Father of a church and a child
JEFFERSON CITY – After sitting in a movie theater for 2 hours and 33 minutes on Thanksgiving Day, 2005, Anthony Viviano realized he needed to make a drastic life change.
After watching the movie “Walk the Line,” Viviano saw himself in the main character Johnny Cash, played by actor Joaquin Phoenix. In the film, Cash loses awareness of his own values, but eventually finds his way back to his roots. Similar to Cash, Viviano wanted to go back to his own roots: Catholicism.
After a few years of soul searching and volunteer work, at age 44, Viviano decided to completely dedicate himself to the Roman Catholic Church. He was worried he was not qualified for the priesthood because he was an older dad.
Dr. Jeremy Blackwood, whose job is to meet with prospective seminarians at the Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology in Hales Corners, Wisconsin, said it is common for older men to doubt their qualifications, but older priests can be better assets to the church.
“I think when older men typically enter the seminary and go on to become priests, they aren’t going to typically wonder what would happen if they didn’t become a priest. They already know. They tend to not leave the priesthood,” said Blackwood.
Before Viviano decided to enroll at seminary, he owned and operated a produce business in St. Louis, started by his father in 1959. His daughter, Melanie Wittorf, whom he had in college with his former girlfriend Debbie England, was living in Texas with her mother. Although they lived far from each other, Viviano said he had a close, fulfilling relationship with his daughter and former girlfriend. Meanwhile, he said his role as a business owner made him feel dissatisfied.
“In retrospect, taking a business over at 28 was pretty heady,” said Viviano. “I had a lot of money and time and I think I just lost track of my priorities.”
Viviano said he had a “spiritual awakening” in the fall of 2005, which inspired him to volunteer for the Missionaries of Charity in Saint Louis. Through his work, Viviano said he experienced a deeper passion than he had felt before.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Viviano. “I was sitting in my chair and I was tying my shoes and I was thinking – ‘man, this is like being smitten. This is like being in love.’ I was getting dressed really nice and was really looking forward to going to the chapel. It was like when you first meet a girl that you are courting and you think about them all the time and can’t wait to see them.”
Viviano recognized his passion for Catholicism and enrolled at Sacred Heart School of Theology in 2008. When Viviano decided to tell England he wanted to become a priest, he said she supported him completely.
“He has every good gift for it. I could see him being a great teacher and coach. That really is what a priest is, but to a larger family,” said England.
According to his daughter, Viviano has always been an “exceptionally devoted, attentive and loving dad.” Over the years, Melanie Wittorf has gotten used to people’s big eyes when they first learn her father is a priest. Instead of seeing him only as a father of the church, she sees him as the whole man he is.
“He sings Sinatra and Elvis, and can give passionate homilies regularly,” said Wittorf. “Although he loves the people he serves, his most coveted space is his reading chair, in quiet [and] candle lit. He is a wannabe hermit living in this crazy, busy world [of a priest] and I don’t think he’d have it any other way.”
Viviano believes his life experience has made him a more relatable priest. Yet, he notes that he doesn’t necessarily think it makes him a “better” priest than those who don’t have his same experience.
“When you go through life, you just have certain life experiences on your resume. Whether it is in business and how to deal with people or with your child and how you raise them – the trials and tribulations and the joys you go through... to be able to translate that to my work as a priest has been helpful,” said Viviano. “It allows me to connect a little easier because you know what it is like to be under the same stress, to pay bills, to get up in the middle of the night when your kid is sick.”
Even though Viviano is very thankful for his life experience, he said he doesn’t disagree with the church’s long-time rule that priests are not allowed to marry.
“As a priest, you aren’t dealing with popcorn and fluff. You are dealing with addiction, broken marriages and hard things,” said Viviano. “I don’t know. To do all that, and then go home to a wife and kids and try to give yourself fully, to have two vocations, I don’t think so. Many Catholics wish that priests could get married, but if you were a priest for a year, you might reconsider.”
After changing his lifestyle, Viviano understands that it is harder than it looks to change one’s lifestyle in an instant.
“It comes down to self-determination. You have to engage your free will and choose the good,” said Viviano. “We can play games with ourselves and say it is all good, but at some point you have to answer your conscience. There isn’t a magic pill and all of a sudden everything is beautiful. It is tough. It is challenging. It is life.”