 2007

It is hard to believe that I am a Priest and that I have been one now for the past 15 years. I held ordination in a two different Evangelical churches dating back to 1989 and had served as a Chaplain in civilian hospitals as well as the Army National Guard and Reserve before I was ordained as a Priest by Bishop Phillip Zampino of the Charismatic Episcopal Church Diocese for the Mid-Atlantic on July 7th 1996. It was what I thought was the culmination of my journey to the Catholic faith since the Charismatic Episcopal Church in that area considered itself very much on the Anglo-Catholic and Roman Catholic leaning side of that denomination.

My journey to a sacramental and catholic faith had began as a child when Navy Chaplain who was a Roman Catholic priest was instrumental in helping me continue to believe when a Methodist Sunday School teacher told me that my dad, then serving at An Loc Vietnam was a “baby killer.” I really do still trace my vocation as a Priest to that man even though my journey on the way to this faith was rather circuitous.  That journey continued all thorough my life as an Evangelical Christian and was intellectually cemented in at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary where in my Church History and Systematic Theology courses I became convinced of many Catholic teachings. It took another four years after graduation leave the Evangelical movement to the CEC and had I not gone there I would have likely ended up in the Episcopal Church or one of the more Catholic leaning continuing Anglican churches or somewhere in the Old Catholic movement.  What took me to the CEC was the recommendation of an Anglican friend who thought it would be a good fit.

I was ordained on the evening of July 7th 1996. The ordination date was actually advanced several months because of my impending mobilization to support Operation Joint Endeavor, the Bosnia peacemaking mission.  We arrived the night prior to my ordination and I had a talk with Bishop Zampino talking about the “new phase of ministry” that I was entering. He reminded me that the Sacrament of Holy Orders (Ordination) was not was not about a change of ministry but something different. In Catholic theology ordination is very different from most of Protestantism where there is little difference in the estate of the ordained minister and lay people.  In Sacramental theology when a person is ordained to the Priesthood there is an ontological change brought about by the Holy Spirit. Once a person has been ordained they are spiritually changed, which is the origin of the saying, “Once a priest, always a priest.” The Priest can be dispensed of his or her obligations as a priest and in the case of grave misconduct or heresy even forbidden to act as a priest; but they remain priests forever.

The Bishop’s words reinforced something that I already understood from my theological education and formation but had not been put as bluntly with such effect by any of my professors or the Priests that mentored me.  When I was ordained that Sunday evening it was on the feast of Saint Willibald of Eichstadt, a Celtic Benedictine missionary born in England who settled in the small Bavarian town of Eichstadt.  He remained as the Bishop of that small diocese for 40 years and is buried in the picturesque cathedral located in the city. His brother Wunibald was also a missionary and Abbott in Heidenheim and their sister Walburga governed the female community at the same abbey. I was ordained in the evening which also meant it was July 8th in Germany, the feast day of another Celtic missionary Saint Killian the martyr bishop of Würzburg. It so happened that my first assignment as a Priest would be in Würzburg just a few weeks later.  I feel a close connection to each of these Saints as the date of my baptism was that of the Feast of Saint Wunibald, December 18th.

My life since ordination has been rather interesting or as Jerry Garcia put it a “long strange trip.” I have travelled the world as a Navy Chaplain and been able to care for God’s people in many diverse and often dangerous places. To be a priest in the Navy, be a person Roman, Anglican, Orthodox or Old Catholic is an adventure, to celebrate Eucharist, to baptize and to administer the Sacrament of Penance as well as the Sacrament of Healing or as it used to be called Unction in often dangerous places is for me the pinnacle of the priestly ministry.  Many of my friends of other branches of the Catholic, Anglican or Orthodox traditions echo that sentiment. To proclaim the Gospel to men and women in harm’s way and to care for those of other traditions that are given to our care, providing what we can and helping them the best we can while respecting them and their beliefs.

For me the path has not always been easy and I think that most Priests can echo that. In my 14 years as Priest in the Charismatic Episcopal Church I ran afoul of some rather autocratic Bishops all of whom are no longer in that Church.  I was banned from writing for a number of years because of my published essays which were considered “too Catholic.” During that time Bishop Zampino even suggested that I explore the Roman Catholic priesthood.  I looked into it in a number of dioceses but never went beyond exploring possibilities. Bishops were polite but less than interested in a married Priest from a Church that was considered valid but illicit.

So despite being banned from writing and even banned from contact with civilian Priests in the state where I was stationed by another Bishop who is now a Roman Catholic layman I remained in the church. During this time I became more disconnected and disenchanted with the church.  When I returned from Iraq I was in a full blown spiritual crisis brought about by PTSD.  My conditioned worsened to the point that for nearly two years I was a practical agnostic.  Faith returned in December of 2009 when administering the last rites to a dying man on the Emergency Room of the Medical Center where I was serving as a Chaplain.

