Bishop-designate Steven J. Lopes is not a former Anglican and has never hewed to the Anglican tradition. But he may be as conversant with Anglicanism as any Catholic cleric can be.
From his work over the past 10 years at the Vatican Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, he helped guide the process for American and Canadian Anglican congregations wishing to join the Catholic Church with the establishment of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, based in Houston.
On 24 November, Pope Francis appointed Bishop-designate Lopes, a priest of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, as the ordinariate’s first bishop. His episcopal ordination will take place on 2 February in Houston.
Bishop-designate Lopes, 40, succeeds Mons Jeffrey Steenson, himself a former Episcopal bishop in Texas who became a Catholic in 2007 and was appointed four years ago to head the ordinariate created by the Vatican to serve former Anglicans living in full communion with the church. Despite having the title of monsignor, he had the full rights as a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, he said during a 24 November teleconference announcing the appointment and discussing the transition about to take place next year.
Calling Bishop-designate Lopes “my dear friend”, Mons Steenson said, “It was a year ago when I really felt convicted that we needed to move in this direction. We’ve worked really hard on this over the last months.”
He added, “The intention when the apostolic constitution (creating the ordinariates, including ones in England and Australia) was put together, that it would be led by bishops. There was no one in that situation who could actually be ordained a bishop,” because the Anglican tradition has long permitted married clergy.
Mons Steenson himself is married. In announcing his successor, the Vatican as a technicality invoked Canon 401.2, which deals with the resignation of a bishop – bishops who head dioceses are often referred to in ecclesiastical terms as ordinaries – “for ill health or some other grave cause” to explain Mons Steenson’s departure from his role.
“The one thing that’s necessary for that in the minds of people, Catholic people, is that you have to be led by a bishop,” Mons Steenson said. “We have 72 priests in the ordinariate who don’t have a bishop to relate to, and that goes against the very nature of the priesthood. Priests should not be out on their own.” He added, “Taking on the discipline of celibacy of the priesthood, it raises up celibate vocations. A bishop is going to be far more effective than a married ordinary.”
Bishop-designate Lopes – his surname rhymes with “hopes” – will have his episcopal ordination will take place at the ordinariate’s cathedral in Houston. He noted the word “cathedral” comes from the Latin “cathedra”, which means “chair of the bishop”.
He praised Mons Steenson for being “an outstanding, outstanding example” of priesthood, and had good words for his future flock: “They have a passion for communion, a passion for the truth of the Gospel and contained in sacred Scripture and tradition. I see that the hope this ordinariate brings is a vitality that is shared with the universal church.”
Bishop-designate Lopes also alluded to the challenge of ministering a far-flung diocese with parishes across the United States and five more in Canada. “We have to be thinking of some creative ways to connect our parishes together, to get them to relate to one another. To develop that kind of identity is crucial to allow that kind of particular patrimony to flourish in the Catholic Church.”
He joked that his first job as bishop will be “to get on a plane,” while Mons Steenson, a licensed private pilot, said that perhaps the “grave cause” requiring him to step down was that he’d “only been able to fly my plane for three hours this year”.
Mons Steenson said the experience of Fr Paul Wattson, a U.S. Episcopal priest who became a Catholic and led members into the Catholic Church more than a century ago, can be instructive. Fr Wattson is a candidate for sainthood.
“It wasn’t an easy journey for him,” he said. “They were not understood by the Episcopalians they left, and a lot of Catholic people didn’t understand him, either.
“Fr Wattson – this is a magnificent story – is the one who brought the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity into existence. At first, the bishops were not interested in this,” Mons Steenson added. “It took a pope to bring all the bishops on board. There’s a parallel with our life, too. It took a pontiff to see that an ordinariate could represent (departing Anglicans), and he made it happen.”