Featuring Fr. Jurgen Liias/
September 3, 2013
In a small Lutheran church located in the Black Forest region of postwar Germany, I received the Sacrament of Baptism as an infant in 1948. My parents, displaced due to the Second World War, applied for emigration and, in the winter of 1951–1952, with my younger brother and me, arrived in the United States and were settled into a displaced-person camp in Massachusetts. Months later, we were taken into the rectory of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Charlestown, Massachusetts. An old bachelor priest, the Rev. Wolcott Cutler, had filled his large, five-story home with refugees. Though most stayed briefly, we lived in that rectory for the next ten years. We became caretakers of the building, and my father the sexton at the church.
Mr. Cutler (as he was called — a deeply committed low churchman, he would have been offended to be called Father Cutler) was an extraordinary saintly pastor, who, though from a rich Boston Brahmin family, had devoted his entire ordained ministry to inner-city work among the poor. He was seen as the pastor of all of Charlestown, though ninety percent of the community was Irish-Catholic. He was a zealous activist for peace and justice. Mr. Cutler had a profound influence on me as a child; my mother used to tell me that even as a small boy I said that I wanted to be like Mr. Cutler when I grew up. The call to ordained ministry was present as far back as I can consciously remember. Childhood games often included playing church, with me as the priest distributing communion.
Eventually, Mr. Cutler retired. A new priest with a wife and children arrived, and we were required to leave the rectory. My parents, through intense and diligent work, were able to fulfill the American dream and purchase their own home nearby. The new priest was a high churchman; and in Sunday school he instructed us that we were not Protestants but Catholics — not Roman Catholics, but Anglo-Catholics. This was the best news I had ever heard. After being verbally and physically bullied in our largely Catholic neighborhood for being a “Protestant and Nazi,” I was thrilled to learn that I was Catholic, too!
St. John’s Episcopal Church was the center of my life. Besides being a refuge where we as immigrants were accepted and loved, it also was the formative spiritual community of my childhood and adolescence. We had a boys’ choir and a church Boy Scout Troop. In high school, we had a very active Young People’s Fellowship, because of which I had my first preaching opportunity on Youth Sunday. Seminarians from the Episcopal Theological School provided youth leadership, and one in particular solidified my vocation. As a senior in high school, I met with my bishop, and he affirmed my vocation: “Jurgen, you’ll make a wonderful priest; now when you go to college, don’t major in religion. You’ll get plenty of that in seminary.” He shook my hand, and I was a postulant!
College and Seminary
In 1965, I went off to college. I had been recruited by Harvard College but accepted a full scholarship to Amherst when my mother informed me Harvard meant living at home! My secondary education had been at the Boston Latin School. Six years of Latin and three years of Greek in high school and an interest in archaeology and psychology directed me to choose classics as my major. The greatest providence of college was meeting Gloria Gehshan, a lady from Smith College, on the very first day of freshman year. She would become my wife. We have been together most of our sixty-five years of life.
This was the turbulent ’60s and the days of student revolution. I joined the Students for a Democratic Society, the premier New Left organization and was very engaged in organizing teach-ins, demonstrations, and marches against the Vietnam War. This activism for peace and justice was for me an expression of my faith, and Christians like Merton, the Berrigans, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King Jr. were my heroes. The underside of this era was also part of my life: sexual promiscuity, drugs, growing cynicism. By the time I arrived at seminary (the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge) in 1969, I was burned out and found myself in a deep depression.
Spirituality had not been a significant part of my Christian life, but my depression created a quest for inner resources. After dabbling in Eastern religions and New Age philosophies, I embraced Jungian psychology as my new “religion.” In my last year of seminary, I interned at an Episcopal church under a priest who himself was an avid disciple of Jung and who had an interest in spiritual healing. Having been well indoctrinated with a biblical hermeneutic of Bultmannian demythologization, in which all the healing miracles of Jesus had been discarded, I was not sure what these folk at the parish thought they were doing, but I dutifully participated. Though a senior in seminary, I had never participated in a Bible study or prayer group before — much less a healing service — but these Wednesday morning gatherings became utterly transformational. For the first time, I began to “experience” the reality of God and the power of prayer.
