My Journey Home
by Msgr. E. James Hart
Once a minister of the Episcopal Church, I am today a Roman Catholic Priest, serving as pastor of the parish of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas. As it turns out, becoming a Catholic priest brought me “full circle.” Allow me to share with you how and why.
The Early Years
I was born February, 28, 1948 in Inglewood, California. As I eventually learned from a copy of my baptismal certificate once I was grown, I was baptized by in the parish Church of St. John Chrysostom of the same city, June 27, 1948, according to the Rite of the Roman Catholic Church. My mother was of Irish Catholic decent, and she was raised a Catholic, mainly under her older sister’s influence. My father, although baptized, had never been confirmed.
When I was still a toddler, my mother was strongly influenced by a neighbor of ours who was a Protestant. My mother left the Catholic Church under this woman’s influence to join the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination. Consequently, I was raised in those circles.
Unlike so many who have left the Church, however, my mother always spoke of the Catholic Church with great fondness and the utmost respect — and that respect extended to the priests and religious she had known as a child. I mention this because my mother’s tender recollections were passed on to me and my siblings and helped cultivate in me and in us, implicitly, a love for the Church. In retrospect, I now know that our Lord was mercifully using my mother to cultivate in me and us baptismal grace, even though we were, strictly speaking, outside the Church (CCC, 817–819; see Lumen Gentium, 15).
Because my mother had left the Church while I was but a toddler, my formative years were spent in the Assemblies of God, in their Sunday school and their form of Protestant worship. This is what I knew as a boy, and God graciously used it to stir in me, from time to time, a hunger for Him. Indeed, I owe a great debt to the many dedicated souls in the Assemblies of God who selflessly taught me the Bible in these my formative years.
One vivid memory I recall as though it were yesterday is of a particular conversation with my mother. Having returned from services, I expressed to her how much I loved the hymn “The Old Rugged Cross.” I must have been around eight years of age at the time.
I must also note that during this time I absorbed many prejudices that disposed me to distrust the Catholic Church. This too was part of those formative years.
My father, although a wonderful provider and in almost every respect a wonderful father, was lacking in this: He was not a godly man. He almost never attended services with my mother. As I grew older I began to identify with him more and more.
As a consequence, I began to rebel at the idea of attending services with my mother. She insisted, and I reluctantly complied. Nevertheless, eventually my father’s example won out, and my mother conceded that I was not required to attend services with her.
From about age thirteen, then, I sought to follow my father’s example with respect to religion. This choice, of course, had an impact upon the rest of my life. In 1965 at age 17, with my father’s consent, I joined the U.S. Navy. That same year, having completed boot camp, I married my high school sweetheart, LaDorne, to whom I am happily married to this day.
During my time in the Navy we had our two girls, Tammy Ann and Michelle LaDorne. Upon leaving the Navy we returned home, where I began working for my father’s company as an apprentice carpenter. All during these years, although aware of God, I fled from Him. But by this time my flight from Him had, in His providence, brought me face to face with the depth of my own sinfulness and, subsequently, to a crossroads.
I am reminded of Francis Thompson’s immortal poem, “The Hound of Heaven,” whose opening stanza reads:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes, I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbéd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat — and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet —
“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”
I would either persist in my folly and lose all that I held dear, or I would turn to Christ, having repented of my sins and foolishness. By His grace I chose the latter, in so far as I was capable of understanding that choice. LaDorne, our girls, and I began attending services on a regular basis — again, with the Assemblies of God congregation in which I had been raised. Under pastoral care, involvement, and Bible study we grew in our faith.
Our commitment to Christ subsequently plunged us into youth ministry. Both my wife and I worked with the assistant pastor. Because of the era (circa 1969), we helped establish and were part of a ministry to the many young people on the move up and down the highways of California. We became involved in evangelization and teaching that was aimed, first, at bringing these young people to Christ and, second, at integrating them back into the broader society.
During this time I was challenged intellectually on several occasions as a result of our ministry to the “street people,” as we called them then. In search of answers I was led to the writings of men such as Francis Schaeffer and C. S. Lewis, which in turn led me to classical thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, and eventually to the Great Books curriculum.
