Year for Priests: Q&A with Fr. Boughton
ByIn observance of the "Year for Priests" proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI for 2009-10, Chronicle presents a series of conversations with members of Boston College's religious community about the experiences, challenges and joys of their vocations. This issue: Center for Ignatian Spirituality Director Michael Boughton, SJ.
How and when did you get "the call" to be a priest? Did you always know this would be your vocation?
If you grew up Catholic in Long Island during the 1950s and '60s, it was all part of the culture: Boys thought about becoming priests, girls thought about becoming nuns. I was very impressed with the priests at my school.
In 1966, I came to BC and I stopped thinking about being a priest; I just felt this was an opportunity to grow and explore. But in junior year, the idea came back to me. It seemed that being a priest was for me a very good way of being a disciple of Christ, and of speaking to others about Christ with my life. To be a Jesuit seemed to me a good way to be a priest: I was attracted by their tradition of spirituality, by the fact they lived in community, and by their involvement in education.
The real turning point came after graduation, when I went on a cross county trip with some good friends who had also just graduated. I still wasn't sure what I wanted to do, so I decided to ask God for light, and then to imagine for three days that I wasn't going to be a priest, and then imagine for three days that I was. I was pretty miserable after the second day of imagining I wasn't, but I stuck it out.
When I went through the three days of imagining I was going to be a priest, I felt very peaceful about the decision. I felt I should give it a try.
When did you feel you had made the right decision?
Well, the night I entered the novitiate, they served blueberry pie for dessert, so I thought that was a pretty good sign.
More seriously, though, there are always moments in life that tell you who you are, and I think one of mine was when I was working as a priest at the College of the Holy Cross, and a student died. Holy Cross is a very tight-knit community, and I found myself front and center in helping everyone deal with the loss, from preaching at the funeral to talking with other students.
What I realized was that I belonged to these people, and they to me. They were my congregation. I had a role with them, I stood for something for them. It was about Holy Cross, but also about the Church, and the mystery of life and death.
Was there a particularly difficult period for you, as a priest, and how did you cope?
This didn't have anything to do with my vocation or my faith, but my father's last illness and death was very difficult. Things crashed inside me, and I thought, "This isn't supposed to happen to me. I'm a priest, I help other people with this."
What helped was relying on prayer, on God's help, leaning on my friends - Jesuit and non-Jesuit - and my sister. You live with it, you lean on God and others, and you endure - but you also, in a way, grow. It's as a French philosopher said: "There are areas of our hearts we only discover through suffering."
What advice do you have for those interested in joining the priesthood?
It's a good life, but a life that makes demands, as with anything that requires a commitment. You have to pray, you have to talk to Jesus about it, but you also have to talk to someone who understands this life and can help you see if this is how God is calling you, and if you'll be happy there.
I stand in admiration for those willing to struggle with the question, even if they don't end up going into the priesthood. It's a very personal, fundamental part of yourself. I often think that the qualities that help you to be a good priest are the same that help you be a good husband and father.