A week ago, Father’s Day, a friend texted me asking “How many ‘Happy Father’s Day’ jokes do you typically get today each year?” As a priest, who has made promises of celibacy at my ordination yet, who’s title is “Father,” I knew he was asking out of a mix of amusement, curiosity and genuine sincerity. Since he’s a father of two beautiful kids, one less than 4 months old, everyday is an adventure for him in his continuing education on “how to be a father” so, out of amusement I’m sure he’s wondering if a celibate man who’s also called Father is honing in, trying to steal his glory on “his day.” At the same time, now that Father’s Day means a lot more to him personally, and as a faithful Catholic himself – there was a part of it where he was curious wait, is this really a thing – like should I be wishing a priest a Happy Father’s Day? He doesn’t wear a tie, so getting him one is out…
I kind of chuckled when I received the text, sitting at an outdoor, socially distant barbeque with my family – with my 14 year old god-daughter (who had to share her 8th grade graduation with her father and her grandfather’s for this first family gathering we’ve had in 3 months on Father’s day) sitting across the table from me… as I looked at my cell-phone with a bunch of thoughtful text messages from “my kids” – some graduates, some current students – who are in campus ministry here at Montclair State – Fathers Day has evolved into a thing for me over the years.
When I was newly ordained, I was 25 years old, which resulted in my being the “youngest priest” of the Archdiocese of Newark for almost 3 years. The two years after had ordination classes with some “young guys” but they would still beat me by being a year or two older. Being that young, and having grown up the youngest of three boys the moniker of “being the baby” kind of just transferred into my priesthood where I was called a “baby priest.” (At 6 feet, 2 inches tall and at that point weighing over 210 lbs I was a “big baby” – but I digress)
I never took it as an insult. It was just a reality. I’d be in meetings with different parish groups and be the youngest individual in there by several decades. Even going into the school after talking to some of the kids in the lunchroom (probably felt more comfortable with that age demographic) most of the teachers had children themselves who were my age. The people of Our Lady of Lourdes couldn’t have been more loving, supportive and were so welcoming to have a newly ordained priest at their parish. And a majority of them were Irish who among many things are incredibly supportive to their priests. So there was no question they would call me “Father” – but I know it was a bit of a stretch for all of us. 7 years later, having gone through the horrors of the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 together, countless good times and bad times with families or even as a community – I know that they were always grateful and appreciative of my priesthood, but being a “Father” still seemed somewhat a distant reality. I guess that “baby priest” impression kind of stuck.
Even when I first got to Montclair State University as the Chaplain and Director of the Newman Catholic Center, I remember when I was assigned here by our then Archbishop, John J. Myers he observed “in a lot of ways, you’re going to be like an older brother to a lot of these young men and women.” Again, that wasn’t being dismissive. At then the age of 33 now working with primarily 18-24 year olds, there was a proximity in age that I could relate on an older sibling level for sure. In fact I know that’s what made the ministry very accessible and in fact easy (at least initially). Especially starting out completely new without much of a routine and not a very large student community to speak of, we were all starting fresh. So just meeting students who for the most part never had met a priest that close in age before – who watched some of the same stupid TV programs they did, knew some of the same music, was just learning this new thing called “Facebook” at the same time they were, just hanging out and talking about “nothing” for hours on end made priesthood accessible to them and highly enjoyable for me.
The beautiful thing about college students is the lack of filter they have. Sometimes a conversation would simply move from them sharing some of their most recent antics, to then a shocking awareness that “oh my Gosh you’re a priest and I just told you I did this over the weekend…” to me saying “well you already started confession, do you want to make this the real deal” and them ending up going to confession for the first time in years right there in the middle of the cafeteria in the student center. One kid laughingly as dubbed it a “confession trap.”
It was only about a year into this work though that I noticed a subtle shift – interiorly. Some of the familiarity where I could laugh at stories of college pranks and different antics began to shift. I all of a sudden started saying things like
“wait, you did what?”
“Oh God, please be careful, be smart… don’t do something stupid?”
