Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2014 | People

Priest and Parent

By Shelbi Thomas

Like most newly minted Catholic priests, Steve Witt offered a special blessing to family members at the end of his ordination ceremony. But while other priests thanked parents and siblings for their support in pursuing the celibate vocation, Witt received hearty congratulations from his children, grandchildren, and mother-in-law.

PriestPHOTO: brian Ray/Cedar Rapids Gazette

A father in both senses of the word, Witt, 76MA, felt called to the priesthood after his wife, Patti, passed away. He was ordained in the Davenport Diocese of the Catholic Church in December 2012 and now serves as a campus minister at the Newman Catholic Student Center and as a priest at St. Mary's Catholic Church in downtown Iowa City.

Witt's unusual path to the priesthood has given him personal experiences with marriage, parenting, and the secular workforce that are rare among Catholic clergy. As part of a large Catholic family, Witt originally planned to become a priest as a young man, but he dropped out of undergraduate seminary after deciding he couldn't commit to a celibate lifestyle. Witt married in 1974, and after earning his master's degree in public administration from the UI, he managed sheet metal contracting companies in Clinton and Grinnell, Iowa. All the while, he remained actively involved in church life as a permanent deacon.

Patti's death in 2001 from unknown causes sent Witt into a spiral of intense grief and depression that lasted several years. After coming out of the fog, he took his friends' suggestions to return to seminary. Now Witt ministers to his flock by performing Mass, baptisms, and marriages, hearing confessions, and visiting ill parishioners at home and in the hospital. "It's rejuvenating for me," he says. "It's extremely fulfilling to work full-time to help people recognize the presence of God in their lives."

Though his life experiences give him an advantage over other priests in empathizing with parishioners, Witt upholds celibacy as a church discipline and admits his struggle to balance family life with ministry. "I don't envy my Protestant brothers and sisters," he says. "It's hard for my daughter to understand why she can't spend more time with me, even though I'm in town. I get phone calls 24-7, because people need help all the time—and that's what I'm here to do."