My Conversion as a Young Priest
As I began my curacy as a deacon in 1972, I continued my explorations in the Holy Spirit. The charismatic movement was emerging in the Episcopal Church. Nine o’Clock in the Morning by Bennett, Gathered for Power by Pulkingham, and Miracle in Darien by Fullam were narrations of priests and parishes totally transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit. “Spiritual Renewal” was the new buzzword in the church; Cursillo, Faith Alive, Marriage Encounter, the charismatic movement — all were efforts to bring new life to the church in the face of what was beginning to become evident: decline and decrease in the Episcopal Church. I was drawn to these movements, not just for the church’s sake, but for the sake of my own very thirsty soul.
In this quest, the Lord provided a spiritual mentor, an older woman named Elizabeth. She asked me, “Would you like to receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit?” This was an essential and pervasive theme of the charismatic renewal: that the apostolic experience of the baptism of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost was available today and was the rightful promised inheritance of every believer. My response was rather passive, “Well, why not?” She prayed over me on a number of occasions, but nothing happened. Then in June 1974, in the living room of the home of some Baptist evangelists who were friends of Elizabeth, while being prayed over with the laying on of hands, the heavens opened and the Spirit of God gave me a supernatural vision of the Blood of Christ.
From that point, everything began to change: my spirituality — my prayer became alive, real, and personal; my theology — I began a decided move away from liberalism toward biblical orthodoxy; my preaching — I began to preach Christ crucified; my ministry — the power and experience of the Holy Spirit was central.
My charismatic conversion, however, also produced problems. “Evangelism is a dirty word in the Episcopal Church!” my rector asserted at my proposal to start an evangelism committee. I felt a sense that it was time for a new call. After a few disappointing rector searches, I was called to be the rector of St. Paul’s, in Malden, Massachusetts. It was a small, dying, elderly, urban congregation; my youth was the major qualification of their call.
My Work as an Anglican Priest
St. Paul’s was a wonderful adventure for the next fourteen years of my life. The parish had a remarkable transformation. There were all the outward indicators of growth: membership, attendance, staff, income, program; but more importantly, we became the dwelling place of the living God and a mission center of living water (Ezek 47): conversions, healings, deliverances, deep worship, ministry to the poor. We became known as the “Charismatic Episcopal Church.” We introduced literally thousands of folks around New England to a deeper experience of the Holy Spirit through weekly healing services, preaching and teaching missions at other churches, and regular “Renewal” conferences hosted at St. Paul’s.
During this time, God was planting the seeds of my conversion to Catholicism. I began the discipline of being a penitent. My first confessor was a monk of the Episcopal community of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, Father Carleton Jones. Our monthly meetings introduced me to Anglo-Catholic worship and spirituality. My many years of spiritual direction with Carleton ended abruptly with his sudden announcement that he was becoming a Roman Catholic. I remember vividly the words of the letter he sent to me explaining his decision: “I have come to the conclusion that the unity of the Church is not finally something to be strived for but rather a gift already from the Lord to His Church in the Petrine office.”
Radical feminism is a powerful lobby in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. At one diocesan meeting, a priest and seminary professor declared abortion to be a sacrament. Thus, I felt called to be a voice for the sanctity of life and organized a chapter of the National Organization of Episcopalians for Life (NOEL). My reputation as a charismatic left me somewhat on the fringes of the clergy as an eccentric, but my pro-life activism drew bitter anger and rejection from many of my colleagues. The abortion crisis, however, posed for me even a larger question: How could the moral compass of the church be so profoundly broken?
