National Catholic Register

Commentary

Married Priest Backs Celibacy

Father Steven Anderson's Story

BY Father Robert Johansen

August 10-16, 2003 Issue | Posted 8/10/03 at 2:00 PM

 

On June 14, Father Steven Anderson was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Lansing, Mich., by Bishop Carl Mengeling. What made him unusual among his classmates was that his wife and three children were with him in the cathedral, participating in the ordination liturgy.

Father Anderson is a former clergyman of the Charismatic Episcopal Church and was ordained to the Catholic priesthood under the “pastoral provision,” a series of norms and criteria for accepting former Protestant clergy as candidates for the priesthood.

The pastoral provision was established by Pope John Paul II in 1980 to deal with the growing number of Anglican (Episcopalian) clergy who were becoming Catholic and inquiring about the possibility of becoming Catholic priests. Approximately 70 men have been ordained in the United States under the pastoral provision since its inception.

Father Anderson's journey into the Catholic Church began in the early 1980s while he was attending a Presbyterian seminary. He had the good fortune to take a systematic theology course with an Eastern Orthodox priest.

Rather than getting the reformed approach to theology he was expecting, the professor's lectures and readings were a deep and thorough introduction to the early Church Fathers, such as Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Irenaeus and the Cappadocians. The real eye-opener for Father Anderson was reading Justin Martyr: “I thought, this will be great, since Justin gives the first historically recorded Church service. But when I read it, my face dropped, my heart dropped, because what he described was a Catholic Mass.”

“From then on,” he said, “the Holy Spirit was working in my heart to show me that from the beginning the Church was Catholic.”

But perhaps even more important for Father Anderson was St. Irenaeus.

“Irenaeus writes, 'Don't take my word for it, go to the bishop.’ And then he gives a whole list of churches, like Ephesus, Smyrna and Rome, and describes the glorious history of these churches and how they were founded by apostles. He talks about how the bishops of these churches are all united, and he says that he and these bishops are ‘all teaching the same thing.’”

Father Anderson described how tears came to his eyes when he read that, and he said, “Not anymore, Irenaeus. There are 30,000 denominations and they're all teaching their own thing.”

So Father Anderson resolved to find out what was this “same thing” that the early Fathers were teaching. He said, quoting Cardinal Newman, “to read history is to cease being Protestant.”

After completing his seminary degree, Father Anderson realized that with the growing Catholicity of his faith he would be “contentious” and “wouldn't fit in” at the Presbyterian Church. So he joined the Episcopal Church and worked “in the world” for 10 years.

Then he felt the tug of vocation once again and began exploring the possibility of ordination for the Episcopal Church. But after moving to Michigan, he became acquainted with the Charismatic Episcopal Church.

He felt very much of “one heart and one mind” with the canon missioner, and later bishop, of the Charismatic Episcopal Church, Fred Fick. “We had a love of the early Church Fathers, of recovering Catholic tradition: all of the glorious Catholic sacraments and rites.”

“We were recovering those things that, it seemed, many American Catholics were ready to let go of,” he continued. “These things brought us great joy and great meaning. It was a time of recovering things old, but with the Holy Spirit making them new for us.”

Father Anderson was ordained for the Charismatic Episcopal Church in 1995 and served at a congregation in Brighton, Mich.

Why Am I Not Catholic?

Father Anderson married his wife, Cindy, while in college. “She's been with me on this whole journey,” he said. “It's been great that we've been able to do this together.”

Cindy describes herself as being “just a few steps behind him.”

“I learned so much from what he was studying,” she said.

For Cindy, it was St. Francis of Assisi who “cemented” her desire to become Catholic: “He was so charismatic but also very obedient to the Church,” she said. “He really helped solidify my faith.”

After serving in the Charismatic Episcopal Church for four years, Father Anderson became convinced that he should become Catholic.

“After all that study and all that rediscovery of things Catholic, I understood that if there was such a thing as a line in the sand between being Catholic on one side and being Protestant on the other, when I looked down, I was on the Catholic side,” he said. “I just realized, ‘I'm Catholic; why I am not Catholic?’”

