The hills, lakes, and piney woods of East Texas will soon be home to a planned Catholic community, with the aim of living intentionally faithful lives and supporting, preserving, and spreading the Catholic Faith.
Called “Veritatis Splendor,” the community is in its nascent stages. The organizers have purchased 600 acres of land in rural Texas, outside the small city of Winona, located about 20 minutes north of Tyler. Plans for the community include a grand Oratory, seven Institutes, educational facilities, recreational facilities (including swimming, fishing, hunting, and equestrian), and residential neighborhoods.
The idea of Veritatis Splendor had its genesis separately in several places, which converged last year. Lisa Wheeler, a co-founder of Veritatis Splendor, had been discussing with her husband and Bishop Joseph Strickland of the Diocese of Tyler ways in which the Church could provide greater support and resources for foster families, including perhaps some sort of intentional community. At the same time, Kari Beckman (founder of the Regina Caeli Academy), had been struggling with how the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns had jeopardized people’s access to the sacraments, especially Reconciliation and the Eucharist. Beckman also contacted Bishop Strickland; he told her said anyone who came to the Diocese of Tyler in search of the sacraments would not be turned away. The idea of an intentional Catholic community was sparked by that conversation and began to develop.
In addition, Bishop Strickland had been having similar conversations with Deacon Keith Fournier, in relation to St. John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor. Before long, the three strands of thought converged and the idea of the Veritatis Splendor community began to take shape.
The organizers were drawn to East Texas because of its bucolic, idyllic setting, the conservative and traditional values that permeate the region, and the “benevolent bishop”, Bishop Strickland, who has “been so consistent in representing faithfully what the Church teaches,” Wheeler said. “Laying the foundation for Veritatis Splendor in an area of the country that was equally yoked both spiritually and culturally was important as we begin such a mission.”
Descriptions of Veritatis Splendor may raise comparisons to Ave Maria in Florida, the university and city founded by Tom Monaghan. According to Beckman, co-founder of Veritatis Splendor, while there are certainly parallels between the two, there is an important difference: unlike Monaghan, who intended to start a city, “we’re looking at making a village, a community, that is really about preserving the faith and communicating the faith to the world, and living it out joyfully.”
Veritatis Splendor is, Beckman says, more than just a neighborhood of like-minded Christians. The neighborhood, she states, “is there to propel and support” the Institutes, which have Christ at the center—both metaphorically and geographically, in the Oratory. The seven Institutes will focus on liberal education, law, liberty, human rights, life, media, and culture. They are intended to “communicate Christ’s truth to the world through these different disciplines and modes of communication in our world,” Beckman said.
Since the community was announced publicly earlier this month, there have been many positive and enthusiastic reactions, as well as some more negative ones. There are many questions that remain to be answered, as planning has only just begun. “One of the things that I’m reading is that this is a cult,” Beckman said. “No, absolutely not! People are going to own their own homes, and have the freedom to do what they want with their own land; certainly there will be a common thread among this community, which is our Catholic faith and living that out.”
“This is really about coming together as people who truly care about communicating Jesus’ Truth to the world and that want to help in supporting these institutes in some way, shape, or form, bringing all your talents,” Beckman said.
Veritatis Splendor is not associated with the Diocese of Tyler, but is being warmly welcomed by Bishop Strickland.
Since the community is not officially or canonically connected to the Diocese of Tyler, the support coming from Bishop Strickland and the diocese is not in an official capacity, although the bishop has expressed enthusiasm about helping to coordinate pastoral provisions. For example, the priests who will serve the community there will not be incardinated into the Diocese of Tyler; rather, they will function more like a religious order that comes into a diocese to do apostolic work.
“They’re really looking at bringing in priests that would be dedicated to serving this community,” Bishop Strickland explained. While some of the canonical details are still being worked out, including who would have authority over and responsibility for these priests, there has been a number of priests who have expressed interest in the planned community.
