In his youth Dwight Longenecker studied at a virulently anti-Catholic college, yet 25 years later he is preparing to become a Catholic priest. Returning to the United States has, he says, been an opportunity to embrace what the American Church and its theological colleges have to offer
/woke up with a start a few years ago to discover that, as an American. I had lived more of my life in England than in my home country. In 1979, after studying at a fundamentalist college in the States, I came to England to study. At college I had picked up a severe dose of Anglophilia, and I was feeling as lucky as a lottery winner at being able to study at Oxford — the mecca for fans of C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien and all things English.
I wanted to be an Anglican country vicar, so after my theology studies I came across a friendly bishop, was ordained into the Anglican Church, married an English girl, and put down roots. After 10 years as an Anglican priest we were received into the Catholic Church, and for the next 10 years I worked as a Catholic layman.
As a married former Anglican cleric, I knew it was possible for me to be ordained as a Catholic priest. Yet for 10 years in England I pursued this option, but in a frustrating and farcical process, my application was declined, deferred, denied or simply ignored.
One summer, while visiting family in America, I was invited to meet my local Catholic bishop. He immediately invited me to move to his diocese and be ordained. Last summer a post was advertised for a school chaplain in his diocese, so I applied and was accepted. I hadn't planned to move back to the States, but nothing was happening in Britain and the opportunity was perfect. The new post was actually in my home town, and we had always wanted our four children to have the chance to experience life in America so they could take full advantage of their dual citizenship.
As a former Evangelical,1 was moving to the heart of the American Bible belt and I couldn't help feeling that my work in Catholic apologetics and evangelisation would find a more ready audience than the increasingly stony ground of England.
I had moved to England as a young man of 25 and now, in my 50th year, I went home. I had exchanged the old world for the new world. Yet, for me, the new world was actually my old world. I went with my family to settle in my home town to minister to the countrymen from whom I had lived apart for half my life.
It is a strange feeling to be an expatriate twice over. Was I immigrating or emigrating? I wasn't sure.
Since our decision to move early this year, my family and I have been on a steep learning curve. Along with all the upheaval of moving from one continent to another, there has been the stress and expense of buyingand selling houses, getting rid of the majority of our earthly goods, then shipping our few remaining belongings across the Atlantic, and finding our feet in a new land.
Happily, the St Barnabas Society — whose quietly efficient mission is to help convert clergy in transition — was a great help to us. Once landed in South Carolina, our new school and parish communities have given us a very warm welcome.
As I had lived in England for over half my life, I had never experienced the Catholic Church in America. However, I knew that the culture here was very different from that of the English Church. The English Catholic Church, like English culture in fact, is an understated and subtle piece of work. A mix of immigrant Catholic communities, proud recusants and fervent converts, the English Catholic Church seems unsure of her identity; tiptoes around the establishment and comes across like the English weather— grey and damp.
The American Church, on the other hand, is a land of extremes. Liberals and Traditionalists wear their colours proudly and engage in pitched battle. While there is a serious struggle in the Church it feels somehow healthy for that battle to be up front and visible rather than being conducted behind polite smiles, sub-texts and bacicroom old boy systems. In contrast to England, the American Catholic Church is wealthy and influential. Rightly or wrongly, they stand up and speak out on a whole range of issues. My impression here is that Catholics get involved and get going.
In England I struggled to find an appropriate voice and ministry. Yet soon after arriving in America 1 was invited to speak to a local young adults' theology group, get involved with fund raising for a local convent, sing in the parish choir, lecture to university students, join a pro-life campaign, and have my own Catholic radio show.
To be ordained I have to obtain permission from the Vatican, and while we wait for the paperwork to go through, the bishop has asked me to continue my training.
When my wife and I were first received into the Church I completed a training course in one of the English dioceses. Ten years ago in England the Catholic bishops handled the iarge influx of Anglican clergy with flexibility and great generosity. In some dioceses former Anglican priests met informally with a Catholic priest mentor who helped them prepare for Catholic ordination. Sometimes this process was very short and sweet. In other dioceses the Anglicans were sent to seminary to take selected courses. Other bishops sent the former vicars for full-time seminary training for several years.
Along with a dozen other men I completed a part-time two-year course. For one weekend a month we met for lectures, and in between times we completed a course of reading, met with a spiritual director and prepared for ordination.
My American bishop was satisfied with my English training, and my experience in the Church for the last 10 years, and after a course of extra reading on liturgy only asked that I continue my practical and pastoral training in our local parish.
After such a long period out of cassocks and cottas I'll be pulling on some robes and navigating around the altar, remembering old skills and learning new ones. I'll be sitting in on parish meetings, attending the local deanery, trailing around with the curate as he vis
its the hospitals, takes funerals and prepares couples for marriage. In addition to the priestly training I'll have a whole new job to learn as school chaplain. I will need to keep abreast of educational theory and network with other Catholic educators.
Happily there are a whole range of courses in Catholic education available to me. Because of its size and wealth, the American Catholic Church has an abundance of resources to assist my development. Whether I want residential or correspondence courses, short-term or long-term, informal or formal, topnotch training is at hand.
In addition to this, the training is often conducted in a religious retreat setting. Catholic universities and colleges offer attractive summer school programmes, while monasteries, convents and retreat houses across the country offer a range of sabbatical study courses, part-time events, conferences and retreats.
Alongside the formal institutional offerings the new ecclesiastical movements are very active in helping with the formation of priests and lay-people for the service of the Church.
Opus Dei runs days of recollection, retreats, family events and mission trips for young people. Communion and Liberation, for example, offer family camps, young people's retreats and regular study sessions for both students and adults. At the local level there are Catholic camps, parish courses and a range of lay initiatives.
Twenty-five years ago I was a student in the Bible Belt of America at the world's most fundamentalist and antiCatholic of Protestant colleges. Never in my wildest imagination would I have dreamed that 25 years later God would call me back to this same town to minister as a Catholic priest.
Now that it's happened there is a strange symmetry to it all. It has all been a huge surprise, but the sort of surprise that, once done, you step back to ponder. Then you see that it has not been a surprise at all, but part of a larger plan.
Dwight Longenecker can be contacted through his website: www.dwightlongenecker.corn