Stonington man 'discerning' whether he will become Roman Catholic priest
Stonington — Coach A.J. Massengale remembers when Michael Bovino joined the high school football team in 2006.
“He was a kid that didn’t play freshman or sophomore year. He was a basketball kid. But I would see him in the weight room, hanging out with some of my players, and he was a well-built kid to play football."
“He came out junior year and he played and started every game for two years, offense and defense, and he did a great job," recalled Massengale, who has been coaching and teaching at Stonington High for 12 years.
“He was just the nicest kid. He never lost his cool, and he always had his wits about him. And I was so thrilled to have Michael Bovino walking around with our jersey on, you know, to offset some of the knuckleheads who couldn’t behave properly.”
Massengale is still in touch with Bovino, now 25 and in his first year at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., where he is “discerning” whether to become a Roman Catholic diocesan priest.
“I have been here seven months now," Bovino said, "and I certainly feel confident that God wants me here, but He has not revealed to me that, yes, I want you to be a priest.”
“I am still in this period of listening to God in a very focused way. I’m here because I have an inkling, but I’m not 100 percent certain that God wants me to be a priest."
A student of philosophy in the first of his six-year journey to ordination, Bovino was raised Roman Catholic but never gave serious thought to becoming a priest.
“When I was in high school, there was not even an inkling on my part,” he recalled. “I remember a couple of instances when my friends said, ‘Hey Mike, you should be a priest,' because I never dated anyone and they figured I’d never get married. And they knew I’d go to Mass every Sunday with my family. But that was the extent of their insight.”
As a freshman at the University of Connecticut, he started out majoring in natural resources, imagining himself as a forest ranger, living a quiet life, out of the public eye.
“I just wanted to go live away from society and culture, and just kind of be out there alone,” he said. But when he felt a tug, perhaps a call to the priesthood, he realized, “my desires to go off and be a park ranger and live in solitude, my reasons for wanting that were selfish.”
After taking — and enjoying — a statistics class, Bovino switched his major.
His college roommate David Vandal, a friend since elementary school, said he wasn’t surprised by the seminary choice.
“He was meant to do something like this,” he said. “With most young people, it’s how are we going to do something? But not Mike. He always looks at a situation and asks 'why am I going do something?' He’s introspective. And a very good athlete. And he’s smart. He majored in statistics. Who majors in statistics?
“He was trying to find a direction and he finally did, and it’s something that he is passionate about, and that is tremendous,” Vandal said. “It takes a special person to dedicate their life to God and the service of others.”
Mission trip awakening
Michael is the oldest of Mike and Paula Bovino’s four boys. His siblings, Thomas, a senior, and Chris, a sophomore, are studying at Sacred Heart University, and his youngest brother, Steven, is a freshman at Stonington High. His father works at Electric Boat and was raised in a devout Roman Catholic family.
His mother, who works in the cafeteria at Mystic Middle School, was a Congregationalist who converted to Catholicism when he was about 3 years old.
“I didn’t receive (Communion) but I was going to Mass with Mike every Sunday,” she recalled. “I was raised in the Road Church on Pequot Trail, but one day I woke up and said, ‘I want to become a Catholic.’ It was something I believed God wanted me to do.”
Michael Bovino never thought his family was overly religious. They said grace before dinner and he participated in religious education classes at their parish, St. Michael the Archangel in Pawcatuck, but “I was just going through the motions,” he said.
It was the same with Sunday Mass. He went every week with his parents and brothers, “but I definitely wasn’t always willing and eager, at least when I was a youngster.”
As he grew older, his feelings about his faith began to change, dramatically so during his junior year at UConn. That spring, he joined college students from around the country on a mission trip to Kentucky.
“These students that I encountered, they talked about their faith, and God and Jesus, like they were real people you could know, and I found it kind of weird at first,” he said. “But reflecting back later, I realized that they had this sense of joy, of contentment, that I didn’t have, and their witness really resonated with me.”
Back in Storrs, Bovino couldn’t get them out of his mind.