It is the hope that the pastoral care at Veritatis Splendor will be provided by priests who are particular to the community and will take an oath of stability which allows them to remain in service at the Oratory for the lifetime of their ministry. This will provide a certain degree of continuity, as well as accountability. “They will get to know the families very well, like St. John Bosco, playing with the kids, watching them grow, administering multiple sacraments to these families over many years,” Beckman said.
Strickland likens the community to a sort of seminary for families. “The idea of going back to the root imagery of what a seminary is: a seedbed,” he said. “In my eight years in seminary, the faculty would often remind us: this isn’t your permanent home. This is a place to be formed to go out, and to live priesthood out in your diocese or in your religious community.” This is the role he sees Veritatis Splendor playing, forming families in the faith and strengthening them in the truth.
“The way I look at it, families need support to live the truth and to form their children, and educate them,” Bishop Strickland said. This focus is at the heart of Veritatis Splendor’s expressed mission: “To guard, protect, and preserve the truths of the Christian Faith, as given to the Apostles by Jesus Christ.” The mission is lived out in community, as people live and work together “to safeguard the deposit of faith through an uncompromising fidelity to Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition,” according to the community’s website.
“There are two aspects there,” Strickland said. “There is the intellectual education, certainly, but also the formation of human persons that are guided by the light of Christ.”
“I believe that that is certainly what these families are looking for, to strengthen their children to go out as the apostles did, to be apostolic, taking the Truth of Jesus Christ—which we believe is the salvation of humanity—and to bring that into the culture, into businesses, into the medical field, into law practices, into the arts, into every aspect of society,” Strickland said.
Veritatis Splendor is not intended to be an insular or eremitical community. As Beckman and Wheeler emphasize, the intention is for residents to support each other in the faith, and to take that faith and preach it to the world.
Additionally, there will be guest services, including a retreat center, clergy and guest housing for those who wish to visit and participate in the life of the community, and more.
Nor is it open exclusively to Catholics. People of all faiths are welcome, but any member of the community must agree to the Apostolic Constitution and related documents which define expectations for community life. All income levels will have the opportunity to reside and be a part of the Veritatis Splendor community, and future development plans include smaller townhomes, apartments, and accommodations for smaller households.
The founders and organizers are continuing to consult with professionals in the fields of architecture, finance, community planning, and law, working to ensure that everything is done legally and with the utmost care for everyone involved, Wheeler said. “Nothing like this is without mistakes, and I believe that as we listen to God and in our human weakness try to understand what He is calling us to do, that we will still likely make mistakes,” she said. “Every involved here is intentional. We are people who care about our children, the Church, and the culture. We want to answer a big calling and do something that can powerfully transform things for the future.”
There may be a temptation to close the community off, as a sort of defense mechanism. “I think the only way a community like this or any Catholic family with similar thoughts can avoid that temptation now when it is unnecessary is by staying close to the Sacraments, having a healthy community life with friends and family, seeking spiritual counsel from well-formed spiritual directors, and participating joyfully in the corporal works of mercy outside the community on a regular basis,” Wheeler said.
The vision is not limited to the farmland of East Texas, according to Wheeler. “We know God’s plan for Veritatis Splendor is bigger,” she said. Wheeler’s vision for communities for foster families and the Beckmans’ work with the Regina Caeli Academy have laid the groundwork for a venture like this. “I think God is calling Veritatis Splendor to prayer and action all over the globe,” Wheeler said.
It is still quite early in the development of this community, and a number of questions remain to be answered. Who will have responsibility and authority over these priests? How will the community logistics (finances, settling conflicts, etc.) be managed? What sort of oversight will there be?
At this time, Regina Caeli, Inc. has oversight over Veritatis Splendor, and is governed by the Board of Directors of Regina Caeli, Inc. Ultimately, Veritatis Splendor will include educational centers for K-12 (Regina Caeli Academy) and beyond (Regina Caeli Collegiate University).
The founders are in the midst of a massive fundraising push at the moment. The hope is for enough funds to be raised in order to break ground on the St. Joseph Oratory in the fall of 2021. The Oratory will be the heart of the community, and as such it is the first priority.
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