Community Spotlight: Father Anthony Stewart
Father Anthony Stewart is a priest of the Diocese of Nashville serving as Associate Pastor at Holy Family Catholic Church in Brentwood, Tennessee. He attended Aquinas College from 2009-2011 prior to entering the seminary. Father Stewart spoke with Aquinas staff about his current ministry to young adults, the new evangelization, and how Aquinas College prepared him for both.
Q. Could you tell us about your background?
A. I’m not from the perfect family: My parents divorced when I was four or five. But then things got better. My mom, Angel, remarried a Catholic man, Kevin. My whole family became Catholic in 2000 except me. I have two sisters and a brother. I’m the second of the four.
I grew up in McEwen, Tennessee and attended McEwen elementary, middle, and high school.
Q. You mentioned you were not Catholic, but the rest of your family converted. When did you first start thinking about the priesthood, or before that, your conversion?
A. Great question. My family had become Catholic in 2000 – I was just ten years old at that point. I was going through a children’s RCIA that I was just not happy with. I thought, I’m not becoming Catholic just because there is this new guy in my life (my stepdad).
Father John Sims Baker was our priest at that time. He told my mom, “Look, you can’t force him to become Catholic.” My mom relented and I continued to go to a Methodist church with my grandmother. She would pick me up and we would go to church every Sunday. Meanwhile, my whole family would go to the Catholic church. That happened all the way up until my senior year of high school.
It was my senior year of high school when I began – in earnest – to go to RCIA. It was that summer in between my junior and senior year I met the parish priest in McEwen, Father Richard Cash. He was only at my parish for two years. In some ways I think that God just sent him there for me. I attribute him with inspiring me to become a priest. He celebrated the liturgy very beautifully, very reverently. I could see the Eucharist was a very important thing to him.
So I started speaking with him, and my life began to change – a “180.” To your question about when I started thinking about the priesthood, I started thinking about being a priest even before I was Catholic. As I was studying I learned about the Eucharist and the Sacraments, and I just thought, that’s the greatest thing anybody can do in the world. And if I don’t do that, then I won’t be doing the best thing I can do. I felt God’s pull.
Even when I went to the seminary, I felt God pulling me back. From the beginning when I started RCIA and meeting with that priest I was just kind of holding to it. God carried me along the whole way.
Q. How did your family react? Were they supportive of the idea of your priesthood?
A. Very supportive. At the end they were probably more supportive than at the beginning, thinking, I’m not sure how long this is going to last. I think my mom was perhaps a little worried, mainly about seminary. It seems like the way Hollywood portrays seminaries there is always a dark hallway where nobody can have any fun. I think Mom was worried about me. But the first year she went and visited and saw that there was a pub at the seminary, there was basketball, it was just a bunch of normal guys having a good time but praying at the same time and going to Mass. That really opened her eyes.
Then I got the opportunity to go to Rome to study for four years and she just was really proud at that point. My whole family has been very supportive.
Q. Your devotion to the Eucharist is well-known around here, as you celebrate Mass for the Aquinas community occasionally, especially last year. That is always such a joy to have you come back to campus. Do you have any particular memories of your years studying here at Aquinas that you would like to reflect on, maybe that epitomize our motto, Veritas et Caritas that helped you along the way?
A. I certainly cherished my two years at Aquinas. I became Catholic in Easter of 2009 and was at Aquinas in August. It was really my first introduction to a Catholic education. I think it was foundational in opening my eyes to Catholic literature, Catholic philosophy, Catholic theology, and it was certainly in those classes that even to this day as a priest I look back to those foundational years to the things that gave me a great foundation going into seminary. I went to college seminary at the Josephinum in Ohio and then to the North American College in Rome.
I am grateful to this day that Aquinas gave me the method to think clearly and logically, to use right reason, especially in a day where truth is relative. Certainly as a young college-aged kid I could have gone off to some public university and deviled in my own truth.
Aquinas really taught me in my formative years that Truth is objective and Truth is a person: Truth is Jesus. It was just a great gift to me.
Q. Could you tell us about where you are serving?
A. Holy Family in Brentwood is… I couldn’t have asked for a better first assignment. It’s crowded at every Mass!! It has been a match made in heaven.
One of the greatest things I have been able to do is grow a young adult group. Right now I am 29 years old. I have the opportunity to minister to people my age, to my generation. Many times, whether at a restaurant or here at the parish, I meet with those young people. Things that I learned at Aquinas come out at the table because it goes back to… whether it was in Dr. Smith’s logic class where I learned how to use reason, or Sr. Mary Dominic’s Scripture classes or Dr. Bulzachelli, Sr. Mary Angelica – all those teachers taught me a lot. I know that when people ask me theological questions, philosophical questions, I really go back to those days for what I learned at Aquinas.
Q. That is really a privileged place for the college, to be able to be, for many, that first encounter with Truth. It is a great gift of our mission here. You mentioned that you are ministering a lot to people your own age. Would you consider yourself a millennial? I’m never sure what that really means.
A. I fit within the range of the millennials – they get a bad reputation. I do think that in God’s providence he has given me the exposure to millennials… how would you say this? Being from McEwen Tennessee, you know, it’s “small town,” it was kind of sheltered when I was growing up. So I don’t know that culturally I am a full-fledged millennial, but I certainly was being influenced by the Internet, by social media – absolutely. I am from that world but I am not in that world. I was influenced by my grandparents a lot.
Q. What would you say, serving people your own age, could you offer some advice for building community? That is hard for people in the digital age. There is so much media coming at people, but the sense of community can be diminished by encounters with a device. Do you have any advice on how to build community and on helping people become authentically themselves as disciples of Christ?
A. I did not come up with this myself but it certainly works for me. Create a place where people can laugh together, where they can just have a good time. Whether that is at a restaurant or just doing something fun together. Then when you create those places you create a place of trust. When people begin to trust the group they begin to be vulnerable. When that vulnerability happens, then an authentic community forms. It is a strong community of people within that. It is always within the context of a community that people can encounter Christ.
“There has been a lot of success here at Holy Family with that approach. There is some wisdom to the Theology on Tap and socials, they are just strictly giving young adults a place to laugh and have a good time. They are beginning to trust each other and I know that within themselves they are beginning to be vulnerable. They all come to Mass on Wednesday night. They are slowly beginning to encounter Christ within the community. You can’t encounter Christ in isolation. You have to encounter him with other people.
Q. How does the teaching part of it factor into that? I imagine the questions come up naturally in those situations and provide the encounter?
A. A lot of times on Wednesdays I will preach the homily and something will organically come up, whether at the socials here at Holy Family or every other week when we go bowling or just to a pub. I am there with them most of the time. I think with me being there and them trusting me they can ask, “Hey Fr. Anthony what’s this about in the Church?” I can engage them because they trust me and they can receive (the teaching) with an open heart.
Q. Would you have any encouragement for our readers who are looking to live out the new evangelization? How do I do that in my own part of the vineyard?
A. We always say that each person is a gift, and that is true. But their personhood is the gift that they are with their own humanity. I would invite them to trust that. Their humanity is a gift. It can be used as a bridge to help others encounter Christ. Trust that. It doesn’t have to be some spiritual hoopla – it can be in the authenticity of you, yourself, living out integrity and the relationship with Christ. I would just encourage people to trust that. I have really experienced this in these last months of being a priest. People say that the best gift I bring is just being Anthony. I trust that, to let my personality be a gift to others where they can see the joy – I certainly hope they can see the joy – and that Christ is living in my personhood.