Last month, San Antonio’s Archbishop removed the longtime priest at Our Lady of the Atonement Catholic Church. It's not just any church. It was founded by converts from the Anglican Church--and was the very first Catholic parish in the country to bring Anglican traditions into mass. Some worry the priest’s removal threatens those traditions.
On Jan. 19, San Antonio’s Archbishop removed Father Christopher Phillips, the longtime priest at Our Lady of the Atonement Catholic Church--a move that confused many parishioners.
“We were all shocked when we learned the news about Father Phillips being taken away, and that’s something that a lot of us don’t understand,” said Maria Lopez. “We want to preserve what what we have known as our tradition.”
Phillips isn’t any just any Catholic priest. He’s a former Anglican priest with a wife and children who converted to Catholicism in the 1980s after Pope John Paul II authorized the ‘pastoral provision,’ allowing Episcopalians to leave a church that was shifting its doctrine on some social issues and become fully Catholic.
Under that provision, Phillips formed Our Lady of the Atonement with a group of Episcopalian converts as the very first Catholic parish in the country to incorporate Anglican liturgical and musical traditions into mass. The sudden removal of Atonement’s first and only pastor has some proponents of ‘Anglican Use’ liturgy worried about the future of worship within the parish and beyond.
“The entire experience of walking into our church and being able to kneel and to pray--and that solemnity that we have for the liturgy itself is just wonderful,” said Lopez. “We’re just really worried that everything is just going to change, and it’s not going to something that we hold dear as home. It’s been our home for 7 years,” Lopez says.
In a letter, San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller told Atonement members he has concerns about things happening within the church that “indicate an identity separate from, rather than simply unique, among the parishes of the archdiocese.”
The Archbishop said he was putting someone else in control of the Church while Fr. Phillips reflected on those concerns, but he praised the Church’s traditional liturgy and said it would remain.
“We want to keep the traditions and what is happening there as alive as it is today,” Garcia-Siller said in an interview days after sending the letter.
But the Archbishop wouldn’t say more about what’s next for the pastor who worked to develop those traditions within the Catholic Church.
“You know, I don’t want to make any other comments because we are in the process,” Garcia-Siller said. “But I want to assure the people that we are here to serve them and to love them. And the pastoral provision will continue.”
Fr. Phillips’ ‘mandated reflection period’ ended in early February. He’s appealing the Archbishop’s decision to remove him from the parish, according to some canon lawyers who’ve taken the case. Philip Gray claims he’s representing the priest.
“Canon law affords the faithful an opportunity to remain faithful and still challenge Church leadership,” Gray told a crowd of about 200 Atonement parishioners gathered in a hotel ballroom by his group the St. Joseph Foundation, which bills itself as something of an ACLU for Catholic rights.
Gray said he’s not allowed to share much information about the evidence against Fr. Phillips or what the St. Joseph Foundation’s defense of the priest might entail. But the Foundation is also preparing parishioners to defend their rights to worship according to their Anglican traditions, with or without Phillips.
“Canon law protects the rights of the faithful to worship God according to any ritual in the Church that is recognized by the Church and to worship in accord with a spirituality that is not opposed to the Catholic Church,” Gray said. “Well, we all know that the Anglican Rite is a legitimate right given to you by the Catholic Church.”
The group’s founder, Chuck Wilson, was also one of the founding members of Our Lady of the Atonement. Wilson told parishioners that he will personally handle the canonical defense for members of the parish, while Gray fights for Fr. Phillips.
“You all know why we are here, said 81-year-old Wilson. “The fate of our beloved parish and our beloved pastor are indeed at stake.”
Wilson, an Episcopalian convert to Catholicism, says hundreds have signed on to the potential case, and his group passed out paperwork to hundreds more at Sunday mass. The fight is deeply personal for him. He doesn’t want the things he loves about his church to change.
“What if the congregation walks away?” asked Wilson. “Knowing what had been there in the past and what was lost, I couldn’t take it. I’ll give my life for this. I don’t care. I’m 81. You know? Whatever it takes.”
Wilson said he believes the removal of Fr. Phillips may have more to do with the fact that the priest recently requested to leave the Archdiocese to join a different Catholic jurisdiction developed in 2012 especially for Anglican congregations.
That structure allows churches like Atonement to keep not only their distinctive worships styles, but also to have their own priests, seminaries and parishes. But Wilson says that would mean the San Antonio Archdiocese loses Atonement, its school and its thousands of members.
“Their concern is money,” said Wilson. “Our parish is a cash cow!”
Our Lady of the Atonement was formed under Archbishop Patrick Flores, who died in January. It was meant to serve converts from Anglicanism who wanted to rejoin the Catholic Church and keep their traditions, but the church has been attracting others, too.
“I think there is a growing number of cradle catholics such as myself that just don’t find satisfaction in the traditional mass that you get in almost every diocesan parish,” said Bob Landry, who’s had kids at Atonement Academy for years, but joined the parish just months ago.
Landry said the fact that folks like him are leaving other Catholic Churches to attend mass at Atonement might be part of the Archbishop’s concerns.
“I think what Fr. Phillips has done here in his time is really incredible,” said Landry. “He’s taken a small group of Episcopalian converts to Catholicism, and he’s built a beautiful church and school. I just think his success stands in direct contrast to the difficulty that the Catholic Church generally is facing in many places, where there’s a falling away from the Church.”
No matter why Fr. Phillips was removed, some worry the shakeup at this flagship parish could make other orthodox Anglicans think twice about joining the Catholic Church. The canon lawyers representing Atonement say they’re prepared to take the case all the way to the Church’s equivalent of the Supreme Court--the Apostolic Signatura in Rome.