Towards the end of the ’80s, I sensed that my time at St. Paul’s was ending. After being rejected by the few possible prospects in the greater Boston area, I began earnestly to seek the Lord. On the Eve of the Epiphany, 1990, while reading The New Catholics, a collection of testimonies of converts to Catholicism, I received a clear word from God that I was to be a Catholic. In obedience to that word, I actually began exploring the Pastoral Provision. I met a number of times with a Franciscan priest to explore the Catholic faith. I also met with Father Andrew Mead, the rector of the Anglo-Catholic Church of the Advent. Strangely, the Holy Spirit seemed to say, “Not yet!” But the conversations with Father Mead produced an invitation to serve with him at the Advent.
Immersion in the deep, rich world of Anglo-Catholic worship and spirituality, far from being alien to my charismatic tendencies, was a profoundly charismatic experience. I was introduced to Keble, Pusey, and Newman, to Benson and Grafton, to the Triduum, the Veneration of the Cross, Benediction, the Angelus, and daily Mass. I remained at the Advent seven years, but again I sensed God was calling me elsewhere. Was it time to go to Rome? Again, God seemed to say, “Not yet!”
In Holy Week of 1997, I received an invitation to become rector of Christ Church Hamilton. Christ Church had been the premier Evangelical Episcopal church of the diocese. It had experienced a wonderful renewal in the late ’70s and ’80s and began to draw in many faculty and students from Gordon College and Gordon-Conwell Seminary. But the last decade had been a disastrous time of conflict and diminishment and, at the request of the Vestry, the bishop removed the rector. The parish had become a small, financially stressed, demoralized, depressed group, living in the memories of past glory.
Newly equipped with all my Anglo-Catholic experience and paraphernalia (eucharistic vestments, bells, incense), I went to Christ Church. Almost instantly, God renewed the church, liturgically, spiritually, and politically. Attendance doubled the first year and tripled the next, as did the budget. The staff and ministry of the parish were rebuilt; missionary work was revitalized. Seminarians came in droves, and many were ordained (some have even journeyed on to Roman and Orthodox orders). A vision that had animated my ministry, a vision of a church — fully Evangelical, fully charismatic — came to fruition at Christ Church.
But alas, even as we thrived, the din of the political turmoil of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion loomed. I constantly posed the question to the lay and clerical leadership of the church: What is God calling Christ Church to be and do in the midst of this crisis? One answer to that question came in the developments of what would become the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA). A significant group of parishioners thought this was the direction we should go. Another large group, equally faithful and orthodox, was convinced that steadfast witness within the Episcopal Church was God’s plan. Each sought my opinion. My theological preferences were with the former; my catholic sensibilities (against schism) were with the latter. I proposed that we accept both directions as authentically led by the Holy Spirit and plan a future of two sister parishes, one a new church plant of the ACNA and the other a continuing Episcopal church at Christ Church. The two sister parishes would continue in mutual affection, prayer, and, where possible, shared ministry — a witness of reconciliation and charity over against the bloodbath of lawsuits and depositions going on in the denomination.
The Vestry adopted this vision for the future. We set a timetable for the next twelve months and invited each member of the parish to discern prayerfully God’s specific will for them. We developed the appropriate planning and organizational structures for building of the two new future congregations. I made it clear that I did not believe God was calling me to one congregation or the other. My call was to see through the birth of these two new churches.
This very crisis in the Episcopal Church had been raising questions of ecclesiology, authority, discerning truth, the doctrine of marriage, etc. I became more convinced that as rich and wonderful as the Anglican heritage was, it did not contain the spiritual DNA to resolve this crisis. As good a home as the Episcopal Church had been for me since childhood and as joyful and satisfying a ministry as I had had within her, my intention was to retire from active ministry in the Episcopal Church and then explore admission into the Catholic Church. But again God said, “Not yet!”
I rejoice that through God’s grace I have had a very honest, respectful, and mutually affectionate relationship with my Episcopal bishop. Although he approved the parish partition plan, at a private meeting, it was made clear to me that I would not be allowed to remain an Episcopal priest and be involved in the Anglican Church of North America — “You have to choose!”
