BEVERLY — Nothing like it has ever happened at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church before.
On Saturday morning, more than 400 people gathered to see Jurgen Liias join the Catholic priesthood. Included among them were his two children, his grandchildren and his wife, Gloria.
The ceremony was not in defiance of the Vatican policy of celibate priests — rather, Cardinal Sean O’Malley officiated, instituting a policy set during the tenure of Pope Benedict. In 2012, he established the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, welcoming to the Catholic fold Anglican clergy dissatisfied with their own church.
This followed an earlier welcome to their unhappy parishioners from Pope John Paul II.
Liias literally grew up in the Episcopal Church and served as a minister for 40 years, including 14 at Christ Church in Hamilton. He now finds he cannot reconcile with new policies like welcoming homosexual clergy and countenancing abortion.
He describes these policies as an attempt to “compromise and sell everything out in an effort to be liked. ... The Catholic Church is closer to the things that are right and true.”
By becoming a Catholic father, he brings a dramatic new dynamic to that church — a priest with a wife and family.
Liias won’t say this speaks to things to come, but, “It at least shows the church it’s not impossible to be a married priest.”
In an interview prior to Saturday’s ceremony, Liias acknowledged that the priesthood has previously taken on widowers with children in a program of late vocations.
He is only the second Episcopal priest with a wife ordained in the Boston Archdiocese.
His new church, Gregory the Great, will be within St. Margaret Catholic Church in Beverly Farms. All Catholics are welcome, but for now, his congregation of up to 30 will consist of people from his breakaway Episcopal church in Danvers.
“Our liturgy will be a traditional Anglican liturgy,” he said.
On Saturday, he sometimes wore a broad smile as he took part in the ancient ordination ritual, stepping to the altar to be embraced by O’Malley.
“Jurgen,” the cardinal said, “thank God for your generous response to this second calling.”
O’Malley saluted Liias’ family in general and called the occasion “historic.” In a homily full of humor, however, he celebrated the arrival of Protestant protesters by stressing the need for unity among believers. He recalled a time centuries past when all Christians worshipped in the same church.
“At the last supper, Jesus prays that all might be one,” he said.
The cardinal cited his years as a friar, spreading Catholicism to the “natives” of New Guinea, a people even including cannibals.
Seeing him arrive by air, they were fascinated by the plane. “Through an interpreter, they asked if it was male or female,” he joked. They added, “If it’s female, we want an egg.”
The mission was successful.
“They embraced the faith joyfully and enthusiastically,” O’Malley said.
The new believers were soon disconcerted, however, to find neighbors converted by Protestant missionaries. “And they demanded that the friars explain to them why Christianity was divided. ... They were hard-pressed to explain.”
O’Malley declared, “This ordination is a step toward the unity Christ wants.”
Liias points out that the Anglican religion, formed in England under the reign of King Henry VIII, allowed the sovereign to defy the Pope and divorce. Nonetheless, the Anglican Church retained much of the old religion.
The sacrament of confession might be the biggest adjustment he will make, Liias said Saturday. Yet, for an Episcopal priest, it won’t be strange to hear people talk of mistakes and troubles.
“I always thought confession was a good thing,” he said. “A wonderful, healing sacrament.”
During the ceremony, his children, Nejla Liias Orr and Endel Nicholas Liias, gave readings from Scripture.
Wife Gloria, who has participated in past Catholic ceremonies, remained a spectator. She continues to worship in the Episcopal Church.
“She doesn’t feel called to become a Catholic,” Liias said. “But she supports my decision.”
He made the move after decades of thought and prayer, he said. He spent the past year undergoing training and testing, including psychological testing.
The son of World War II refugees, Liias’ mother was German and his father Estonian. He was born in Germany in 1948 and baptized a Lutheran. Reaching the United States in 1952, the family was taken in by an Episcopal priest in Charlestown.
Liias grew up in the rectory under the influence of a minister who had no children and no wife. Although not required for Episcopal clergy, the pastor was committed to a celibate life.
Liias, who described his “joy” after the ceremony, was scheduled to say his first Mass yesterday at St. Margaret’s.