Congregation of St. Athanasius celebrates 20th year

BRAINTREE -- When in 1996, Father Richard Bradford, rector of the Episcopalian Parish of All Saints in Ashmont, left the Episcopal Church, several dozen parishioners left with him. It wasn't that they had lost their faith; just that they had discovered another one, Catholicism, and it spoke to them.

The Archdiocese of Boston welcomed the former Episcopalians in with open arms, and 29 members of the congregation, including Father Bradford, were received into the Catholic Church in September 1997. Father Bradford was accepted for ordination as a Catholic priest, and the archdiocese erected it's first, and only, chaplaincy dedicated to the Anglican Use of the Roman Rite -- the Congregation of St. Athanasius.

Sept. 29 will mark the chaplaincy's 20th anniversary, celebrating two decades of providing services for former Episcopalians and holding Catholic Mass with elements of the Anglican liturgy.

Father Bradford was ordained as a Catholic priest in May of 1998, becoming the chaplain of the Congregation of St. Athanasius, a position that he still holds today. Married with two children, his ordination was possible thanks to Pope St. John Paul II's 1980 Pastoral Provision, which gave permission for married former clergymen coming from the Episcopal Church to be ordained, as well as allowing for the formation of worship communities that retain elements of the Anglican liturgy.

Masses, while incorporating Anglican customs, remain Catholic and "fulfill Sunday obligation for anybody that attends," said Father Bradford, speaking to The Pilot Sept. 15.

After he left the Episcopal Church, which he did partly because he felt it was being "pulled in a more Protestant direction," Father Bradford met with then Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law, to discuss his possible transition into the Catholic Church.

Cardinal Law had been involved in the development and implementation of the Pastoral Provision, and was very receptive to the idea. Father Bradford and his former congregation were received into the Church only a year later.

It was a "very smooth transition" for us, Father Bradford said. "Everybody has always been very supportive of us. Without that support, we probably wouldn't have survived 20 years."

The chaplaincy has a relatively small congregation, with only a few dozen people. A Mass is celebrated in the Anglican Use every Sunday at St. Lawrence Church in Chestnut Hill, and most Saturdays at St. Theresa of Avila Church in West Roxbury, where Father Bradford is a parochial vicar.

There are three categories of people who generally attend Mass, Father Bradford said: Former Episcopalians, lifelong Catholics who simply enjoy the Anglican Use Masses, and people considering or preparing to join the Catholic Church.

With the last group of people, the chaplaincy almost acts as a force for evangelization, Father Bradford explained.

Many Protestants, he said, don't have a clear picture of what the Catholic Church is, so "when we do meet up with Protestants ... some of them seemed pleasantly surprised that we're cared for as we have been, and that gives them a chance to maybe rethink their own way into the Church."

The chaplaincy's anniversary celebrations will kick off with a special Sunday Mass, held at St. Lawrence Church on Sept. 24. Father Anthony Aarons, a former Anglican clergyman from Jamaica who also converted to Catholicism, will preach at the Mass. He will also be present at Evensong, a form of evening prayer in the Anglican tradition, at Stonehill College's Chapel of Mary later that day.

Similar services are held yearly, Father Bradford said, and are part of a joint celebration with St. Paul's Episcopal Parish in Brockton.

On Sept. 29, the actual anniversary of the Congregation of St. Athanasius, Father Joseph Wilson of the Diocese of Brooklyn, a longtime friend of the chaplaincy, will preach at a special Mass. He will also preach at a Sunday Mass on Oct. 1, and will give a keynote at a luncheon following.

Additionally, the congregation has been invited for a dinner and a vespers service with the Benedictine Monks of St. Benedict Abbey in Still River. The monks invited the congregation to a similar gathering after they were received into the Church, and have always been supportive of them, said Father Bradford.

While the congregation is busy preparing for the upcoming anniversary, Father Bradford noted that this might be one of the last anniversaries for the chaplaincy in its present form.

The Congregation of St. Athanasius is the only U.S. chaplaincy established under the Pastoral Provision that remains under diocesan care. The rest, about 40, have entered the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, a sort of non-geographic diocese established by the Pope Benedict in 2012 for congregations that celebrate services with elements of Anglican liturgy.

Currently, the Congregation of St. Athanasius is working to raise finances and attendance to eventually join the Ordinariate, which would bring the congregation out from under the auspices of the archdiocese.

Indeed, several members of the congregation are actually already part of the Ordinariate, Father Bradford explained. Several years ago, an Ordinariate parish, St. Gregory the Great, was formed in the Boston area. However, when the founding pastor left and no replacement could be found, parishioners joined the Congregation of St. Athanasius.

"Here we have one congregation that, in a sense, is answering to two bishops," Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley and Bishop Steven Lopes, the bishop of the Ordinariate, said Father Bradford.

However, if enough finances can be raised, "when I retire, whenever that will happen, or even before, if we get the adequate numbers in the congregation, the whole congregation will become a member of the Ordinariate," he said. "And I will continue as what I always have been -- an incardinated priest in the Archdiocese of Boston."