During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity celebrated in January, the Anglican parish of Saint Mary Magdalen and the Catholic parish of Saint Joseph in Sunderland (the northeastern part of England) organized joint activities … similar activities will be held in Lent, and Holy Week and during the month of May (the month of Mary). This mutual understanding arises from the fact that the Anglican community is administered by the Company of the Priests of the Mission (a group of celibate Anglicans who identify themselves with the charism of Saint Vincent de Paul). In fact, they belong to the Vincentian Family that is composed of more than 150 different entities (especially Catholic institutions): they collaborate financially (in the past ten years more than 22,000 euros have to sent to the Haiti Initiative) and a few weeks ago participate members of the other Branches of the Vincentian Family participated in their General Assembly.
In the difficult decade of the 1930’s, the superiors of three Anglican religious congregations and the Archbishop of Canterbury put out a call … they were seeking pastors who were willing to dedicate themselves to ministry among the poor. These pastors would minister especially in those neighborhoods where workers resided, neighborhoods that had sprung up as a result of the Industrial Revolution but that now had been impacted by the depression.
In those places, the Anglican Church was unable to offer a house and support to a pastor with his family. For that reason — as stated in their constitutions — the priests of the Mission had to “consecrate themselves totally to this mission, remain free of family ties and live simply.” They were the equivalent of a priestly society, not a community (at first, they shared living accommodations). Some are parish priests, others “have worked or are currently working with homeless people, ministering as educators in schools and as chaplains in hospitals and prisons and as missionaries,” says Beresford Skelton, superior since 2012 of the Company and responsible for the parish of Saint Mary Magdalen. All of this ministry is being done, as Saint Vincent de Paul stated, “in an effort to continue the mission of Christ, which is mainly to preach the Good News to the poor” (those words are also taken from the Constitutions of the Congregation of the Mission).
The year of division
The Company continued to live the Vincentian charism in this manner until 1992 … the time when the Church of England decided to ordain women. The Company became divided: 19 members requested admittance into the Catholic Church; the remaining 17, although skeptical about women priests, remained Anglicans. Skelton was in the second group and although he acknowledges that in that “difficult and sad period” he considered becoming a Catholic.
Skelton was already celibate, and at first it was difficult for his family to accept (“except for my mother”). He experienced celibacy as “a gift that I can give to God and so I ask God to use this gift for His greater glory”. Rev. Skelton also confesses that saints like Saint Vincent de Paul, Saint John Bosco, Saint Francis de Sales and Saint Francis Assisi “have always been very close to my heart and I have learned from them how to serve Christ and his Church in a better manner”.
In that time of doubt, Rev. Skelton sought advice from the Catholic Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, who responded: “the people need you and it would be contrary to the teachings of the Good Shepherd to leave the flock without a shepherd” … those words were spoken at a time when the shipyards, mines and steelworks in Sunderland were shutting down, creating an environment of despair among the people. The bishop then continued and stated: “You must show people that hopelessness can be overcome, and you must raise up the people”!
Extinction or a new path
We had to ask ourselves if we were going to survive … dissolving the Company was a very real option. During the extraordinary General Chapter of 1994, the then Provincial Director of the Daughters of Charity, Father Fergus Kelly emphasized our affinity with the Vincentian Family. Thus began a renewal process that lasted four year (during that time two member of the Congregation of the Mission and two Daughters of Charity helped the group deepen this bond). The journey ended in 1998 with a pilgrimage to the Motherhouse of the Congregation of the Mission and the Motherhouse of Daughters of Charity in Paris.
Another significant even occurred in 2008 “when the Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission, Father Gregory Gay, CM participated in our General Chapter and preached during the ceremony in which we renew our promises”. During those days in January when Christians around the world prayed for unity under the theme: “they showed us unusual kindness”, the Anglican pastor stressed that this relationship with the Vincentian Family “has given us the vision of a unity that one day will hopefully reach and embrace the whole Church”.
Author: María Martínez López
Published in Alfa y Omega, number 23-29 of January 2020