I finished my work at Christ Church over the next six months. In 2009, I preached and celebrated my last liturgies as rector of Christ Church. The final Eucharist included the Vestries of both congregations mutually affirming and blessing one another. On the following Sunday, October 4, the Feast of St. Francis, I preached and celebrated my first liturgy as rector of Christ the Redeemer Anglican (CTR). I was inspired by the Lord’s words to Francis from the San Damiano crucifix: “Go and repair my church, which as you see is in ruins!”
The last three years as rector of CTR were the most joyous and fulfilling of my forty years in ordained ministry. Roughly 250 folks joined me in the exodus from the Episcopal Church; another 150 have since joined. God’s provision has been bountiful. But from the beginning, I also knew that this was to be for me a brief assignment; I felt called to be the founding rector and then invite CTR to search for their first new rector. In early January of 2012, the parish had successfully called their new rector. Concurrently, an Anglican ordinariate (Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter) was established in North America. At last, I heard the Lord say, “Now is the time!”
I gathered together CTR parishioners to explore, under the brilliant tutelage of Dr. Thomas Howard, the meaning of the invitation of Pope Benedict in Anglicanorum Coetibus. For ten weeks, we asked, “What does the Catholic Church really teach?” A convert from Fundamentalism and Anglicanism, Dr. Howard was able to instruct us both biblically and cogently about those subjects most troublesome to Evangelical Protestants: Marian dogma and devotion, the primacy of Peter, the infallibility of the pope, the veneration and intercession of saints, the doctrine of purgatory, prayer for the dead, etc. A second ten-week study program was focused on Anglican-Catholic Ecumenical Conversations and initiatives. I led twelve individuals forward to personally respond to the Pope’s invitation to Anglicans and to come into full communion with the See of Rome through the ordinariate.
Though I might have journeyed earlier to Rome in my own personal history, this was a collective historic moment for the beginning of the fulfillment of the vision of the reunion of Rome and Canterbury. That was the dream of our Tractarian fathers, the explicit goal of Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Ramsey at the launching of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) dialogues, and an implicit hope in the bold ecumenical theology of Pope John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint and his reenvisioning of a papacy for the whole Church. I am humbled to be invited by God to be a small part of this historic work. At noon on August 15, 2012, the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, after forty years, I officially resigned my Anglican Priestly Orders; at 6 p.m. of that day I was confirmed and received into the Catholic Church. In February 2013, I received word that I had been approved for ordination in the Catholic Church. In fact, I was Pope Benedict’s last rescript.
Since announcing my decision to become a Catholic and to seek ordination through the Anglican ordinariate, I have had many an inquiry from people wondering, “Why?”
My first reason is that this decision is an act of obedience to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Though a long personal journey of twenty-five years or more, I would add that as personal as it is, it is not just a private or uniquely individual call, not simply a private denominational predilection.
Over the years, I have read innumerable books, have had many searching conversations, watched hours of EWTN, listened to many testimonies and teachings — all of which have contributed to the decision to become a Catholic. But above all it has been a deep, constant, magnetic pull of the Holy Spirit to come to the center of the Church. It is this deep intuitive sense each time I enter a Catholic church or religious community that I am in the Church, not a church. We speak in Evangelical circles when a person of the Jewish faith becomes a Christian that they have become a “completed Jew.” To become a Catholic is for me to become a “completed Christian.” As I have already previously articulated, the driving vision of my ministry has been to build a church that was “fully catholic, fully Evangelical, and fully charismatic.” I have come to the conviction that one cannot be “fully catholic” apart from communion with the See of Peter. For that matter, one cannot be “fully evangelical” or “fully charismatic” apart from the rich and deep historical meaning of those words in the fullness of the Catholic Church. As has been said to me on a number of occasions by wise and mature Catholic friends, you need leave nothing behind of any Christian tradition that is of true Gospel value. All of it comes only to fullness. To become a Catholic is to receive from my Lord His last providential gift from the cross: “Behold, thy mother.”
