Monday, January 19, 2009

Bellingham's Assumption Church welcomes first married priest

John Stark
The Bellingham Herald
Posted: January 19, 2009

BELLINGHAM - The day after his ordination as a Roman Catholic priest, Father Tom McMichael stood in front of the altar at Assumption Church after Sunday Mass, while members of the congregation raised both hands in a gesture of welcome and blessing.

The welcoming of a new priest is a special moment for any church, but this moment may have been more special than most: At McMichael's side was Karin McMichael, his wife of 23 years.

McMichael, 48, is the first married priest in the Archdiocese of Seattle, which includes all of western Washington. He and his wife have two sons, aged 19 and 21. McMichael expects to be working at Assumption part time at least until this summer, while also celebrating weekend Masses at Skagit County churches.

The Sunday, Jan. 11, event was no surprise to the parish. McMichael had been on the church staff as a seminarian and deacon for several months, the culmination of a process that began in November 2005. That was when McMichael informed his congregation at Lynden's Hope Lutheran Church that he was resigning to become a Catholic.

McMichael took that step with no assurance that he would be able to continue the religious vocation he loved.

"Perhaps the most difficult part of this was giving that up, and not being sure if I would be able to continue," he said. "There was no guarantee that this door would open."

While priestly celibacy remains the rule in the Roman Catholic Church, there are exceptions. In the 1950s, McMichael said, the Roman church allowed some married Lutheran pastors in Germany to be ordained after conversion. And some small Eastern-rite churches that accept the authority of the Pope have a long tradition of married priests.

In the U.S., Pope John Paul II approved the ordination of converted, married clergymen from other denominations in 1980, according to information on the archdiocese's Web site.

If some Catholic priests can have wives, why not all?

"That's not a question I can answer," McMichael said.

McMichael and every other would-be priest in his situation must apply to the Vatican for permission to be ordained, and must undergo seminary training in Catholic doctrines.

"They make it very clear ... that this is the exception," McMichael said. "The rule, if you will, in canon law is celibate clergy. But they also acknowledge the possibility of exceptions."

At present, there are somewhere around 100 such priests in the U.S., McMichael said. He doesn't think he and others like him are paving the way for the general acceptance of marriage for priests.

"It's not a step toward married clergy as the norm, and I think that's made very clear throughout the process," McMichael said.

As McMichael tells it, his transition from Lutheran to Catholic, and from Lutheran pastor to Catholic priest, was a lengthy one.

He was born into a Swedish-rooted Lutheran congregation, where pastors and congregation are, in his words, "very comfortable with Catholic forms, with the Eucharist, with vestments, with a high view of the clergy. ... That was the kind of Lutheran I was, and the kind of Lutheran religion I was attempting to live."

He got his religious training in a seminary that included other young men training for the Catholic priesthood, and he always felt comfortable with an inclusive view of the Christian faith. As he saw it, reunification of all Christian churches was the ultimate goal, and the reunification of Lutherans with Catholics was part of that.

The Catholic Church has taken significant steps in that direction in the past 50 years, McMichael said, shifting to celebration of the Mass in local languages and working to smooth out theological differences over the role of faith, good works and divine grace in human salvation.

But as McMichael saw it, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was moving in a different direction in the years leading up to his decision to leave, away from the traditional liturgy and becoming more "Protestant," more concerned with maintaining a separate denominational identity.

"Some of us had to deal with the question of whether we belonged," he said.

McMichael and his wife decided they didn't. Both made the conversion to the Roman Catholic Church, and both had to submit to "a stack of paperwork" as the first step toward McMichael's Catholic ordination.

"Rome, and the Archdiocese of Seattle, wanted to have a sense of who I was, and why I was coming," McMichael said.

He acknowledges that not everyone in his new church, or his old one, may be supportive of what he has done. But he has received support aplenty. Some former parishioners at Hope Lutheran went to Seattle for his ordination, and members of Assumption also have been welcoming, he said.

He said he especially values the diversity of the Catholic Church: The Assumption congregation is a rainbow of ethnic groups, income levels, and theological viewpoints.

"It has been especially gratifying to be received by people who are coming from very different theological perspectives," he said. "I just rejoice in the gathering for Eucharist with this incredible diversity of people. ... This is the one thing that would bring them together."

He hopes that his own ministry will further unite, rather than divide.

"Not everyone can do what I did or would want to," he said. "I would hope that it would encourage better relations between Lutherans and Catholics."

Photo: Fr. Tom and Karin McMichael

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