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A Priest For All Seasons, Part 2

Father John Boddie

Urbanna, Va.— As soon as one walks inside the Church of the Visitation off Route 33 in Middlesex County, about halfway between Saluda and Deltaville, one sees two exhibits. The first is an architectural plan to build an attractive addition to a growing church that is home to 175 families. The second is a homemade quilt with a poster that claims the quilt is valued at $350 and will be raffled off to help fund the project.

The sanctuary is large and contemporary and the pews with the kneeling pads of yesteryear that once announced a Catholic church have been replaced with comfortable chairs in a pleasant shade of green that encircle an open altar. There are no statues of Mary or lit candles in dark corners or even a whiff of incense that one remembers from yesteryear.  The only suggestion of Rome is a framed picture of the Pope on the wall along with the new bishop in Richmond.

To starboard are the kitchen and office areas. The new addition will not only enlarge the sanctuary area, making room for more seats in a growing church, but also provide much needed administrative space.

Father John Boddie pastors two church communities, Middlesex and Mathews, as is a typical assignment today due to priest shortages. Some priests are clustered with three churches and Father John even knew of one priest who had been given four. It is no surprise that priest “burn out” and a number of other stress-related illnesses are more prevalent today.

There is continued priest shortage in the American Catholic Church. Many priests left the church in the 1980s and 1990s either to marry and have families, or because they did not agree with some specific church position such as continued ban on birth control or exclusion of women to the priesthood.

“It is irony that many priests who left the Episcopal Church after it began to ordain women to the priesthood in the late 1970s to become Roman Catholic priests have wives and families,” Father John said. 

The 49-year-old priest was born and raised in a tough public housing neighborhood in Newport News at a time when racial segregation was still a part of Virginia life. His parents, Ernestine and James Boddie, had nine children. He was the third child in a family that just kept growing in spite of hard economic times.

As a means of alleviating the demands on the family pocketbook, John was given to his grandmother, “Miss Esther,” to raise. He was 15 months old. She was 59 at the time she took on responsibility for raising him, and later she also took on his brother, Michael, who later became the father of the notorious football star. His parents are separated now, his father living in Baltimore and his mother in Reedville, N.C. Father John retains a good relationship with his parents. His grandmother, who he refers to as “Momma,” has passed away, but lived to the age of 82.

We both winced at the mere thought of “Miss Esther” having to take on two rambunctious baby boys to raise. In spite of being almost 60, she was a good mother.

It turned out to be a blessing for young John. “She was determined to give me a religious foundation,” he said. Although she was a good member of Zion Baptist Church in Newport News, she knew that St. Alfonso’s Catholic Church across the street from the old Dunbar Elementary School had helped the Boddie family at various times. “It was a case of my getting a religious background trumping sectarianism,” he explained, but added with a chuckle that “Momma” had just dropped him off each Sunday and never stepped foot in the church herself.

“It was a predominantly black congregation led by a white priest named “Father Jerry,” Father John remembered. It was in such an environment that the young boy first envisioned himself one day leading a congregation.

“The very first feelings that I might become a priest came to me at about the age of 10, first just as an “inkling in my heart,’” he said. “That spark would lead me toward the priesthood.” And even though the boy John did not understand at that time exactly what this decision would eventually entail, he definitely felt pulled toward the priesthood.

John was baptized in 1968 at age 10 by Father Thomas Quinlen at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Newport News. and confirmed at age 14. By then he had met and developed a close relationship to Bishop Walter Sullivan who personally saw to it that John was sent to Peninsula Catholic High School where he graduated with good grades (but no football!) 4 years later.

At graduation, Father John felt even more strongly that he was going to be a priest. Walter Sullivan then sent him to St. Mienrad in southern Indiana where he majored in history and graduated with a BA in 1983.

“What about girls?” I asked. “Didn’t you meet them along the way in high school and in college, and wasn’t it difficult to ignore their presence?”
Father John laughed at my typically protestant question and then explained. “Back in those days if a young man studying for the priesthood ever noticed a girl, someone would immediately come up to him and put his arm around him and ask a simple question: “ ‘Say, young man, just how interested are you in becoming a priest?’ ” A question, at least for him, that always settled the matter.

The priest stopped briefly with discussing his background to explain the difference in “high Christology” and “low Christology.” The former is a matter of words or dogma so typical of Saint Paul and the high church tradition.

The latter is simply following Jesus’ command to “Follow me.” That did not necessarily mean walk behind Him, but to behave as he behaved, Father John explained. “Look how Jesus treated the poor and inflicted and then treat them in the same way.”

Father John practices low Christology. Continued next week. ©2007

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 1
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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