A husband and father of three daughters will become the area’s first married Roman Catholic priest when he is ordained Saturday in Allegany County.
Bishop Richard J. Malone of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo will preside over the ordination of John Cornelius, a former Episcopal priest who is being allowed into the ranks of the Catholic priesthood under a 2012 papal exception to the church’s celibacy rule.
Cornelius, 64, converted to Catholicism about two years ago with his wife, Sharyl.
He spent 20 years as a priest in the Episcopal Church until retiring in 2010.
“I look forward to celebrating Mass again. It’s been two years, and I missed it greatly,” Cornelius said Tuesday. “That closeness to God is an amazing thing.”
A directive by Pope Benedict XVI aimed at welcoming disaffected Episcopalians and Anglicans into the church allows for Cornelius’ ordination.
Last year, the pope established a new “ordinariate” – an entity similar to a diocese – serving former Episcopalians and Anglicans who have converted to Catholicism.
More than 100 former Anglican priests, including Cornelius, applied to become priests for the ordinariate, and Cornelius will be among the first 30 applicants to be ordained.
His wife of 33 years and their three daughters – Virginia, Rebecca Maier and Sarah – will be on hand for the 5 p.m. ceremony in Immaculate Conception Church in Wellsville.
Afterward, Cornelius will lead a small community of former Anglicans who meet in a Catholic church in Henrietta, in the Catholic Diocese of Rochester.
The community, known as the Fellowship of Saint Alban, is considered fully Catholic but may use a traditional Anglican liturgy, including the Book of Divine Worship, which features prayers in Elizabethan-style English.
Cornelius will be a priest of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, which is based in Houston, and overseen by Monsignor Jeffrey N. Steenson, a former Episcopal bishop turned Catholic.
But much of Cornelius’ spiritual work will be focused in the Diocese of Buffalo – in Allegany County, where he will celebrate standard Catholic Masses and participate in other ministries at rural Catholic parishes.
His ordination doesn’t signal a relaxing of the Vatican’s celibacy policy.
“This is by exception. It’s not the norm,” said the Rev. Dennis J. Mancuso, a Catholic pastor of Allegany County who assisted Cornelius in his conversion to Catholicism. “The way they’ve done it is in accord with tradition.”
Cornelius went through a lengthy Vatican approval and formation process.
Under Benedict’s exception, former Anglican bishops, priests or deacons who are married may become priests for the ordinariate, but unmarried clergy who are ordained Catholic priests may not subsequently marry.
A 1980 provision by Pope John Paul II also allowed for some married Episcopal priests to be ordained.
Nonetheless, Cornelius’ presence at the altar will be highly unusual in the Diocese of Buffalo.
“This is something that’s totally new to people here,” he said. “Down in Texas, it wasn’t quite so much an anomaly.”
The Diocese of Buffalo has at least one other priest who was married and is a father. But the Rev. Richard J. Cilano was able to pursue ordination only after his wife died. Ukrainian Rite and Byzantine Rite Catholic priests are able to marry and have families, but it’s not common for them to celebrate Masses in Roman Catholic churches.
Cornelius said he believes that his perspective as a husband and parent could be a benefit in relating to parishioners.
“When they come to me and talk about their own families, there’s a certain amount of reciprocity of emotion that goes along with it,” he said.
Cornelius, who grew up in Bolivar, said he was laid off twice from jobs he held before entering the priesthood. He recalled the financial stresses of trying to support a family while out of work and the difficulties of raising children, including a daughter who once ran afoul of the law.
Having experienced those realities adds authenticity to his counsel for people to turn to God in times of trouble, he said.
“You can look at people and say, ‘Yeah, I know what you mean, but God will take care of you,’ ” he said.
Cornelius served as an Episcopal priest in Florida, Rhode Island, Texas and, most recently, near Albany. His disenchantment with the direction of the Episcopal Church, including its approval of a gay bishop in 2003, led him to the Catholic Church, he said. “I’m a traditionalist in a lot of ways,” he said.
Many Episcopalians took notice when the pope in 2009 made his initial overtures to disaffected members of their denomination, accusing the pontiff of attempting to poach membership.
But Cornelius said the effort was not aimed at practicing Episcopalians, but at those people who weren’t attending church anymore.
“I don’t think it was done with malice toward anybody. I think it was done for the care of souls,” he said.
The Rev. R. William Franklin, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York, said in a statement that the change in an individual’s church affiliation would not affect the diocese’s efforts to seek “cordial relations” with other area organizations.
“We all have our own spiritual journeys,” Franklin said. “Throughout the history of the Episcopal Church, many Roman Catholic priests have become Episcopal priests and vice versa. I don’t believe God sees such things as a competition nor should we.”