The priest who baptized me died recently, and I spent 6 hours in the car to attend his funeral.
I had known Father Lloyd Bowden mostly by reputation. He had been pastor of my family’s parish for 26 years, and he became something of an institution in the city and within my own family. In many ways a rarity, he was equal parts kind, gentle and thoughtful; the unsung parish priest who truly epitomized what the priesthood really is all about.
Ordained in 1949, Father Bowden was in ministry during many changes within the Church. Though some of it frustrated him and made life more difficult, he persevered with charity, joy and fidelity. He had something of a reputation for being “strict” in those post-Vatican II years where almost anything went in so many parishes. Really, though, his pastoral plan was defined merely by a “hermeneutic of continuity” — a difficult task in his day. While he had his critics, his success as a pastor was found in the dearth of parishioners who took issue with him as a man — and in those who he served faithfully.
Father Bowden prepared my parents for marriage and celebrated their nuptial Mass. When my dad tried to give him an envelope with cash afterward, Father Bowden refused, noting, “I’m just happy to have you as parishioners here.” Still more, he was welcoming, patient and encouraging with my unchurched, Protestant dad during marriage preparation. He proposed, not imposed, the Faith, and he always managed to leave my dad with a good taste in his mouth for Catholicism, in which he eventually found a home – in part, I think, thanks to the foundation of gentleness that Father Bowden laid all those years before. And I’m sure there are legions of similar stories.
Father Bowden especially left an example for priests to follow. In addition to good stewardship, sound governance and right teaching, Father Bowden had about him a certain air of holiness. His life was his work and his work was his life, and he truly emulated how priesthood is a vocation. When he retired, Father Bowden was asked about the many successes of his long tenure. Instead of dwelling on the praise, he deflected any attention from himself and credited only the goodness of the people he served. In retirement, instead of moving into a house of his own, he took up residence with an older couple he had known from the parish where he first served as pastor.
Despite Father Bowden’s evident holiness, only a handful of priests came to send off the first diocesan priest of their diocese. There was no bishop, and there were not as many people as I might have expected. Given his advanced age, some of that is expected. But I rather think it reflected accurately his approach to ministry — something like John the Baptist’s: “He must increase; I must decrease” (Jn 3:30).
Little of Father Bowden’s ministry seemed to be about himself, and he was uncomfortable with any kind of cult of personality sometimes associated with priests. This was the case to the end, as reflected in the low-key plans he made for his funeral. And it was reiterated by those with whom I spoke at the funeral — like the couple whose vows Father Bowden recieved 61 years ago, or like his one-time religious education director. Father Bowden was the embodiment of the priestly life described in the poem “Thou art a Priest Forever,” composed by the 19th-century Dominican Jean-Baptiste Henri Lacordaire. It happened to be read during funeral’s homily, thus underscoring the point:
“To live in the midst of the world with no desire for its pleasures; 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 homage and petitions; to return from God to men to bring them His pardon and hope; to have a heart of fire for charity and a heart of bronze for chastity; to bless and to be blest forever. O God, what a life, and it is yours, O Priest of Jesus Christ!”
By the time Father Bowden retired when I was 7, my family already had moved to a neighboring state. I subsequently had only two or three brief personal interactions with him. And yet, I always felt a strong spiritual closeness to him. For many years I have prayed for him every day. Not necessarily because he was a great priest, which he was, but that because of his priestly “yes” and its connection to my baptism, he brought me into the life of grace.
I guess, in the end, my drive to suburban Chicago was as much for me as it was for Father Bowden. It has been a rough many months for the Church. Not only are there more arguments in ecclesial life surrounding doctrine and governance than many of us remember in our lifetime, but there are also the seemingly unending sex abuse scandals and sordid stories of clericalism’s corrosion of ecclesial life that have rocked each of us to the core. My trip ended up being a pilgrimage of sorts amid the storms — an opportunity to reflect on what really matters in the life of faith and give thanks.
In the car and at the funeral Mass, I thanked God for the priesthood and for the priestly ministry of Father Bowden. I recalled with gratitude his important role in my own life of faith and the incredible gift God bestowed on me through his priestly “yes.” Most apropos of the true nature of a life poured out in priestly service, the last line on the prayer card distributed at his funeral reads, “Thank You, Thank You, Thank You.” And that is what I whispered as I touched Father Bowden’s casket on the way to receive the Lord in holy Communion.
Moreover, though, my thanks turned to intercession when I also thought about how Father Bowden embodied so much of what the Church needs right now. We have had men like him before, we have them now, and we will have men like him again. I’ll keep praying that God will send us more priests like Father Lloyd Bowden. May God reward him.
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of Simply Catholic. Follow him on Twitter @HeinleinMichael.