Being introduced to Anglicanism through Lewis’ writings and those of others, I began to experience a deep dissatisfaction with the manner in which the “Lord’s Supper” was treated and conducted in the Assemblies of God. (I did not know it then, but this was the beginning of an awareness of a Eucharist-centered quest.) I would observe what we were doing there and reflect upon the fact that, even though we professed to follow Scripture, it did not seem to square with various scriptural texts, such as John chapter 6.
My heart began to yearn for something, though I didn’t know what it was, something I only vaguely apprehended in the Anabaptist fashion in which the Lord’s Supper was administered in our denomination. It was also during these years that I first sensed a call to the ordained ministry, but I didn’t know how to respond. So this sense of call settled deeply into my heart and germinated there.
As the writings of Lewis and others had introduced me to the Anglican Communion and Tradition, at least in principle, both my wife and I began to desire a more “traditional” expression of the Faith. When we moved in January 1975 to Pacific Grove, California, on the Monterey Peninsula, we purposed, God willing, to find an Episcopal Church. On the day we arrived we discovered St. Mary’s by-the-Sea.
The following Sunday we attended the service of Holy Communion. As the rector began “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid,” I experienced a profound cognitive rest and heartfelt peace. When, with the rector’s permission, we came forward to receive communion on our knees at the altar rail, my heart rejoiced.
I had a real sense of having found what I had been searching for, and a deep satisfaction in Christ. The “Prayer for Quiet Confidence,” in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, perfectly sums up our experience on that day and many days thereafter:
“O God of peace, who hast taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength: By the might of thy Spirit lift us, we pray thee, to thy presence, where we may be still and know that thou art God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
It was at St. Mary’s by-the-Sea that we really began to grow in a more Catholic understanding of the Christian faith. We at once entered into the life of the parish. We became the head of the church school department at the request of the rector. We were confirmed in the Episcopal Church, along with our children, in 1976. We attended a Cursillo.
It was at this time that the writings of G. K. Chesterton came into my life: books such as The Everlasting Man and Orthodoxy. It was also at this time (about 1978) that I began to read the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas. I could not possibly estimate the effect that these and other books had upon my life. I suspect, in light of eternity, it is inestimable.
During these years, my sense of call to the ordained ministry was given further specificity. With the encouragement of several parishioners, I consulted with our rector. He concurred and encouraged me to proceed. We began to make plans. As we moved forward, I began an informal, guided reading program under the pastoral oversight of our rector.
Then, through prayer, and what was at the time agonizing reflection, LaDorne and I decided to put things on hold, with our rector’s approval and guidance. We came to this decision because our daughters were about to enter junior high. Our first responsibility was to them and their well-being, yet to enter seminary — and all that that would entail — would likely disrupt their lives in ways and to an extent that we determined would be contrary to that well-being. So seminary was postponed.
As with everything in our lives, this decision turned out to be providential. Over the next several years I advanced to the managerial level of the firm that employed me. This promotion eventually included a move to the San Luis Obispo area.
Here our girls entered and finished high school. I continued to pray, read and study. Eventually, we became very involved in a small Presbyterian Church (PCA), although we were still, officially, Episcopalians. Being encouraged by the pastor to co-teach with him a confirmation class, I did so, and I helped him in other ways as well.
During this period (circa 1985) the sense of call to ordained ministry again began to awaken in me. Others also began to ask me if I had ever given thought to going to seminary with a view towards ordained ministry. In light of all of this, and with the encouragement of the local pastor, I took a week off and went to a January term class being offered at Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, California.
I attended the class because I needed the time to get away, pray, and think. Since I had been influenced greatly by the Rev. Dr. J. I. Packer, an Anglican clergyman who was the instructor, it seemed to be the perfect opportunity. It turned out to be a marvelous week, and it confirmed for me that it was time to move forward, the Lord willing, with seminary.
With our local pastor’s assistance and recommendation, I applied to Westminster in California. I was required to stand a closed-book examination in philosophy. This I did and was admitted to the seminary in the fall of 1986. I took a normal course of study in the M.Div. program, although I was not at the time officially an M.Div. student.
