There are four important things to know about Fr. John Boles. I will tell them to you in their ascending order of importance.
So, starting with the fourth, he was, all his life, an avid birdwatcher. His interest in birds arose when he was just a child, and throughout his life, it was his only avocation – except perhaps for reading. In his room at Regina Cleri, he kept the best of his life’s collection of books. Every one of them was a book on theology, or philosophy, or pastoral care, or education. Except one: a well-worn copy of “The Birds of North America,” given to him by his good friend, Craig Gibson.
You may think I’m telling you this because it’s odd or quaint. But I’m not. It’s because I think understanding his fascination with birds helps us understand who he was, and how he viewed the world. To appreciate the beauty of birds was for him, I suspect, a way to contemplate the wonders of creation. How do they manage to fly so gracefully? Think of the sheer variety of birds – the sizes, shapes, colors. The flamboyant and the drab. The aggressive and the timid. The noisy and the silent. It begins to sound a little like a description of humanity, doesn’t it?
Being a good birdwatcher builds character, too. It requires a keenness of observation and a careful attention to detail. Was that a tree sparrow or a field sparrow? You’ve got to know the difference, you know. It also requires exceptional patience. Birds don’t just parade themselves by you; they are seen in the distance, partially obscured. Bird watching tends to minimize egotism. It’s not about the watcher, it’s about the bird.
So, yes, I think the fact that he was a birdwatcher tells us that he was man of calm composure and true modesty, alert and observant, who appreciated the beauty of the world.
Third, he was a dedicated educator. In addition to his degree in theology from St. John’s Seminary, he earned a master’s degree in psychology and a doctorate in education from Boston College. After teaching for a while at his own secondary school alma mater, St. Sebastian’s School, he became its headmaster, and remained ever after the School’s most persistent, and most irresistible, advocate. At St. Paul’s Church in Cambridge, he was chaplain to the Harvard-Radcliffe Catholic Student Center. He gave his enthusiastic support to the famous Choir School at St. Paul’s. For fifteen years, he served as Director of Education for the Archdiocese of Boston. It may sound like a committee, but this is one man I am talking about!
For Bishop Boles, a good education was not just a way to get a good job, but more importantly a pathway to living a good life. He wanted to help as many young people as he could along that path, and he did.
Second, he was a devoted brother to his beloved sister, Mary. Their mother, Agnes, was a Brett, which explains my presence here. Agnes and my father, Henry, were brother and sister. They came here from Tubbercurry, County Sligo. So John and Mary were my first cousins – my only cousins. We were very close. We spent every major holiday together.
Fr. John was devoted to Mary, as she was to him. It is impossible to exaggerate; you could not imagine a closer and more loving relationship between siblings. She was like him in many ways, including ministry. She served as a lay chaplain at the Massachusetts General South Shore Hospitals.
Mary passed away suddenly on June 7 of this year. It should surprise no one that John is now to be reunited with her.
And finally, the first important thing to know about Fr. John Boles is that he was a holy priest. In his parish work, in his work with the schools, he was a guiding pastor, a good shepherd. In 1992, he was elevated to the episcopal office and became Auxiliary Bishop of Boston. But even after he was entitled to the excellent title of Excellency, he preferred to be addressed simply as “Father Boles.” That was who he was, a priest. He said to my sister Peg on more than one occasion that he enjoyed being a priest every single day.
(Let me parenthetically interject that every day since Mary died, our sister Peg and my wife Pattie have been with Father Boles to care for him and to pray with him. Their reward will be great in heaven, but we already knew that.)
Here is the last sentence from the mission statement of St. Sebastian’s School: The Ideal St. Sebastian’s graduate will be a moral and just person, a gentleman of courage, honor, and wisdom, a lifelong learner who continues to grow in his capacity to know, to love and to serve God and neighbor.
You could not find or formulate a better summation of John Boles’ life. His life was a lived sermon. May he rest in God's peace.