But the faith was different and I no longer fit in the Church though I tried. Despite this my writings, which I had started as part of my therapy became too much for my church and even though faith had returned it was not welcome.  I was asked to leave and thankfully was received by the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church, a North American expression of the Old Catholic faith. Since my ordination was valid I was simply received into the Church.

I am very blessed to be able to serve as a Priest and care for the people that God brings into my life. It is now 15 years since that night when Bishop Zampino laid his hands upon me and ordained me into this life. Despite some to the twists, turns and even disappointments I am fortunate as my faith is real again and I can see the good in people and experience the Grace of God in my daily life.  It really is miraculous.  I have a joy again that allows me to pass through the painful and sometimes lonely times that I still occasionally experience.

In my darkest times my only spiritual readings were Father Andrew Greeley’s Bishop Blackie Ryan mysteries which I began reading to help me get through the nights in between missions in Iraq and through the nights when I returned.  In one of those books, the last of the series entitled “The Archbishop goes to Andalusia” the miscreant Auxiliary Bishop to the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago goes to Seville Spain.  In the novel Bishop Blackie makes a comment after celebrating Mass in the cathedral at Seville. He said “Every sacramental encounter is an evangelical occasion. A smile warm and happy is sufficient. If people return to the pews with a smile, it’s been a good day for them. If the priest smiles after the exchanges of grace, it may be the only good experience of the week.”  (The Archbishop in Andalusia p.77)

I have found that this is more than true. My belief now is that the church must be a church of love.  In another book Greeley has a fictional papal contender named Luis Emilio Cardinal Menendez y Garcia makes a speech which the end of which I find particularly inspiring. While it speaks of the Roman Catholic Church I think that it speaks to most churches and reflects how people see us:

“So many of our lay people believe that ours is a Church of rules, that being Catholic consists of keeping rules. They do not find an institution which is like that very appealing. Nor should they.

In fact, we are a Church of love. Our message from the Lord himself even today is the message that God is Love and that we are those who are trying, however badly, to reflect that love in the world. I find that in my own city that notion astonishes many people. How we came to misrepresent that which we should be preaching above all else is perhaps the subject for many doctoral dissertations.

More important for us today, however, is the reaffirmation that we exist to preach a God of love, we try to be people of love, and we want our church to be, insofar as we poor humans can make it, a Church of radiant love.

Does such a Church have a future? How could it not?”

Saint Francis said “Preach the Gospel at all times, use words when necessary.”

I hope that I do that as imperfect as I am and as earthy as I tend to be.

On the anniversary of my ordination I ask you to pray for me a sinner.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Recovering My Spiritual Disciplines during Advent: Celtic Daily Prayer

A few months after I returned from Iraq my spiritual life fell apart. It felt like God was no longer there. It had been that way for a while but in June of 2008 the frustration and despair of the situation coupled with an emotional collapse had gotten the best of me and I stopped doing the various spiritual disciplines that had been an important part of my life as a Christian and Priest for years. I think the last really meaningful times that I had spent with God had been in Iraq and the sense of disorientation, loss and abandonment that I felt when I could no longer pray the Daily Office.

Now for those that don’t know what the Daily Office is, it is a form of prayer that is structured to included Psalms, Prayers and Scripture readings. There are a number of variants within the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox traditions each with somewhat different emphasis but all similar. I would alternate between those from the Book of Common Prayer and the Catholic Liturgy of the hours. One year I did the Orthodox daily prayers.  I found different things in each that were helpful and version I found a lot that I liked and some things that I didn’t like as much.  The most helpful thing about the Daily Office for me was that it helped build an internal spiritual discipline and order in my life. Contrary to being limiting as some would think it was of great benefit.

However with my internal compass messed up and wondering if God even existed, the mere act of doing what used to bring order and joy to my life became an exercise in futility. I tried different rites to see if it was just me as well as different physical settings to see if something would work. None did and my spiritual crisis continued to grow as I felt estranged from my former church and felt abandoned by God and by some parts of the Navy.  Although I was struggling and people knew it no clergy of any kind asked about my spiritual life, it was my therapist that first asked me “how are you and the Big Guy doing?” I had to admit that I was not doing well with the “Big Guy” and wondered at times if he even existed.

