Serving Christ with conviction: Monsignor James Hart celebrates 25 years of Catholic priesthood
In his 25 years as a Catholic priest in the Diocese of Fort Worth, Monsignor E. James Hart has served in diverse assignments, from the pastor of a congregation of 30 recent converts from Anglicanism to the pastor of a parish with 6,000 families, plus two stints as the diocesan chancellor and moderator of the curia.
Regardless of the role, his character and motivation are as resolute and unchanging as his 4 a.m. alarm, which summons him to prayer and spiritual reading. He is a priest, compelled to serve God and His Church, because of “my interior life. It’s my relationship with my Lord. That’s just an integral part of my priesthood. I can’t separate those two things,” he said.
THE PATH TO THE ALTAR
After a long spiritual journey, Msgr. Hart was ordained a Catholic priest on September 25, 1996. Baptized as an infant into the Catholic faith, he was raised in an Assembly of God church. As a young adult, his prolific reading of Christian authors led him to enter the Episcopal Church, where the business executive heard the first whispers of a call to ordained ministry.
In his late 30s, he heeded the call and moved from his native California to enter seminary in Pennsylvania, and he was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1990. He began ministry as the associate rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Fort Worth.
But God still beckoned him onward. His continued spiritual studies led him to writings of the early Church Fathers, especially regarding the Eucharist. In 1995, he resigned from the Episcopal priesthood with plans to enter the Catholic Church.
Several like-minded parishioners sought him out, and for about a year he pastored about 30 individuals in an independent Anglican community. He and 26 members of what eventually became St. Thomas More Parish under the Pastoral Provision were accepted into full communion with the Catholic Church on August 18, 1996.
As a former Episcopal minister, Msgr. Hart requested ordination as a Catholic priest under the Pastoral Provision established by St. John Paul II. After months of waiting for a Vatican indult, followed by written and oral examinations, Msgr. Hart’s request was granted.
SERVING HIS CHURCH
He remembers his presbyteral ordination at St. Patrick Cathedral on September 25, 1996, as “a bit overwhelming.” During the sacrament of Holy Orders he thought, “This is real. We’re not playing anymore.”
He continued to shepherd St. Thomas More Parish for four years while simultaneously serving as a parochial vicar at St. Michael Parish in Bedford.
After four years, he was assigned to be the parochial administrator of St. Peter the Apostle Parish in Fort Worth, and parishioners of St. Thomas More assimilated into their local canonical parishes. Msgr. Hart explained, “The Pastoral Provision was always intended . . . to be transitional to help people make that pilgrimage.”
He served at St. Peter the Apostle until 2005, when he was appointed chancellor and moderator of the curia for the Diocese of Fort Worth under Bishop Kevin Vann, the current bishop of Orange, California. Those responsibilities included overseeing and coordinating diocesan administration under the authority of the bishop.
From 2010 – 2016 he was pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Keller. A highlight during that span was receiving the papal honor of monsignor, an ecclesiastical title conferred by Pope Benedict XVI at the request of Bishop Vann. At the February 14, 2012 luncheon announcing the honor, the prelate noted that Msgr. Hart “has distinguished himself since becoming a Catholic priest and was an excellent diocesan administrator in my early tenure as bishop. Now he is leader of the largest diocesan parish and is ably guiding it,” according to a March 2012 article in the North Texas Catholic.
In 2016, he was tapped once again to serve as chancellor and moderator of the curia by Bishop Michael Olson, who had served with Msgr. Hart at St. Michael Parish and at the diocesan office in the late 2000s when then-Father Olson was vicar general.
Although he may be a skilled administrator, Msgr. Hart asserted, “First of all, I’m a priest. So, the heart of my life is not chancellor and moderator of the curia, it’s being a priest. And that’s really confecting the Eucharist and preaching and teaching, and so, quite frankly, I spend quite a bit of time in preparation for Sunday homilies. It’s at the heart of my ministry along with celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass…. That’s still the driving force of my life.”
Msgr. Hart celebrates the 7 a.m. Mass on Sundays at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, along with daily Mass at the diocesan office. He also hears confessions at the Keller parish each week.
Father Dennis Smith has known Msgr. Hart for more than 25 years and calls him an “esteemed colleague and true friend” since they served together at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.
Fr. Smith said, “Since ordination, he has proved to be a dedicated, tireless laborer in the vineyard. His priesthood is fortified by a genuine love for the Church, not just the Church as an institution, but the Church as the people of God.”
One aptitude that has served Msgr. Hart as pastor and diocesan administrator is his ability to listen, according to Fr. Smith.
“He doesn’t simply hear what you say, he listens. Truly listening involves the mind, heart, and soul.” The retired priest continued, “He’s a great treasure for the diocese.”
Now, after 25 years as a Catholic priest and decades of early morning prayer and study, the spiritual journey continues for Msgr. Hart — but not onward, just deeper. Especially deeper into the Eucharist.
“I think all of us need to really enter into the worship of God through the Holy Sacrifice and to do the best we can to understand Who we’re receiving under the appearances of bread and wine,” he said. “A deeper appreciation for what is really taking place, what we’re privileged to be a part of, would help draw us more deeply into that union with Christ, which can be the foundation for the transformation of our lives and then the lives we touch, wherever God happens to put us.”