Ecumenical Clergy Crunch
  • Tuesday, June 17, 2014

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Church of the Holy Apostles, Virginia Beach, a home to Episcopalians and Roman Catholics for more than 36 years, needs a new priest.

Throughout the parish’s history, Episcopal and Catholic priests have led the congregation and administered their respective sacraments. But health problems are preventing a retired priest, Raymond Barton, from doing more than occasional supply work.

That situation prompted a May 7 letter from Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo of the Diocese of Richmond.

“I must address the unfortunate reality that, despite our search efforts, we have not identified a suitable Catholic priest whose health or canonical standing will permit me to assign him to the Church of the Holy Apostles at this time,” the Bishop DiLorenzo wrote. He said Catholic members of the congregation could receive their sacrament and pastoral care in the meantime at Church of the Holy Spirit, Virginia Beach.

“I invite them to prayerfully consider attending Holy Spirit as long as no Catholic priest is available at Holy Apostles,” he wrote.

Members of Holy Apostles are anxious about the situation, according to Michael Cherwa, president of the parish vestry council.

“So far they haven’t lost hope, although a couple of them are beginning to get worried,” said Cherwa, a Roman Catholic who’s married to an Episcopalian. “I told them, ‘Don’t lose hope now. We’re here to stay, and we’ll have a priest. It may not be this month, but we will have a priest. I just know God will send us one.’”

For many parishioners like the Cherwas, the ecumenical ministry of Holy Apostles is uniquely nourishing. It’s the only place where they, as a couple from different Christian traditions, can worship together and still receive their respective sacraments. During the liturgy, they’re together almost the whole time, except when he approaches the Roman Catholic altar for his sacrament and she goes to the Anglican altar for hers.

Because the ministry is unique, mixed couples routinely travel anywhere from five to 20 miles to attend Holy Apostles, passing other congregations that they could attend closer to home, said the Rev. Michael Ferguson, Episcopal co-pastor at Holy Apostles. Sustaining the ministry to both groups is vitally important, he said, not only as an ecumenical witness to Christ but also for pastoral care to mixed couples.

Ferguson said that no Roman Catholics, who comprise 60 percent of the congregation, have left since Bishop DiLorenzo wrote in May.

“They treasure what this church stands for and what the ministry is,” he said. “And right now they’re hanging in here because of that.”

Members of Holy Apostles have been nonetheless distressed to hear that Bishop DiLorenzo has come up short in the search for a new priest, Ferguson said. The congregation needs a priest only for several minutes once a week and would welcome someone who currently serves in a mission or parish elsewhere, he said.

The underlying concern is that a shortage of priests might not be the only reason why no suitable priest has been found. The bigger fear: perhaps the diocese is not searching diligently enough.

Among Catholic bishops, “there is very little interest in encouraging a grassroots ecumenical effort unless it is, ‘Okay, yeah, you can share a food pantry together, but don’t think about worshiping together in any sacramental way,’” Ferguson said. “There’s nobody that I can see in the Catholic Church doing it anymore.”

Diana Sims Snider, director of communications for the Diocese of Richmond, disputed any notion that Bishop DiLorenzo is uncommitted to a Roman Catholic ministry at Holy Apostles. The constraining factor, she said, is the shortage of priests. More than half of the 146 parishes and missions in the diocese have no resident priest.

“The diocese is still committed” to its ministry at Holy Apostles, Snider said. She noted that the diocese continues to employ a pastoral administrator at the church: diocesan theologian Dominick D. Hankle, who teaches psychology at Regent University.

But priests are stretched thin, she said, and Bishop DiLorenzo wants to find someone who is called to a congregation that is not exclusively Roman Catholic. In the meantime, he has other pulpits to fill as well.

“I don’t want to say it’s not a priority” to assign a priest to Holy Apostles, Snider said, “but there are other priorities.”

Some are wary in part because the Vatican has in recent years questioned long-held liturgical practices at Holy Apostles. The Diocese of Richmond informed the parish’s co-pastors in December 2012 that, in response to Vatican concerns, they would need to stop saying Eucharistic prayers together. They would have to develop a way to perform that part of the liturgy separately.

Cherwa said he does not believe the congregation is losing support from the diocese. He believes the bishop merely has other pressures he must address, and he recognizes that not just any priest can fill the role at Holy Apostles.

“It has to be somebody who is ecumenically minded, and there are a lot of Roman Catholic priests who really haven’t had much exposure to ecumenism,” Cherwa said. “I don’t think he just wants to dump somebody on us who’s going to not really be on our team.”

For the time being, Roman Catholics are receiving their sacrament weekly even though there is no priest on hand to serve them. When visiting priests preside, they consecrate extra hosts, which may then be distributed by lay members.

Congregants are actively trying to spread the word with hope of finding someone, perhaps an uncle who’s retiring and might enjoy the Virginia climate, or a local who would not mind adding one more stop to his Sunday regimen.

“If you know of a Catholic priest who’s ready to retire,” Ferguson said, “point him in our direction.”

G. Jeffrey MacDonald
TLC Correspondent

Image: Two altars at Holy Apostles, from the parish website.

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