Disaffected Episcopalians Offered A New Home

The Vatican announced Sunday an arrangement to allow disaffected Episcopalian congregations in the United States to join the Roman Catholic church. The arrangement will allow an exemption to priestly celibacy for former Episcopal priests who are married.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. Episcopalian priests take note. The Catholic Church wants you. The Vatican is making it easier for Episcopalian clergy and their parishes to join the church, and as NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, for a limited time, it is waiving the centuries' old tradition of priestly celibacy.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: Mark Lewis, director of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Bladensburg, Maryland, was surfing the Internet for news one morning when something caught his eye. The Catholic Church was announcing a process to allow Episcopal churches to convert as a group.

Lewis, who's theologically conservative, was intrigued.

MARK LEWIS: I was immediately thrilled and I read it to my wife and her response wasn't as exuberant as mine.

HAGERTY: Lewis's wife was also drawn to Catholicism, but was not so sure about answering to the pope. Still, over several months, their church studied the bible and catholic doctrine and concluded that Catholicism was the one true church.

In October, the priest, the church and its 70 members converted en masse. Once that happened, Lewis could no longer lead St. Luke's because he isn't a catholic priest, but he hopes to become one soon. Later this month, he, along with several dozen Episcopal ministers, will begin the process of becoming catholic priests.

So what about celibacy? After all, many Episcopal clergy are, like Lewis, with a wife and family. Well, the Vatican decided to waive the celibacy requirement only for those who are already married.

LEWIS: Oddly enough, that doesn't seem to be that big a deal and what I mean by that is it's so much more important to come home to the place that you believe is truth. Being a catholic means more than anything to my wife and to myself.

HAGERTY: This isn't the first time that Rome has welcomed married Episcopal priests. It's allowed individuals to join the priesthood since 1980, bringing their wives with them. But it is the first time entire parishes can follow them.

Yesterday, the Vatican released the details. The former Episcopal churches will get their own diocese, or ordinariate, which will be based in Houston and led by Jeffrey Steenson, a former Episcopal bishop.

Of course, some Episcopal leaders say the pope is, quote, "stealing sheep," but the pope says his church is simply meeting a need at a time when many Episcopalians are unhappy with their denominations' actions, such as elevating gay men and lesbians to be bishops.

So far, more than 100 Episcopal priests and 1,300 parishioners have asked to join the Catholic Church. Mark Lewis hopes he'll be wearing catholic robes by summer. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.[soundbite of music]

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