As with most 7-year-old boys, Russell Arnett dreamt about what he would do when he grew up. At his bedside each night, he talked to God, prayed for his family and asked for all the things little boys ask. Often, he thought about the worship messages presented at his family’s Southern Baptist Church in Abilene, Texas. On one moonlit evening, his earnest prayers rose like incense to heaven, when he gave God his all – well, almost.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” admitted the 51-year-old. “I said, ‘Lord, I will do whatever your will is, just don’t ask me to be a preacher.’”
After leaving the Baptist Church, Arnett went to college and got a job in a consumer products company as a marketing analyst, and felt a longing for something more meaningful.
As a teen, he dated an Episcopalian girl, and attended service with her one Sunday. Once he stepped into the incense-laden Episcopal Church, he felt at home, and after much soul searching, left his job and attended Nashotah House, a seminary of the Episcopal Church in the Anglican Communion of Churches in Nashotah, from 1996 to 1999.
“All along the way, after that prayer as a young boy, I could see myself on a pulpit praying, but I didn’t know how that would come to be,” he said. “And after doing everything I could not to answer the call, I went to seminary and was ordained (an Episcopal) priest Nov. 11, 1999 on the Feast of St. Martin of Tours.”
Following ordination, Arnett served as an assistant pastor and youth priest at SS. Peter and St. Paul Episcopal Church, Arlington, Texas. He served there until April 2002.
“I felt called to lead my own flock,” he said of his call to become rector of St. James Episcopal Church, West Bend, where he served from April 2002 until September 2006. Arnett loved ministering to his flock, witnessing weddings, conducting funerals, counseling, but most of all, celebrating Mass. Along with the joy and satisfaction came some deep, agonizing and recurring questions.
“I really began getting into the theology of the church and began realizing that the Episcopal Church was the external of what the Catholic worship was all about,” Arnett said. “Nashotah House, which was a wonderful place, focused much on the early church and that focus always made me wonder why we aren’t Catholic.”
With the support of Dianne, his wife of nine years whom he met while in seminary, he met with former Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan in 2003 about becoming Catholic.
“He said, ‘I will make you a Catholic right now if you would like; I would love that, but I want you to take this slow and think about it. We will go at your pace and if you ever change your mind, don’t feel obligated,’” said Arnett.
From the beginning, he knew that if he was going to become Catholic, he wanted to serve the archdiocese as a priest.
“I couldn’t imagine leaving the Episcopal priesthood and not (becoming) a Catholic priest,” he said. “I knew it was possible, but I wasn’t sure what needed to be done. I wanted to do this without notoriety or fanfare; it wasn’t about me, it was about serving a parish and giving them something to feel good about.”
Tearfully, he kissed the altar after his last Mass as an Episcopal priest, and Arnett formally left the Episcopal Church in 2006. Suddenly, without a flock and a job, he wondered whether God would give him another chance to celebrate Mass.
“It was so humbling; your whole identity is stripped overnight,” he said. “You may still see yourself as a priest, but no one else does. It’s almost like a death of a spouse – you still feel married, but the spouse is gone.”
He and his wife came into the Catholic Church on July 25, 2007, on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, at St. Jerome Parish in Oconomowoc, and they trusted that if God was calling him to the priesthood, that he would make it happen.
“A good college friend’s parents sent us money and a care package,” he said. “And in it was a 16-CD set of Fr. John Corapi. We listened to him while looking for an apartment in Oconomowoc.”
Adept in sales, due to his previous experience in marketing, Arnett found a job selling cemetery plots and crypts for the archdiocese. Quite successful, he paid off all of his debts and was in a position to take a lower paying job at St. Jerome’s teaching religion to middle school students, adult formation, youth ministry, youth catechism and RCIA.
While it was approved by Pope John Paul II in 1980, when he signed a “pastoral provision” providing dispensation for Episcopal priests entering the Catholic Church (See Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki’s Herald of Hope on Page 2), being the first person to go through the program in the Milwaukee Archdiocese was confusing for everyone involved.
“It was hard because no one really knew what the educational requirements would be,” he said. “At one point, I was quite discouraged, and then my mom died March 13, last year, and when I got back from her funeral, Bishop (William) Callahan called to tell me he was sorry about my mom; then he said knew it was bad timing, but he wanted me to go to Seton Hall Seminary and do a theological evaluation. My wife joked that my mom was already shaking things up in heaven.”
For one year, Arnett studied 40 books and more than 50 topics. This past March, he took two days of written and two days of oral examinations.
“It was very intense,” he said. “But the professors were wonderful and I passed with honors in seven disciplines.”
While he had the approval of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, he had to wait for formal approval from the Vatican regarding ordination, a process that takes between two and six months. That approval came and Arnett will be ordained to the diaconate by Archbishop Listecki on Wednesday, Oct. 27, St. Francis Xavier, Kansasville. He is scheduled to be ordained a priest in spring.
Since this past June, Arnett, as a layperson, served as parish director of St. John the Baptist and St. Francis Xavier Parishes in the Union Grove/Kansasville area. He will continue in that role following his diaconal ordination.
“I really have to pinch myself sometimes to realize that, God willing, I will be standing at an altar in the near future. That is just an awesome thought. The whole process, there have been so many things where something had to happen in the narrowest time or window and they all happened exactly when it needed to. It may have been in the 11th hour, but once a coincidence, twice a coincidence, but time after time, I realized it was God blessing us throughout this process. While it was difficult, I have so much to be thankful for,” he said.
According to Bishop Richard J. Sklba, then-Milwaukee Archbishop William E. Cousins, Episcopal Bishop Donald H.V. Hallock and other “covenanted partners” entered into a “gentleman’s agreement” almost 50 years ago in which a member of the clergy moving from one denomination to another would not be assigned to serve in the area he previously served so as “to avoid confusion among former parishioners.” With Arnett serving in the Union Grove/Kansasville area, Bishop Sklba said, “The essence of the agreement is honored.”
Arnett is the first person to go through the pastoral provision process, but he won’t be the first married priest in the Milwaukee Archdiocese. Two years ago, Fr. Michael Sheip served the Milwaukee area. The priest and his wife and family have since returned to the Diocese of Venice, Fla.
Currently, there are about 100 married priests in the country and most are former Episcopalian ministers.
“Balancing the two vocations isn’t easy, but it is like balancing family with any vocation,” he said. “I just need to make sure that my own spiritual life is sound and then all else will fall into place. If we bring our spiritual lives together, rather than simply our marital lives, then we will have a good foundation. I look forward to preaching and have literally dreamed of saying Mass….”