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A Priest For All Seasons, Part 1

Father John Boddie

Urbanna, Va.— There are citizens in Middlesex who are absolutely indispensable to our quality of life. They are such fine thinkers and/or doers that life without their leadership and inspiration would be inconceivable. I count Father John Boddie of the Church of the Visitation in such company.

An excruciatingly honest man with a bright, well-read and inquisitive mind that operates far beyond dogma, he is someone who has occasionally questioned church doctrine. He is so valuable to our world exactly because of this. He is a man who constantly questions status quo, and not only in the institution in which he serves with such devotion, the Roman Catholic Church, but also societal mores in general along with his own.

My kind of man.

I suffer under an illusion that I have plenty of time to write about people that I admire. I don’t. Time is of the essence and a writer ever faces a ticking clock.

When I heard Father John Boddie is battling cancer, I called the Church of the Visitation immediately. Ray Kostesky answered the phone. “I want to write about your priest,” I said. “And not one column but an in-depth story of his life that will capture the heart and soul of this man.”

“You know he is receiving treatments for lung cancer and has been off this summer and going back and forth to Duke University?” Ray said.

Yes, I did.

We mutually decided that Father John should meet with me as soon as possible. “I’ll do what I can to line it up,” Ray promised. “And Mary,” he added before ringing off, “make sure this is the best story you have ever written.”

A week later I had a date to meet with Father John.

I arrived before the priest which was good because I had a chance to inspect his office. “He’s always a few minutes late,” Ray explained as I looked over the books on Vatican 11 and other reading material in his bookcase, along with a display of photographs and framed newspaper articles on the walls. I like to get a feel for the man I am interviewing. Nothing speaks better of the man than his office.

His adoring staff fussed over me, “Can I get you coffee? Tea? Cookies? Water?” as if there weren’t anything they would not do to ensure my comfort.

A framed picture of a cover page of “Sports Illustrated” was on the wall showing the one-time Virginia Tech quarterback, Michael Vick. There was also a photograph of 
Father Boddie with the now notorious athlete who is so much in the news today. It is a well known fact that Father Boddie is uncle to Michael Vick.

Also on the wall is a dollar bill that had been altered to contain a picture of Michael Vick in George Washington’s usual space. “He may need to borrow that dollar bill from me before long,” Father John quipped as he entered his office.

“I am not here to write about Michael Vick,” I explained as we shook hands. I continued taking in the photographs. One photo was of Father Boddie with African-American nun Sister Cora, who was serving as pastor coordinator. Father Boddie sponsored Sister Cora in a Richmond church, and this bespoke of increased responsibilities for women in the Catholic Church today.

“I was thinner then,” Father John laughed as my eyes settled on a red ribbon that announced proudly in gold print, “I lost 5 pounds.”

There were photos of the priest with members of his family, Bishop Sullivan and various other church officials from his many years of service. When I noticed a small portrait of a black Jesus. I realized I had never seen such a depiction before. In the Congregational church of my Ohio past, Jesus had been blond and blue-eyed, quite rare for a Biblical Jew.

“I suffer from allergies,” I said, explaining my handkerchief that I was already using to dab at my eyes. I always use allergies as a cover which allows me to weep a little during interviews.

I sat down and looked at this beloved priest. He had come to our meeting in a knit shirt and pair of Bermudas and looked as much a Roman Catholic priest as I did. He appeared well and happy and totally at ease in front of me. Here is a man that is comfortable with his life and who he is.

If Father Boddie was battling cancer, I would never have known it by the look of him. He is a big, vibrant, handsome, muscular kind of guy who gives off a radiance of vigor and power. He has a quick laugh and a knack that puts others at ease. He listens carefully to what a person says and has a way of repeating the same words back in his answer. I could see immediately that I was dealing with someone who was my equal in interviewing skills, a rare experience for a journalist.

I spoke to him briefly about the troubles in my (Episcopal) church. He listened intently. “Our number one issue confronting the church today is how we affirm our brothers and sisters that are gay,” he said. “Every church is confronting this question to one degree or another.”

It had taken us all of five minutes to move to the complex problem in Western Christianity today, that is, how to welcome homosexuals into the fold. I knew well that the Roman Catholic Church viewed homosexuality as a sin, as do many churches, and I held little hope for leadership on how to solve this problem coming from Rome.

“Do you have gay members in your church?” I asked. “And, if so, would they feel they could come to you and tell you of their struggles?”

“I would hope so,” Father John Boddie said. He later added what soon would become the major theme of our conversation regarding his personal theology: “I am here to feed all those who seek spiritual food.” ©2007 (Continued next week)

Read Mary Wakefield Buxton’s 5-part series, “A Priest For All Seasons,” on the life of Father John Boddie.

A Priest for All Seasons, Part 2
A Priest for All Seasons, Part 3
A Priest for All Seasons, Part 4
A Priest for All Seasons, Part 5
First Sail of the Season

posted 05.27.2009

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