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Lawyer's fast track leads to priesthood

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

The pastor smiled. "That sounds familiar," said the Rev. William O'Donnell, himself a former lawyer for the Department of Justice.

Mr. Bozzelli was stunned. It was, he says, the closest he came to receiving a sign.

"I never had a vision of God asking me to be a priest," he says. "Many times I prayed for one but none came. I had to learn about my gifts, and where my heart was. Then I had to have the guts to acknowledge it."

Mr. Bozzelli left his co-workers, gave away most of his possessions and attended St. Mary's Seminary in Roland Park for four years. What he discovered there surprised him.

"I'd always assumed all priests were former altar boys who entered the seminary at 18," he says. Instead, he found many men his age who were changing careers; four classmates were attorneys, and one seminarian was a 61-year-old retired military officer.

Gradually, Mr. Bozzelli altered his identity. "At first, I thought of myself as a lawyer in the seminary," he says. "Then I became a seminarian who used to be a lawyer."

For the past two years, Mr. Bozzelli has done pastoral work -- student preaching, you might say -- at St. Francis of Assisi in Northeast Baltimore, where he assists at Mass and teaches grade school religion.

He remains a dues-paying member of the Maryland Bar, and his expertise already has helped some parishioners needing legal advice. For instance, Mr. Bozzelli counseled a woman seeking to build a food pantry for the poor on Harford Road.

"God gave me these skills, and I'll use them for His purposes," he says.

Mr. Bozzelli officiated at his first marriage ceremony in January. At the rehearsal, the clergyman, not the groom, had butterflies. To recover his composure, Mr. Bozzelli cracked a joke, suggesting that the couple practice the ceremony from end to beginning.

His sermons during his training have been sprinkled with humor, such as:

St. Peter finds a hole in the fence between heaven and hell, and tells the devil it's his turn to fix it. When the devil refuses, St. Peter threatens to sue him.

"Oh yeah?" says the devil. "And where are YOU going to find a lawyer in heaven?"

Many of his attorney friends will attend Mr. Bozzelli's ordination to honor a man who has decided that the fast track can't hold a candle to the priesthood.

Mr. Bozzelli once told a friend how odd it felt to be ordained at 33, the age at which Christ died.

The friend replied, "Yes, but it's the same age at which He rose to new life." The average age of the six men being ordained tomorrow is 35. In addition to the 33-year-old Mr. Bozzelli, they are:

* Bradley Baldwin, 39, who grew up in the Hamilton section of Baltimore. Before beginning studies for the priesthood in the Franciscan order in 1989, he had been a high school teacher, a fast-food restaurant manager and a warehouse manager. He is a graduate of the Washington Theological Union.

* Raymond Harris, 27, who graduated from Baltimore's Gilman School and Princeton University before beginning studies for the priesthood at St. Mary's Seminary here. He has been active in the Baltimore archdiocesan Office of African American Catholic Ministries.

* David Kruse, 29, who worked for the Econolite Corp. for six years before entering St. Mary's Seminary. He attended Patapsco Senior High School and Southeastern Vocational Technical High School.

* Raymond Martin, 41, a native of Northern Ireland who moved to Baltimore with his family in 1958. Interrupting seminary studies because of doubts about the commitment to celibacy, he worked for banks in Maryland and Florida before returning to St. Mary's Seminary in 1991.

* James Reusing, also 41, who served as a deacon at the Church of the Resurrection in Ellicott City. Before entering St. Mary's Seminary, he worked for several corporations, including Dimension Specialty Co. in Paramus, N.J., of which he was vice president for sales and marketing.

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