“For me, it was this kind of awakening to this sense that these people were living their faith, and this realization that there was substance to why they were doing it,” he said.
He had been going to Sunday Mass on campus since starting at Storrs, but after the trip he began attending daily Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel there.
“I was seeking other people like them, and I went looking at church."
He soon met a missionary from the 16-year-old Fellowship of Catholic University Students.
The Rev. Gregory Galvin, director of priestly vocations for the Diocese of Norwich, described the group's two-part mission: helping bring young people back to the church and encouraging vocations.
“In parishes they are talking about new evangelism, and this probably right now is the most effective tool we’ve got. This and prayer,” he said.
On its website, FOCUS calls itself “a national outreach that meets college students where they are and invites them into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ and the Catholic faith.”
The missionary invited Bovino to Bible studies and prayer sessions. Shortly after, Bovino found what he had been seeking.
“It was more all at once than gradual,” he said. “But while praying and singing, I was just kind of flooded with this sense of peace and joy. And that is where I understood for the first time that heaven is being with God forever. It was at that point that I said, ‘OK, God is real, not just some pie-in-the-sky figment of my imagination.’ And then it was a matter of, ‘OK, what do I do now?’”
“His whole world changed at that point, and for the better,” Paula Bovino said of her son in his junior year. “For whatever reason, Michael always had high moral values, and I think at that point he met a lot of people who had the same morals as he did and he felt comfortable with that.”
By his senior year, Bovino was taking part in FOCUS events on campus and had joined UConn’s Melchizedek Project, where Catholic men “pray about their lives, listen for God’s voice, and get serious about answering His call.”
“The Melchizedek Project educates and inspires Catholic students to consider a vocation to priesthood,” explains its website.
But Bovino still couldn’t envision himself entering the seminary. That would happen later, after graduating from UConn 2012 and working for two years as a FOCUS missionary at Montclair State University in New Jersey.
There, he and another missionary lived on the third floor of the Newman Catholic Center, one floor above a Catholic priest who also worked on campus.
“I think that helped me to see the priest as a human being,” and to realize the obvious, he said, that a priest has parents and siblings, and does ordinary things like paperwork, shopping and watching television.
“It just expanded my scope of seeing a priest not just as a priest celebrating Mass on Sunday, but all the other things they do." And as he began to believe that God might be calling him to a vocation, that was eye-opening and appealing.
A source of pride
For the past eight years, Father Galvin's job has been to nurture priestly vocations.
The more than 228,000 practicing Catholics in the Norwich diocese have just 99 diocesan priests to minister to them. Another 48 priests who are members of religious orders help in the diocese’s 76 parishes but are not assigned to churches.
"We know the need for priests is great," he said. “How many (diocesan priests) would we like to have? What’s 76 times two — 175 would be perfect.”
The church uses a practice called “yoking” to deal with the shortage of priests, linking parishes that are geographically close so they can share priests and responsibilities. The separate parishes continue, but one pastor oversees several churches and services.
In the Bovinos' own parish, St. Michael the Archangel, the Rev. Dennis Perkins also serves as pastor of St. Mary Church in Stonington borough and St. Thomas More Church in North Stonington.
“Growing vocations is highly important,” Galvin said. The bishop of the diocese, the Most Rev. Michael J. Cote, “heard the angst of a lot of parishioners around the diocese” years ago when they were calling for more English-speaking priests.
“We want to grow our home vocations,” he said. “We know the need is great, yet we have to be patient.”
The six-year seminary process allows time for study and discernment, he said, so both the seminarian and the church can be certain the candidate is making the right decision.
"This whole idea of discernment is just the different stages of figuring out in life what we're doing," similar to the process of deciding to marry or to embark on any other major commitment, he said.
As for Michael Bovino, Galvin said, “He’s not just discerning by himself, but with the help of the diocese and the church, looking at his skills, academic and spiritual life, and looking to see, are there priestly characteristics there?”