“Can you shoot me a text me when you get there…”
“Yes Officer, I’ll come down and pick him up at the police department.”
All of a sudden, I found myself choking up in tears at graduations… celebrating their joys, being rendered speechless at their sorrows (but knowing that didn’t matter as much as simply being present to them at those dark moments). It was then that the “Fatherhood” of priesthood started clicking on a very personal level. Where I saw that the Lord had indeed blessed me with a great number of “children.” I look at the number of student leaders from the past 13 years who’s weddings I’ve performed, who’s children I’ve baptized now – and having a greater appreciation for the role parent’s play, and specifically a Father has, indeed has grown incredibly over these last years that I have felt a sense of appreciation of being a “Father” to them in many different shapes and forms.
But nothing quite prepared me for this past weekend. On Saturday, I attended the ordination of a young man to the priesthood for the Diocese of Norwich, Connecticut. Unlike the dozens of ordinations I’ve attended previously over the years – unlike even my own ordination 21 years ago – I found myself experiencing a whole mix of emotions: From being excited to anxious, wanting at times to go up and just assist or help (when it wasn’t needed in the slightest … especially as I recognized he was more than alright and fine – no he was right where he was supposed to be, was doing beautifully all on his own)… it was a surreal experience, unlike any I’ve had before.
I had met Father Mike Bovino about 8 years ago. Fresh out of college himself, he had joined FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) laying down his life for a few years to serve his peers as a missionary – leading bible studies, mission trips, praying and meeting with students on campus. Working and living with the missionaries here at the Newman Center, I’ve had an opportunity over the years to get close with a lot of them and hopefully have helped in some way as they discerned their next steps after their service here is done.
There was something quite special about Mike the first day I met him. He was like any typical 22 year old guy – just coming in from playing basketball outside for hours and eating literally two entire meals from the cafeteria. But there was a kindness, a gentleness and a joy that I remember thinking to myself “oh boy does this guy got a vocation to the priesthood… I wonder if he realizes that???” Praise God he did. Or at least He was open to learning that for himself. He was serious about his prayer life. He constantly reached out to different priests and communities to discern where he felt God was leading him. He was courageous enough to follow that call leading him to lay down his life and to become one of His priests – to become a Father himself.
As I found tears rolling down my face this morning as he consecrated the Body and Blood of Christ for the first time, I was grateful for happy tears (especially after days, weeks and months of so much negativity in our Church and in our world). Happy tears for the gift of a new, happy, healthy, holy priest. Happy tears for the joy that brings to the Church. Happy tears seeing someone I had shared some small part on his journey being called to share in this same priesthood of Jesus Christ. And happy tears that the guy who called me “Father” with all genuineness and sincerity now becoming a brother… a brother priest.
Driving back from that first Mass today, I found myself reflecting on a prayer from a 19th century priest Jean Baptiste Lacordaire. I had it printed on the invitation to my priesthood ordination years ago, It goes:
To live in the midst of the world with
no desire for its pleasure…
To be a member of every family
yet belonging to none…
To share all sufferings; to penetrate
all secrets; to heal all wounds…
To daily go from men to God to
offer Him their petitions…
To return from God to men
to offer them His hope…
To have a heart of fire for charity
and a heart of bronze for chastity…
To bless and be blest forever.
O God, what a life, and it is yours,
O Priest of Jesus Christ
I can recognize now that as a 25 year old, they were idealistic or maybe inspirational. The beauty, the richness, the depth of truth to those words were hidden at the time. The reality is revealed more true, with each day of my priesthood… as does the reality of the fatherhood of priesthood… and is renewed in a special way in witnessing the transformation of a young man into a Priest of Jesus Christ, the new Father Mike Bovino.
May God bless Father Mike Bovino with all the gifts, blessings and favor needed to be the priest, the father the people of God need. May the other men being called to priesthood, to fatherhood, be open, courageous and trust that the love that is required to be a priest is always surpassed by the love that God the Father pours out on his sons.