Westminster, my fellow students, and many of my professors cultivated in me a deeper appreciation for Reformed Christianity’s emphasis upon Holy Scripture. Again, I owe an immense debt to these wonderful, dedicated, and godly men for communicating to me, in some small measure, their deep reverence and commitment to God’s Holy Word. But my time at Westminster also confirmed for me that I was not a Presbyterian, but an Anglican.
At that time, there was much in the Westminster Confession of Faith (used by Presbyterians and other Reformed traditions) that I could affirm. But there was also much that caused me some pause, mainly in the areas of ecclesiology (theology of the Church) and sacramental theology. I was much more at home with the 39 Articles of the Church of England as found in the Book of Common Prayer (although not without some reservations, even then).
My time at Westminster served to confirm these beliefs. When we had begun our season of study there, we had been part of a local Presbyterian congregation (Orthodox Presbyterian Church) for worship. But by midterm, we had returned to the Prayer Book liturgy of the Episcopal Church, attending services at Grace Episcopal Church in San Marcos.
During this year I was subsequently in contact with my Episcopal bishop. I made him aware of my desire to seek ordination in the Episcopal Church. He confirmed my desire and encouraged me to proceed.
With his permission, I also applied to transfer to a seminary of the Episcopal Church — Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. After an interview, I was accepted into their M.Div. Program with the approval of the Episcopal Bishop. So I spent the next three years at Trinity in order to earn a Master of Divinity degree. I graduated in May of 1990.
The Trinity Years
In retrospect, it is for me beyond question that these were seminal years in a way that none of those preceding them had been. For these were the years when formation began in earnest, and that for several reasons.
Once we had arrived at Trinity Seminary, the bishop informed us that he thought it would be best if we sought another diocese. I was told, “You
are, beyond doubt, an Anglican. But I’m not sure,” the bishop further observed, “that you are an Episcopalian.”
At the time I did not appreciate the cogency of that observation. But later I came to appreciate it fully. To be frank, the simple truth was that the bishop did not want anyone, especially an Episcopal priest, in his diocese, who did not and would not accept and affirm both women’s ordination and the validity of homosexual acts as aspects of a “normal” and wholesome, faith-filled lifestyle.
Yet being cut loose from my bishop, through no desire of my own, created a crisis for me and for my family. Was I truly called to the (Episcopal) priesthood? I wondered. With the advice and counsel of a local episcopal pastor I pressed on, applying myself to that which God had set before me.
This was a veritable “dark night” in the life of my soul. It prepared me, however, in a way that nothing else could have done. I was thrust upon God in a solitude that I would have never chosen for myself.
Such solitude subsequently oriented me to some of my professors and subjects with an openness that would have otherwise been lacking. It was truly a time of fides quaerens intellectum — faith seeking understanding. I recall in this regard my Liturgics professor. He was a first-rate biblical and Patristic scholar, so every aspect of his course was built upon the Church Fathers and the scriptural exegesis that stems from them.
My work under his tutelage and others began to reveal, in a way and depth I had never before seen, the catholicity of the Church — a catholicity that has not only an extensive but also an intensive aspect. I can truly say that I am still working with the tools that he gave me. In my senior year I took a class that he conducted off campus, in the evenings, in Patrology. Johannes Quasten’s four-volume Patrology, along with primary sources, were the loci of my study, a study that continues to this very day.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my studies and God’s providence were moving me, however slowly and sometimes reluctantly, to find my way back to the Church of my baptism, the Roman Catholic Church.
In 1989 my wife and I interviewed with the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Quincy, Illinois. He agreed to see us on recommendation of the faculty, and this interview led, in due time, to my being accepted into that diocese as a postulant. I stood physical, psychiatric, and canonical examinations and completed my M. Div. degree. On September 5, 1990, I was ordained to the diaconate in the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, in the parish of St. Andrew’s. There, in Our Lord’s gracious providence, I had been called to serve.
Fort Worth to the Present
Upon my ordination to the Sacred Order of Deacons, I was transferred canonically to the Diocese of Fort Worth. On the Feast of St. Patrick, 1991, I was ordained as an Episcopal priest. In that parish I served, first as curate and then as assistant rector, until my decision to leave the Episcopal Church to return to the Church of my baptism and to seek ordination in the Catholic Church under the Pastoral Provision.