I went through nearly two years of spiritual emptiness with glimmers of hope. Last year in what I describe as my “Christmas Miracle” faith began to return in the midst of the Sacrament of the anointing of the sick in our ER at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center.  In that simple act done on call at the in the final moments of a retired Navy doctor and Episcopal layman who had given himself to his church and the community faith returned.  He died as my hand was upon his head praying the final prayers of commendation. His wife said that he was holding on until I got there and a number of ER staff said that they had never seen anything like what happened.  When I left the next day I knew that something was different, I felt hope again and that maybe just maybe that God might very well exist.

This year has been a continuous yet slow time of spiritual growth. The act of prayer returned as did occasional spiritual reading and reflection. I also began to feel the sense of mystery and awe when celebrating or attending a Eucharist.  Now I was still struggling especially to rebuild my spiritual life, but after 2 years of not even knowing if God existed but it was a quantum improvement over being an agnostic.

Since moving to my new job I have been looking to see how to build structure back into my life using the daily office. I looked at the Roman Catholic Liturgy of the hours which I really like as well as the Book of Common Prayer which I had been using most recently but decided to wait until Advent and the new liturgical year to start. During this time one of my Chaplains shared the “Celtic Daily Prayer” of the Northumbria Community with me. I was hesitant to try something new at first but I respect this Chaplain who as an Evangelical Christian uses the Benedictine Daily Office of the Roman Catholic tradition.  One thing that attracted me to this variant of the Daily Office was its Celtic roots. Celtic Saints have played a part in my spiritual journey St Willibald of Eichstadt a Celtic missionary to Germany has the feast day associated with my ordination, his brother Wunibald an Abbott in Germany that of my Baptism, St Rupert of Salzburg my birthday and St Killian of Wurzburg  the Patron Saint of my first duty station as a Priest. I find great comfort and inspiration in the lives of these saints.

He loaned me his copy and over the weekend I began to explore it. Sunday night before going to bed I prayed the Sunday Night office of Compline.  Since the night is still one of my most difficult times when I struggle with insomnia as well as occasional nightmares, disturbing dreams and even on rare occasion night terrors related to my PTSD.  When I prayed this variant of Compline I felt peace descend and this morning I did the Morning Prayer. Of course I was at work and despite the fact that my door was closed it seemed everyone wanted my time. I was thinking, my God I’m trying to actually pray can’t I catch a break? I finally did and I really liked the order for Morning Prayer.  I am going to begin the Evening Prayer tomorrow and try to finish each night with the Office of Compline.   I am hopeful that the renewal that began last Advent in our ER will continue and become a major part of my spiritual renewal. I do like the basic vow of the Northumbria Community which is to live with Availability and Vulnerability
before God and others as one expression of living faithfully in a fragmented world. I have included the Sunday night Compline below.

Sunday – The Ita Compline

Ita, who died in about 570, was abbess of a women’s community in Killeedy, County Limerick in Ireland. She ran a school for boys where she taught: Faith in God with purity of heart; simplicity of life with religion; generosity with love.  Among those schooled by Ita was Brendan, who honoured her as his foster-mother and adviser. The Compline that follows is named after her because of its emphasis on examination of the heart, and the prayers of care and protection for each soul who crosses our path.

If this Compline is being used in a group setting the * notation indicates a change of reader; words in bold are said all together; words in bold italic are said by each person in turn; and + indicates where you might make the sign of the cross.

+ (silently)

The Sacred Three
to save
to shield
to surround
the hearth
the home
this night
and every night.

* Search me, O God, and know my heart.
Test me and know my thoughts.

* See if there is any wicked way in me
and lead me in the way everlasting.

O Father, O Son, O Holy Spirit,
forgive me my sins.
O only-begotten Son of the heavenly Father,
forgive.
O God who is one,
O God who is true,
O God who is first,
O God who is one substance,
O God only mighty,
in three Persons, truly merciful,
forgive.

* O God of life, this night,
O darken not to me Thy light.

* O God of life, this night,
close not Thy gladness to my sight.

* Keep Your people, Lord,
in the arms of Your embrace.
Shelter them under Your wings.

* Be their light in darkness.
Be their hope in distress.
Be their calm in anxiety.

* Be strength in their weakness.

* Be their comfort in pain.

* Be their song in the night.

In peace will I lie down, for it is You, O Lord,
You alone who makes me to rest secure.

* Be it on Your own beloved arm,
O God of grace, that I in peace shall awake.

Be the peace of the Spirit
mine this night.
Be the peace of the Son
mine this night.
Be the peace of the Father
mine this night.
The peace of all peace
be mine this night
+ in the name of the Father,
and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.

Peace

Padre Steve+

P.S. If you desire to find the Celtic Prayer of the Northumbria Community it can be found at their website: http://www.northumbriacommunity.org/pray-the-daily-office

Prayer request. I have been called into the hospital regarding a very sick young man in our ICU. Please pray for him as he is not doing well.

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