There are few women who can say they are married to a Roman Catholic priest.
And few people who can say their dad is the man Catholic churchgoers address as “Father Steve.”
But Cindy Anderson and her three sons can, and they were among the rush of congregants who gathered for 10 a.m. Mass on a recent Sunday at St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church in Goodrich, Mich.
The parish priest is Cindy’s husband and the father of Austin, 24; Steven Jr., 14; and Christian, 11. The Rev. Steve Anderson has been a Catholic priest since 2003, when he was ordained under an exception to the Catholic Church’s celibacy rule for married ministers serving some Protestant denominations.
About 100 married men, mostly ministers in Episcopal churches in the United States, have sought permission from the Vatican to be ordained as Catholic priests since Pope John Paul II allowed it in 1980.
“It does take some explanation, for sure,” said Austin Anderson, an automotive engineer. “People think I don’t know what I’m talking about, at first. ‘Maybe you mean deacon,’ they say. ‘Maybe you mean another denomination.’ ”
Then there’s the joke he hears whenever he explains what Dad does for a living: “Do you call him ‘Father father’?”
The Rev. Ernie Davis, a married priest in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph since 2002 and a former Episcopal priest, said he is, “Almost universally accepted, and if I’m not, people are too polite to say so.”
But, “Sometimes I am a lightning rod for people who think that priests who took a vow of celibacy ought to be able to get married and remain active in priestly ministry,” he said. “Others need assurance that I’m not dishonoring the gifted ministry of priests and seminarians who are true to the celibate way of life.”
One of the challenges, however, is balancing ministry and marriage.
“Without some balance it could kill a marriage,” Davis said. “My family (wife Valerie Davis and three children ages 23, 21 and 18) keeps me balanced and rooted.
“Sometimes they are my biggest challengers. I love being a husband and father. I do not know what it’s like to be a priest and celibate. I can certainly see some advantages for the celibate priest, especially when I am telling Valerie that I am headed out for the fourth evening meeting in a week.”
For Cindy Anderson, being a priest’s wife has meant a rare and challenging role.
“I’ve heard good response,” the 49-year-old said. “I hear, ‘We’d like to see more of this.’ I’ve been well received. Some say, ‘We’ve been ready for this.’ ”
Laura Sullivan, a Kettering University mechanical engineering professor, is one of them. She followed Anderson from his previous parish, Holy Family in Grand Blanc, Mich., to his current posting.
“This is somebody my kids could talk to. Somebody married people can relate to. He brought such a fresh breath of air,” Sullivan said after Sunday Mass.
Valerie Davis teaches theology at Rockhurst High School in Kansas City, where freshman students usually are surprised that she’s married to a priest. But parents and older students “often are conversant with aspects of the Catholic Church’s pastoral provision,” she said.
If anyone is surprised, usually it is a Protestant who is less familiar with the Catholic Church, she said.
Michael Diebold, a spokesman for the Diocese of Lansing, Mich., which oversees Anderson, acknowledged that parishioners have welcomed the novelty of a married priest, a concept that flies counter to the Vatican’s unwavering support for priestly celibacy.
“If there are people who find he’s more approachable because of that reason, then that’s a good thing,” Diebold said. “Not to denigrate all the single priests who are out there, but if there’s a segment of the population that finds that to be a positive in their lives, that’s a good thing.”
Not against celibacy
Both Anderson and the Rev. William Lipscomb, a Traverse City, Mich., parish pastor who in 1997 was the first married Episcopalian minister in Michigan to be ordained a Catholic priest, say they are not campaigning for an end to Rome’s celibacy requirement.
“I’m a priest. I’m not a policy-setter,” said Anderson, 50.
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