Lawyer's fast track leads to priesthood

June 03, 1994|By Mike KlingamanFrank P. L. Somerville | Mike KlingamanFrank P. L. Somerville,Sun Staff Writer

As a Harvard-trained lawyer, Richard J. Bozzelli had many clients and causes. Now there is just one: the Roman Catholic Church.

"God called me to the priesthood through the legal profession," he says.

Mr. Bozzelli, 33, is one of six men being ordained by the Archdiocese of Baltimore at 10 a.m. tomorrow at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.

His journey to this calling was one of arduous self-examination. "The hardest part is making the judgment about yourself, that you're good enough to be a priest, a holy person," he says.

Mr. Bozzelli need not worry, his close friends say.

"He'll be a superlative priest in the same way he was a superlative lawyer," says Deb Jeffrey, a partner in a Washington, D.C., law firm and a classmate at Harvard. "He was regarded as a big brain and a person with very, very good judgment.

"He was really on the fast track in law circles. The sky was the limit for him."

It still is.

Mr. Bozzelli is not simply following a trend. In the past 20 years, the number of American priests has declined as the Catholic population has increased.

Nothing in his childhood suggested a career in the clergy. The son of an oil executive, he grew up in an affluent suburb of Philadelphia and attended public school. The family went to church each week, and that was the extent of Mr. Bozzelli's early religion. He was never an altar boy.

He didn't cry at his grandmother's funeral, which surprised his relatives but made sense to the 14-year-old boy.

"I wasn't upset because it wasn't her in that coffin," he says. The episode "confirmed for me the difference between body and soul."

As a straight-arrow youth determined to achieve, he breezed through high school: honor student, actor, musician, newspaper editor. After being accepted by the Johns Hopkins University, the young man and his parents huddled around the kitchen table to choose his career path. Law won out. The priesthood never entered anyone's mind.

Not until his final year at Hopkins in 1982 did Mr. Bozzelli entertain even the faintest of thoughts about becoming a pastor.

While in college, he attended church regularly at SS. Philip and James, a friendly, family-oriented parish five blocks from campus. Mr. Bozzelli also found time to tutor disadvantaged city youths.

Something about the church and the community work pulled at him and stuck in his mind.

But he shook off such "dreamy thoughts." He graduated with honors in political science and headed for Harvard, one of five prestigious law schools that accepted him.

There, good grades and honors continued -- Mr. Bozzelli was named editor of the Harvard Journal on Legislation.

He also joined a Big Brothers program, got to know a local parish priest and organized a group of Catholic law students for weekly discussions of religion.

Before one of those meetings, a female classmate popped The Question: Had he ever thought of becoming a priest?

He nodded. "But it won't happen," he said.

The woman looked at him. "It will happen," she said.

Relief swept over Mr. Bozzelli. For the first time, someone else had seen the potential. "For years, I had dismissed [the priesthood] as a fantasy," he says. "My fear had been telling people that I was considering being a priest, only for them to say, 'Why would you want to do that?' "

But the idea remained just that. In 1985, Mr. Bozzelli received his law degree and joined Piper & Marbury, a large Baltimore firm. For two years, he threw himself into the work, carving his niche.

At home, he began keeping a journal reflecting the private thoughts of a man nearing a personal crossroads. Gradually, that journey pointed toward the clergy. He often wrote for hours, playing devil's advocate by asking himself questions such as, "Are you running away from something?" and "What makes you think you'd be a good priest?"

Meanwhile, his law career flourished. In 1987, Mr. Bozzelli accepted an important post with the Federal Communications Commission in Washington as special assistant to the general counsel.

He moved to Bethesda, to an apartment within sight of a Catholic church -- Our Lady of Lourdes, just across the street.

For two years, he successfully juggled his FCC job and an increasing load of church work. Mr. Bozzelli attended daily Mass, served on the parish council and acted as church lector, reading the scripture at regular services.

Weekdays, he advised government officials on the intricacies of mass media law. Weekends, he toiled at an area soup kitchen, chopping vegetables and mopping floors.

Twice, Mr. Bozzelli was offered government promotions but declined.

"Being a lawyer was what I did. It didn't define who I was," he says. "The career looked good on the outside, but on the inside I was saying, 'Who are you kidding?' "

Then came a third offer of promotion, better than the others. Again, Mr. Bozzelli turned it down. The successful young attorney next summoned his courage, went to see his parish priest and declared his intention to enter a seminary.

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