By ROB HERBST
The Catholic Week
MOBILE — Andrew Pitts, administrator of the Society of St. Gregory the Great, routinely gets the questions.
Is this Catholic? Is this valid? Does this fulfill my Sunday obligation?
“Yes, this is Catholic, yes this is completely under the chair of St. Peter and the Pope. Yes, it absolutely fills your Sunday obligation,” Pitts happily said.
Those questions are asked because many don’t know about the Society of St. Gregory the Great in Mobile. It’s comprised of a group of former Anglicans, Episcopalians and Methodists now in full communion with the Catholic Church. The Mass, held at 9:30 a.m. every Sunday at St. Ignatius Parish’s chapel, is likely familiar to those raised in the Episcopal Church.
The Mass is celebrated in Elizabethan English (think not “And With Your Spirit,” but “And With Thy Spirit”). The priest and congregation all face East in recognition of the ancient prayer posture of the Church. The lectionary is often sung and the Gospel is proclaimed in the midst of the congregation.
There are other subtle differences. In an effort to help people have a better understanding, the Society of St. Gregory the Great is inviting all to a 9 a.m. Mass Saturday, March 9 at St. Ignatius. The Mass will be celebrated according to the Society of St. Gregory the Great’s “Ordinariate” form. Following Mass “A Conversation with George Weigel on Pope St. John Paul II” will take place.
“We wanted to give something back in gratitude to the people of the archdiocese and the clergy that helped us along the way, but also to get our name out and let people know who we are and where we are,” Pitts said. “This just seemed like the right thing to do.”
Hosting Weigel, a foremost authority on Pope St. John Paul II, is natural because in many ways the Society of St. Gregory the Great traces its roots to Pope St. John Paul II.
In 1980, Pope St. John Paul II made an appropriation for former Anglican clergy who were married to become Roman Catholic priests and remain married.
Four priests in the Archdiocese of Mobile were Episcopal priests — Fr. Bry Shields, pastor of St. Ignatius; Fr. Leo Weishaar, chaplain of Providence Hospital; and Fr. Matthew Venuti and Fr. John Holleman, who are both retired.
“That was the first step,” Pitts said. “But what do you do when you have someone who leaves to become a Catholic priest, but he’s got an entire congregation behind him and they want to come?”
Eventually Pope Benedict XVI commissioned the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to search for how to respond to an influx of Anglican communities seeking to join the Catholic Church.
Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, “Anglicanorum Coetibus,” established how former Anglicans would enter the Catholic Church while preserving aspects of their liturgy.
It set up three ordinariates (non-geographical dioceses) – one in Australia, one in the United Kingdom and the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, which is based in Houston.
Most Rev. Stephen J. Lopes is the first bishop of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.
There are 43 parishes and communities of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter in the U.S. and Canada and the nearest parishes to the Society of St. Gregory the Great in Mobile are about 450 miles away in Florida, Georgia and Texas.
The Society of St. Gregory began in 2012 when Pitts – who entered the Catholic Church in 2001 – was connected with Fr. Venuti, who had been an Episcopal priest in Dothan.
Pitts said the Society of St. Gregory the Great has 26 members, with an average attendance of about 20. But the Society of St. Gregory the Great has a bigger goal than its own Mass attendance.
“Our main purpose is to be a missionary,” Pitts said. “It’s our goal to be a conduit to bring more of our own home. Sometimes we do that by bringing people through us, sometimes we do that by reaching out to them and say ‘Which is better for you? Is it better for you to go through your local typical Latin Rite parish or to come through us? We’re there to bring more in. If we’re not there to bring more in, then we’re not doing our job.”
That’s one reason Pitts hopes to see more than just Catholics during Weigel’s visit.
“We want to invite the parishioners sitting in a normal Catholic parish to invite their Episcopalian next-door neighbor to come and visit us that day,” Pitts said.
“I would love to have a room that’s 50 percent Catholic and 50 percent Protestant sitting there and learning about John Paul II and learning about us and coming closer to the Church.”