“I will always receive you with gentleness.”
Blessed Father Francis Xavier Seelos had a way with people that made them want to be led to repentance, to reconciliation, to Christ.
“He was always available, always receptive to the people he served,” said Redemptorist Father Richard Boever, author of Zealous Missionary: From the Perspective of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos. “That’s what made him such a great confessor.”
Fr. Boever’s book, recently published by Liguori Publications, is a first-person narrative of a beloved 19th-century German missionary to the United States.
The author, formerly administrator of Holy Cross Parish in Cuba, St. Francis Caracciolo Parish in Bourbon and St. Michael Parish in Steelville, is currently the executive director of the National Shrine of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos in New Orleans (seelos.org).
“This is where the devotion to him really sprang up and has continued for all these years,” Fr. Boever noted.
Born in 1818, Blessed Fr. Seelos left a comfortable life in the Bavarian Alps of Germany at age 24 in order to help minister to the swelling population of German Catholics in the United States.
He joined the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, known as the Redemptorists, a worldwide congregation of priests and brothers founded in Italy to preach the Good News to people who are poor, marginalized and overlooked.
Fr. Seelos was ordained to the Holy Priesthood in 1844. He ministered in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Louisiana.
He was stationed at St. Philomena Parish in Pittsburgh at the same time as Father (now St.) John Neumann and another revered priest, all Redemptorists.
Pittsburgh’s bishop at that time remarked, “I have three saints at St. Philomena.”
Blessed Seelos’s life has inspired several ambitious tomes of hundreds of pages and as many footnotes.
Fr. Boever’s 108-page approach is different.
“There are good biographies available, but I decided to write something more accessible,” he said. “I wanted to make a book that was more reasonable in size for people who want to know something about him but don’t have time to digest 400 pages.”
Using the style and language of letters written by the zealous missionary, Fr. Boever writes as if he were Blessed Seelos telling his own story.
“There’s some poetic license in it, but there’s nothing historically untrue in it,” said Fr. Boever. “It’s all based in history.”
Readers will come face-to-face with a mission-minded priest whose desire to be a pastor was always balanced with the needs of his order.
Blessed Seelos was assigned to parishes but usually also taught and helped form future Redemptorists.
He narrowly escaped being appointed bishop of Pittsburgh — a role he knew would be difficult for him.
Upon settling in as a pastor in New Orleans, he chose not to flee during a yellow fever outbreak. He stayed behind to comfort and minister to the afflicted.
He caught the disease and died in 1867.
People began asking him to lift up their needs before the throne of God in heaven. Many attested to favors granted by God through Fr. Seelos’s intercession.
St. John Paul II beatified him in 2000, bestowing on him the title “Blessed.”
Was here for a time
Fr. Boever has been a priest for 47 years and a Redemptorist for over 50.
He has served as a parish priest and pastor in Missouri and Illinois, taught theology at Newman University in Wichita, Kansas, and Saint Louis University in St. Louis, served as a university chaplain and directed formation for the Redemptorist pre-formation program.
He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the spirituality of Blessed Seelos’s Redemptorist contemporary, St. John Neumann, and served for five years as a research expert at the St. John Neumann Shrine in Philadelphia.
He was pastor of St. Gerard Majella Parish in St. Louis County when the Redemptorist Fathers turned it over to the St. Louis archdiocese.
His successor there was Monsignor (now Bishop Emeritus) John R. Gaydos.
Several years later, Bishop Gaydos invited Fr. Boever to spend part of his summer filling in for priests in this diocese who were sick or were traveling.
Fr. Boever wound up serving from 2014-19 as the priest for the Cuba, Bourbon and Steelville parishes, which he and his parishioners came to refer to as the Catholic Parishes of Crawford County.
“We were one — one parish council, one school, one administrative office,” he recalled.
He enjoyed the friendship and camaraderie he experienced in this diocese.
“It was a wonderful time for me,” he said. “I think just being with the people and spending time with them in their own natural settings — something simple like helping them butcher — was what I liked the most. That connection was so valuable.”
Near the end of his tenure here, he got to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his religious profession in the Redemptorists.
“The people organized a potluck and there was so much food!” he recalled. “There were lines of tables with food on them. And I couldn’t believe how many people came.”
Pilgrims and supplicants
After leading parish missions around the country for a year as a member of the Redemptorist community in Liguori, Missouri, Fr. Boever was appointed executive director of the Blessed Seelos Shrine in New Orleans.
“They thought of me to come down here because I had done all that work on St. John Neumann, who was a Redemptorist from the same time period,” he noted. “I knew the background, so I could work with Blessed Seelos, as well.”
His time in New Orleans has been interesting, seasoned so far by COVID-19 and several jarring weather events.
“We finally got the electricity back in the shrine,” he said on Sept. 24, several weeks after Hurricane Ida made landfall on the Gulf Coast.
“But we’re doing fine,” he said. “I can’t complain one bit.”
He enjoys ministering to the pilgrims and visitors to the shrine.
“We have a tremendous number of pilgrims,” he said. “It’s a place of quiet, of peace. People come with their prayers and ask for Blessed Seelos’s intercession.”
Fr. Boever read everything he could get his hands on about Blessed Seelos, including books, letters and other records of his life and ministry.
That eventually led to his latest book.
“The challenge with the first-person approach is to speak in the voice of the person you’re writing about, to figure out not what I would like to say about him, but what he would want me to say about him,” Fr. Boever stated.
He believes that although most of the Church’s charitable works in this country were carried out by parish priests and members of religious orders in Blessed Seelos’s time, laypeople can find lessons and inspiration in his story.
“He lived at a time when there were more immigrants in this country than the Church in America could handle,” Fr. Boever noted. “Many of them were ‘the least among us,’ and Blessed Seelos came here as a missionary to serve them with openness and joy.
“Today, we still find immigrants to be among the most abandoned and marginalized,” said Fr. Boever. “Since Vatican II, we Redemptorists now have lay oblates working among us. We try to instill in laypeople the charism of our founder. They now participate in our mission as much as the priests and brothers do.”
More to come
Taking a similar first-person approach to St. John Neumann, Fr. Boever has written a second book, Pastoral Dynamo: From the Perspective of St. John Neumann, which Liguori Publications will release in December.
Like Zealous Missionary, it is a labor of love and reverence.
“You have to do a lot of studying to be able to take on someone else’s persona,” Fr. Boever noted. “You have to have the feel for it.”
Both books are available from Liguori Publishing at Liguori.org.
More information about Blessed Father Francis Xavier Seelos can be found at seelos.org.