There is in the Christian life a force of gravity, which draws the believer ever deeper into union with Christ. That union is not only a private mystical union — though it is that — but a deepening union with the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church. It is a dogmatic principle of the Catholic Church that “this Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church” (Lumen Gentium, no. 8). If this is true, then this gravitational pull of Christ’s Spirit is universally active, drawing all humanity to Christ the Head and to the fullness of His saving grace, which He mediates through His Body the Church. John Henry Newman, an Anglican convert to Rome, insightfully quipped that there was no steady state between atheism and Catholicism! In the human soul, there is always that spiritual battle between the centrifugal forces of the world, the flesh, and the devil drawing us away from the love of God, and the centripetal dynamic of the Holy Spirit pulling us ever deeper into the love of God. There is a gravitas to the Catholic Church, to the See of Peter, that is, I believe, a true and objective charism intended by Christ to draw His followers into union with Him in the fellowship of the Catholic Church.
That of course already displays the second reason for my decision: theological. The great divide between the churches of the Reformation and the Catholic Church is in the domain of ecclesiology: What is the Church? In the Protestant world, Anglicanism has sought to maintain a catholic ecclesiology: organic, universal, and apostolic. Bishops, creeds, sacraments, and conciliarism have been maintained as integral pieces of Anglican ecclesiology, papal primacy alone being set aside. Within that catholic structure, Anglicanism has also asserted a principle of theological freedom and diversity. One may believe in spiritual regeneration in Baptism, but one is free not to believe it. One may believe in the Real Presence in the Eucharist, or one may disbelieve it. One may believe in the authority of Scripture, but one is not required to so believe. One may believe in the sanctity of marriage, but one may choose not to believe it. For much of my life as an Anglican, that freedom was a pleasant gift, but increasingly it had become a source of distress and a profound impediment to my priestly work as a pastor and preacher. How could I proclaim from the pulpit what the Bible teaches or Christianity asserts, when my bishop was saying quite the opposite? How could I advise a person in the confessional when the priest in the neighboring parish would advise the opposite? My authority as a teacher and confessor needed to be based on something other than my own best opinion.
Flannery O’Connor spoke of the glorious freedom she experienced in being delivered from the “tyranny of her intellect.” Credo ut intelligam! That has become my experience. It is the paradox of true intellectual freedom by submission to “the Church’s teaching.” It is a glorious freedom, not only in the mind’s love for God, but in the vocation of priest in the theological and spiritual formation of disciples of Jesus. Thus, this theological conversion is not first of all a conversion to the peculiar Catholic beliefs about which my inquirers challenge me: “What about Mary?” “What about purgatory?” “What about contraception?” Rather, it is a conversion to the faithfulness of Christ’s gift to the Church of an authentic authority to bind and to loose. At its deepest, it is a question of pneumatology even more than ecclesiology. How does the Spirit of Truth actually function in the Church? Whatever complexities and seeming incongruities may be discerned, the Magisterium is at minimum a reasonable and practicable answer to the question of truth that is trustworthy. At best, it is what the Church proclaims, the provision by Christ to His people of the gift of unerring guidance.
Finally and perhaps most urgently, my decision to become a Catholic was driven by our Lord’s high priestly prayer, “May they be one, that the world might believe.” The unity of the Church has been for me a primary and constant imperative of following Jesus. The unity of the Church is not only an imperative for the internal life of God’s people but an essential dimension of her evangelical mission. There is no greater scandal and impediment to the conversion of the world to the love of Christ than her divisions. Pope Benedict established the Anglican ordinariate both as a concrete instrument to begin to organically heal the divisions of the Reformation and as an essential strategy for the sake of “the New Evangelization.” As an Anglican, I have received this as a gracious invitation to reconciliation. I can find no valid, faithful reason to decline.