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A Priest For All Seasons, Part 4

Father John Boddie

Urbanna, Va.— Father John Boddie of the Church of the Visitation makes no secret of the fact he came from a ghetto background in Newport News. Perhaps this is what makes his story so riveting. He defied his beginnings so bleak in opportunity and went on to attain stellar goals. His achievements are so satisfying because it reassures us that the great American dream of going up the economic ladder to success still exists.

How does one overcome such a humble start in life? Plenty of people have done it, mainly bright, gifted, hard-working and determined people who have managed to escape the poverty into which they were born and gone on to reach whatever their goals were in life.

Father John’s hometown has produced its share of those who managed to escape their tough neighborhoods, such Ella Fitzgerald, who was launched by her soulful voice. Athletes Michael Vick and Allan Iverson made the break, if not to higher planes of behavior, at least to astronomical financial rewards through football and basketball stardom. But Father John managed the success with his brain, hard work and personal sacrifice via the Roman Catholic Church.

It was the church that spotted the young boy who held such promise and offered him a one-way ticket out of the ghetto and into the priesthood. That the church does this the world over is something to celebrate. But how disappointing the Catholic Church still limits such priestly opportunities to men only.

Or maybe it was not the church, but really God who saved Father John. Or maybe it was he who saved himself? Maybe we all have such self-saving capacity within us? If we only knew how to plug into our inner power?

Whatever, it is thrilling to hear Father John’s story, which I will now continue.

By 1997, after a leave of absence from the priesthood, if, indeed, there is such a thing, Father John, now sure of his commitment and having gained real life experience in life that would help him become a more effective priest, returned to the church.

And now Father John saves others.

Bishop Sullivan chose two predominantly-white parishes in rural, conservative, Tidewater Virginia to send his gifted African-American priest. I have been to the Church of the Visitation to share worship and have seen firsthand the brilliance of Sullivan’s appointment. He could well have sent Father John back to a church in the ghetto, but having him become a part of two predominantly-white communities worked the magic even one more degree. And what magic it has been.

For Father John is as loved as any priest could possibly be. His parishioners not only adore and revere him, but treasure him because of his special gifts to the church.

His attraction is universal because he is not your usual, everyday priest. He works far outside the box. He is one that constantly questions the dictates of the church, who openly admits his great struggle to work within the confines of faith and, in the end, he is a man who ultimately follows his own inner voice. “I care for all who are in need of spiritual food,” he told me.

I asked him if he would give me communion (I am not Catholic) and he knew very well that my Episcopal church would welcome him to its communion. He did not give me an answer, perhaps suddenly mindful he was speaking to a journalist, (and surely his response would appear in print, politics being what it is). But I went away from our meeting with a strong inkling in my heart that he would care for me if I needed him just as my own priest would, and that he sees no lines of division regarding God’s family.

During our several hours of discussion, which passed too quickly, Father John demonstrated many original takes on Biblical stories.

Suppose, on Easter morning,” I said, “you and I walked to the cave where the crucified Jesus had been left and found that he was still there. Would that mean there was no resurrection and that Christianity is false?”

This was exactly the question that Father John had posed to his very congregation one Easter morning several years earlier, for he is an intellectual priest and stimulates thought in his homilies.

The priest looked at me and said, “The important question is not whether Jesus was in the cave or not on Easter morning. The important question, Mary, is whether the Lord has risen in us.”

If this is an example of the kind of thinking that his congregation is receiving from Father John each Sunday, then it is a very fortunate congregation, indeed.

Father John is highly respected by his peers. Father Paul Andersen of Christ Church said, “Father John has been a ‘kindred spirit’ whose faith has been generously shared with all.  In difficult times, Father John has been a wonderful colleague, confidant and understanding friend.  His genuine desire to affirm the ministry of others has been one of his great trademarks.” 

He is also special because of his ecumenical spirit. For several years he has hosted a study group in his home that has consisted of Baptists, Methodists and Episcopalians. They have studied Bill Moyer’s “Genesis” and “Faith and Reason.” Those who attended reported he has an inquisitive mind and refreshing definition of faith. 

Liz Perkins of Deltaville, a part of this group said, “He’s wonderful . . . a great teacher, open and candid, a man not only with phenomenal knowledge of theology and the Bible, but he is also a caring person who is inclusive and always made the non-Catholics in the group feel at home.”

We can’t have enough ecumenical spirit in this world. That Christians can set examples for others to follow in dealing with people of different religions is of utmost importance. Father John is certainly doing his part. (To be concluded next week.) ©2007


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

A Priest for All Seasons, Part 1
A Priest for All Seasons, Part 2
A Priest for All Seasons, Part 3
A Priest for All Seasons, Part 5
First Sail of the Season

posted 05.27.2009

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