After making initial inquiries with the Diocese of Lansing, he met with Bishop Mengeling, who would receive him into the Church at Easter 1999. A year later, Bishop Mengeling informed him that his petition to become a candidate for the priesthood had been accepted by Rome.

Seminary and Family

Father Anderson was sent to Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. Though he understood the need for further preparation, he describes himself as reacting “stoically” to the news that he was going back to seminary. “Seminary was,” he said, “a powerful time of God working in me. But I would rather have been in a church.”

Father Anderson was dispensed from the normal weekend obligations of the seminary to be with his family, and they occasionally came to visit him at the seminary as well. But the arrangement did place additional strain on his family. Cindy felt the challenge as God calling her “to step up a level, and God made me stronger for that.”

During his years of formation, Father Anderson lived side by side with seminarians who were preparing to embrace the call to celibacy and doesn't recall any instance of meeting hostility or resistance. He can relate a number of occasions in parishes where priests expressed their gratitude for what he was doing and that they “were glad the Church was going to allow me to be a priest.”

If any priest was resistant or hostile to him and his unusual situation, he never expressed it to Father Anderson.

Occasionally, he encountered lay people who were skeptical of him.

He attributes this to their love of the priesthood and their desire to protect and cherish the tradition of clerical celibacy.

He believes such people initially saw him as a potential threat to the celibate priesthood. But he found that as people got to know him and what he stood for, they “became very generous and gracious toward me and felt very comfortable around me and with what was happening for me.”

He characterized a married priesthood as the “badge of a movement” and reported that some advocates of that movement have from time to time attempted to “co-opt” him into supporting them but that he has no interest in being part of their agenda.

“I'm willing to be everybody's priest,” he explained. “But I'm not willing to speak for this cause or that cause. I'll speak for the Church.”

Father Anderson's ordination attracted interest not only in Michigan but also across the country. Outspoken “conservative” homosexual and Catholic Andrew Sullivan was combative in his commentary. In his Internet Web log “The Daily Dish” on May 25, he asserted that Father Anderson's ordination was “proof that there is no good reason that married men cannot be good Catholic priests” and that “the mandatory celibacy policy … has led to … a collapse in vocations in our current world.”

He attributed the Church's failure to drop clerical celibacy to “bloody-mind-edness from reactionaries and institutional inertia.”

Father Anderson is unhappy with Sullivan's attempt to make him an object lesson for abandoning the tradition of a celibate priesthood. “Activists of all kinds are looking for prophets, mouthpieces or poster boys for their cause,” he said.

He also told of occasions where, being interviewed by other journalists, they assumed because he was going to be a married priest he must be an advocate of a more “progressive” agenda.

“They'd ask me all kinds of questions about whether I was in favor of women priests and all the other stuff,” he said.

But Father Anderson, in responding to them, reiterated his refusal to be identified with such causes and his resolution to “speak for the Church.”

Indeed, Father Anderson doesn't see his ordination, or the ordinations of other married men under the pastoral provision, as having any real impact on the Church's discipline of priestly celibacy. He regards the Church's decision to ordain him as a mercy extended to him.

He recalled an article by Bishop Mengeling in which the bishop quoted the Holy Father: “Fellowships of mercy are more profoundly human than societies of justice.”

Father Anderson also compared himself to the Prodigal Son, who “got it wrong, who didn't do it right.” He sees Pope John Paul II as “in that long tradition of mercy,” and he sees the Pope as saying, in effect, “We are a people of mercy.” Father Anderson describes the Pope as choosing, “through mercy, and not just bare justice, to allow me to be a priest in the Roman Catholic Church.”

Some might think that, by being married, Father Anderson might have an advantage over celibate priests in dealing with pastoral issues involving family or marriage.

But he doesn't see it that way.

“Every priest has an advantage over every other priest in what he uniquely brings to his priesthood,” he said. “We each have our own way of being in the world.” He has great admiration and respect for celibate priests and for the wonderful things he sees so many of them doing for their people.

But he doesn't see things dividing along married vs. celibate lines.

“I think that each individual priest who happens to be married brings things and each celibate priest brings things,” he said. Ultimately, he said, “there's only one priest in the Catholic Church: Jesus Christ. And we all share in that one priesthood.”

Father Robert Johansen is a priest of the Diocese of Kalamazoo, Michigan,