Saturday, July 26, 2008

A family man drawn to priesthood

Keeping an eye on these Pastoral Provision guys...Why? Because this is what the future looks like. And we will get more and more of them until the Church finally wakes up and realizes: "OK. Married men really CAN be priests."

By Susan Flynn
The Salem News
June 26, 2008

Bart Stevens will bring something unique to the Roman Catholic priesthood — namely, a wife and four young children.

He is a father who wants to be a Catholic father, awed by the prospect of serving both roles for the rest of his life.

"Most people who hear about it are just thrilled," he says. "I imagine it might be more of an adjustment for older folks."

For two years, Stevens, 33, has been an Episcopal priest at Christ Church of Hamilton and Wenham on Asbury Street. On Wednesday, his family will move to his home state of Montana where he will begin work as a lay youth minister at St. Leo the Great Church and pursue his new calling.

A priest with a wife and kids is indeed an oddity. Catholic priests are married to the church. They take a vow of celibacy. They live in a rectory surrounded by solitude, not the sounds of "Clifford the Big Red Dog."

They certainly don't use the word "we" the way Stevens tends to when talking about the big decisions of his life.

But in 1980 Pope John Paul II approved what's known as the "pastoral provision" to allow Episcopal priests in the United States to become Catholic priests. So far, more than 70 men, all married, have been ordained. It's a small number, and many Catholics are unaware that such a possibility exists.

The provision requires a 13-step training/screening process, and ultimately the approval of the pope himself.

Stevens must write a statement to declare his intentions. His wife, Becky, must write her own letter. There will be reviews of his physical and psychological state and the strength of their marriage. He will appear before a board of Catholics, mostly priests, who will determine where additional training is needed.

It will take at least two years before Stevens will become a Catholic priest — and that's not a given, either. And he's OK with that.

"All I know is that I'd rather be a lay minister in the Roman Catholic Church than a priest in the Episcopal Church," he says.

While the Catholic and Episcopal churches are alike in many ways, there is one significant difference — the pope. The Episcopal Church does not abide by one central authority on matters of faith and morals, which Stevens has come to find problematic.

Over the past year, Stevens says he has felt depleted by the controversy, some say crisis, within the Episcopal Church over a ruling that allows gays to be ordained as priests and bishops. What bothers him more, though, is the abundance of gray areas, the lack of a common ground about what an Episcopalian believes in.

"We can't even be on the same page about the old stuff," he says.

There are no absolutes, says Stevens, such as all Episcopalians must believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ.

"In the Episcopal Church, you get to decide," Stevens says. "In the Roman Catholic Church, there are just some things that are not up for discussion."

The authority of the pope is "very" appealing to him. He knows the Catholic Church is where he belongs.

Still, finding the balance to serve a parish and a family – with children ages 7, 5, 3 and 21/2 months — will pose challenges. He has received assurances that the Montana diocese would provide enough of a salary to allow him to support his family. One three-bedroom home they have looked at cost $87,000, far more manageable than North Shore prices.

Stevens stressed that he does not hold out any "secret hopes" that Rome will change its views about married priests. He firmly believes in the value of a celibate priesthood, but he's also grateful for a rule that allows exceptions for people like him.

One priest made a remark that stuck with him. A married priest may be odd, he said, but the wife of a priest is the real curiosity factor. He's confident his wife will win everyone over, and carve out her own niche.

"We have made this journey together," he says.

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