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On January 1, Pope Benedict XVI  formally announced  the creation of a new personal orindariate for Anglican groups in the United States wishing to convert to Catholicism. The  Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter , which is “juridically equivalent to a diocese,” will bring both lay and clerical members of the Anglican church into full communion with the Bishop of Rome while permitting them a large degree of control over liturgical matters (especially allowing the retention of the Book of Common Prayer, the language of certain rites, and married priests).

Though this is only the second such ordinariate, following the creation of one for England and Wales in January 2011, media reports indicate that further ordinariates are  under consideration  for Canada, Australia, and other English-speaking nations.

The expected proliferation of these exceptional cases is remarkable for several reasons. First, their growth represents a new tack in evangelization that is simultaneously more accommodating of converts and more aggressive in outreach to them. It also indicates a deepened seriousness on the part of the Vatican to pursue Christian reunification, a project which has been of particular interest to Benedict XVI’s thought and papacy.

But perhaps the most intriguing facet of this project is the (re)newed Catholic willingness to accept entire groups of converts and allow them to retain significant hallmarks of their Christian traditions, even when these traditions are somewhat alien (though not in opposition to) what has traditionally characterized Latin-rite Catholicism. Recalling  Lumen Gentium , the website of the new ordinariate notes the balance between pluralism and universality that the project aims for:

“[though] the one Church of Jesus Christ is said to subsist in the Catholic Church: [ . . . ] many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure, [and] these elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.  There is an inner dynamic in the life and teaching of Anglicanism which continues to draw Anglicans to its source.”

Tailoring the structure of the Catholic Church to make group conversion a feasible option represents something of a ‘grand experiment’ in recent ecclesiology. Yet it is not entirely novel, as it recalls some of the conversions in the early church recounted in Acts of the Apostles , when “many thousands” of individuals, including, sometimes, entire families or towns, were baptized at the same moment. And the longstanding inclusion of Eastern rite Catholics (as well as  efforts at rapprochement  with breakaway movements in Europe) suggests there is precedent for this emerging big tent strategy.

Representing both a numerically augmented and more communally sensitive approach in which individuals may not have to face down members of their family, friends, or former parish over their decision to enter the Catholic Church, the simultaneous conversion of entire groups, the pope seems to believe, will the one of the ways the Christian church moves down the road to eventual reunification, and is one of the ways the twenty-first century church’s evangelization will be both significantly different from its recent past and freshly in-touch with more ancient roots.

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