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A Priest For All Seasons, Part 5

Father John Boddie

Urbanna, Va.— Today marks the end of my five-part series on Father John Boddie. It has been a rich experience for me, talking with, getting to know, and writing about this “priest for all seasons.”

The Church of Visitation cherishes their priest. Only last month, according to parish member Dr. Jerry Suyes, when he returned from a summer leave of absence for health reasons, the entire congregation rose to their feet and applauded its priest. “We clapped for several minutes,” Jerry said.

“He’s a wonderful priest,” his wife, Marie continued. “He has an ecumenical spirit and he brings us together. I believe he would welcome all people to communion, too,” she added.

Dr. Chauncey Mann of Grafton Baptist, another beloved minister of Middlesex County (fondly thought of as” The Pope of Middlesex”), reminded me of Father John’s deep Baptist roots. It very well could be that it may be possible to take the Catholic out of the priest, but I should think it nearly impossible to take the Baptist out of the priest.

Chauncey, who also came from Newport News, is close to Father John. “He is not only a good teacher, but he is a historian,” said Chauncey. “He has total dedication to his calling, like most Catholic priests, and he maintains close contacts with his family.”

Ray Kotesky can’t say enough about his priest. “He is the primary reason for the growth in our parish as he welcomes, with open arms, all who come to him suffering from pain. He is a particularly fine homilist and has a knack for applying scripture to our every day lives.”

But not all area Catholics have been so happy. One knows well that you can’t please all members of any church. Like other denominations have experienced, Father John has to deal with those unhappy with changes within the Catholic Church. Mostly, it has been traditionalists who have disliked a certain lack of formality or adherence to the rules of the past that are prone to complain. There are some Catholics who still want mass said in Latin, and would be much happier returning to pre-Vatican 11 times, and even dislike contemporary church design.

But the greatest gift that Father John has given to his people is simply welcoming back Catholics who have been estranged from the church for one reason or another—mainly, those who have been divorced. I have heard of the joy that such Catholics have experienced returning to the church of their roots and feeling so loved, understood and accepted by Father John.

As if being an African-American priest at two mainly all-white churches in rural Virginia and a part of a church that has experienced great upheaval in recent years due to an outbreak of litigation from past sexual abuse cases in the priesthood was not enough challenge for Father John, just wait, there is more.

Last November I awoke with a swollen thumb,” Father John told me. “It hurt too, actually, it stung. It was as if I had been bitten by an insect.”

The thumb was so painful he ended up going to the emergency room at Walter Reed Hospital later that day to have it checked. There, it was examined and lanced. The common thought was that the swelling and stinging sensation had been caused by an insect bite.

The thumb did not improve. By March, he was having it lanced again in another doctor’s office. When it still did not heal, the doctor decided it must be a tumor. “But don’t worry,” he told Father John, “tumors on thumbs are rarely malignant.”

Famous last words. When the biopsy results came back, Father John heard that the tumor in his thumb was malignant.

By April he discovered by chest x-ray there were also spots on his lungs. In surgery, one of the spots was removed. The others were left as inoperable.

By July, Father John was at Duke University taking the first week of a two week series of experimental chemotherapy. It was rough while he was in the hospital, but he experienced neither loss of hair nor other symptoms. “I was young and strong and in good health,” Father John said, and his general state of health helped him sail through the treatments.

At the end of August he returned to Duke to have a scan. The good news was immediate and spread through the county like wildfire. His tumors had shrunk. He went on to the next phase of treatment—a more palpable and easier treatment that was delivered by pills.

There were prayers said for me all over the country,” Father John said, “even at the Vatican,” he added with a smile, a bit like a Baptist caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

Father John had the summer off, thanks to the kind service of a retired priest from Deltaville, Father Robert Nash, who took over his churches. Father Nash has been a priest and tending to the needs of others for over 60 years.

“And I want you to be sure to mention this wonderful man in your story,” Father John said.

Father John not only had his own concerns to worry about, but also those in his two parish families. “A lot of people think cancer means you are dying,” he explained. “Actually, the truth is, with all the effective drugs on the market today, I am living with cancer. It could come back, I suppose. But right now the tumors are shrinking, and I feel blessed.”

He ended our two-hour talk with this last sentence: “The greatest blessing in my life has been the priesthood of my two parishes . . . the way my people have loved and cared for me has shown me that they have taken their priesthood seriously.”

Which suggests to me that the end truth is that we are all priests and responsible for loving and caring for each other in our search for God.

Father John Boddie has taught us well. ©2007 (Conclusion)

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

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 4
First Sail of the Season

posted 05.27.2009

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