The years of serving God and His people at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, at the altar and through the ministry of the Word of God, were some of the most wonderful and challenging years of my life. It was during these years that LaDorne and I came to desire Catholic fullness, amidst the demands of pastoral care, through study and the guidance of our rector and our bishop. There I came to believe, through reading the Fathers and the Vatican II documents Dei Verbum, Sacrosanctum Concilium, and Lumen Gentium, that such fullness is only to be found in communion with the See of Peter, and that the successor of Peter is the Vicar of Christ, the visible head of His Body the Church (see Lumen Gentium, 18–23).
It was also during these years of ministry that I came into a fuller understanding of the Catholic priesthood. Although my ministry in the Episcopal Church had genuine significance, I came to realize that, whatever else I was, I was not a Catholic priest (Apostolicae Curae). I began at this time to make clandestine trips to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, just down the street, on Wednesdays — days of exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.
I shall never forget the first time I walked through those doors to kneel before Jesus, exposed in the monstrance on the Altar for adoration. As I knelt down, I was literally overwhelmed by the sense of our Lord’s presence — His Eucharistic Presence. Although l knew that our Lord was present everywhere and certainly at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, He was present in St. Patrick’s in a manner I had never before experienced.
All this led me to understand two things. First, the sacramental Sacrifice of our Lord. Although of necessity it includes the elements of thanksgiving and memorial — elements that would be affirmed by any informed traditional Protestant — it especially includes the presence of Christ in the Eucharistic Species. Second, the mode of Christ’s presence under the Eucharistic Species is utterly unique.
Indeed, I came to believe with all my heart that the mode of Christ’s presence raises the Eucharist above all the sacraments as “the perfection of the spiritual life and the end to which all the sacraments tend” (Aquinas, Summa, Pt. III, Q. 73, art. 3). I came to believe and know, without doubt, that “in the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist ‘the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ — and, therefore, the whole Christ — is truly, really, and substantially contained’” (CCC, 1374). Furthermore, I realized that this Presence did not depend upon my belief; rather, my belief depended upon that Presence.
This belief, to a very great extent, is what compelled me towards Catholic fullness. I came to desire fervently, first and foremost, to return to the Church of my baptism — a Church I had never known. If the Church would permit it, I also desired to serve God and His people in the fullness of the truth, in the fullness of the priesthood, in the fullness of the Person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ, through Word and Sacrament, in the fullness of the Catholic Church.
It is worth noting that the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church played a pivotal role in my journey. I remember well taking it with me on a vacation in California by the Pacific Ocean. There I concluded reading it from cover to cover.
Having done so, I remarked to LaDorne that the publication of the Catechism at the end of the twentieth century stood, in my opinion, as a veritable miracle. It was proof positive that the Roman Catholic Church was the Church that Jesus had founded, protected under the promises made to St. Peter (see Mt 16). For only an institution so protected and watched over by the Holy Spirit could be the instrument of such a remarkable and faithful exposition of the Faith, that Faith once for all delivered to the saints (see Jude 3), in our day.
It was not long after I read the Catechism that we were received into the Church. And on September 25, 1996, after designated preparations, psychological examination, written and oral examinations and subsequent certification, the Holy Father’s indult having been granted, I was ordained, in forma absoluta, under the Pastoral Provision, a Roman Catholic Priest in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I was home.
There is much more to the story, of course, many twists and turns that I could not mention here. Suffice it to say that it has been one grand adventure. Sometimes frightening, sometimes dark and drear, sometimes joyful and full of light and glory, but at all times accompanied by our Lord’s grace and a providence that is full of mercy. I shall ever be thankful for the gift of my Catholic faith.
Msgr. E. James Hart was ordained a Catholic priest in 1996 under the Pastoral Provision of Pope John Paul II. Since then, he has served as a parish priest in various parishes of the Diocese of Fort Worth. His last assignment was as the Chancellor and Moderator of the Curia for the diocese, in which capacity he served from 2006 to July of this year. He is now the canonical pastor of the parish of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, a parish of more than 5,700 families with a parochial school, pre-K through 8.