According to Father Perkins, if Bovino is ordained, he will be the 19th priest in 150 years to come out of St. Michael. “It is a source of pride for the parish when someone from the parish goes to be a priest,” he said.
It is also a source of pride for the family.
It was just about a year ago, in March 2014, when Michael Bovino called home to say he would apply to the seminary.
His mother answered the phone.
"She was very supportive and encouraging," he recalled. "I didn't expect anything different from my parents."
“I was in the clouds,” said Mario Bovino, Michael's paternal grandfather, who lives with the family in Pawcatuck.
“He’s very proud of his grandson, and actually said he’s praying that not just one grandson, but all four of them, become priests,” Paula Bovino said. “And I said, ‘Grandpa, we would like to be grandparents at least once!’”
Michael Bovino remembers the day last summer at Sunday Mass when Father Perkins asked him to stand up and be recognized for choosing the seminary.
“Everyone was very supportive and applauded, and then afterwards, after Mass, everyone, especially the women, came up to my mom to congratulate her,” Bovino said. “It’s almost like they could relate better to her having a son going to the seminary than (to) me.”
“A lot of guys, when they applied, they did not have the support of their family,” he said. “A lot of parents, their hearts are molded, and I’m sure it is difficult to know that your parents don’t support you when you are going to seminary.”
Bovino said he’s received only encouragement from friends and his home and church community, but especially from his family, particularly his grandfather.
“I am 86 years of age and I am praying I can wait another five or six years so Michael can give me the last rites,” Mario Bovino said. “Whenever Michael is home, we are real buddy-buddy. I don’t drive anymore, but Michael will drive me around, and when he’s home, we are a pair.”
“He is like the light in the household,” Paula Bovino said of her son. “When Michael walks in, he just smiles. And when you are in a bad mood, he just smiles.”
“Whatever Michael has chosen to do, we’ve stood behind him,” his father, Mike Bovino said, adding that he has watched his son grow in the past couple of years. “I almost think it’s like a light went on, and it changed him from the shy, quiet kid he was to more outgoing. We’ve always stood behind him and told him, whatever you do, just be the best that you can be and we will support you 110 percent.”
'Greatly favored by God'
When the Rev. Kevin M. Reilly of St. Patrick Church in Mystic talked about his own decision to enter the seminary, it struck a chord with one of his parishioners, Coach Massengale.
“He talked to us about when he was called to the church, and when he was addressing this, I thought, I’m gonna reach out to Mike. I want to touch base with him,” he said.
After speaking to Bovino’s mother, the coach messaged his former student and athlete.
“I never would have seen this coming,” he said of Bovino’s decision to enter the seminary, “but at the same time, it was not a surprise to me when I heard of it.”
The coach said he’s already looking forward to attending Bovino’s ordination and told a former student that he plans to post Bovino’s photo outside the classroom with photos of former team members who have gone on to play football in college.
“It just makes me really proud to know him ... to know a person who has had this experience,” Massengale said.
This past Tuesday was Michael Bovino's 25th birthday. He celebrated that day by participating in the diocese's annual Chrism Mass at the Cathedral of St. Patrick in Norwich, where Bishop Cote, joined by representatives of all 76 parishes, blessed the oils used in sacramental ceremonies.
This Mass dates back to the earliest origins of the Catholic Church, and is considered the most interactive and unifying diocesan event of the year. Bovino, whose role was book bearer, joined other seminarians from the diocese, as well as deacons and priests, in the high ceremony.
Cote asked the congregation to pray for vocations at the Mass and had the participating seminarians stand and be recognized.
"They are a fine group of young men and we have been greatly favored by God," he said.
Bovino said he feels his personal relationship with God growing.
"I'm in a place of more peace, certitude, about staying in the seminary," he said. "I’m taking it day to day, trying to focus, and to be closer to God and more like Jesus. And I’m trusting that if that means being in the seminary and being a priest, or, if it means someday leaving the seminary and getting married, then thank God for that as well.
"I'm just taking it day to day, and it's amazing just being here walking alongside the Lord."