Father David Boettner walks the faith on long sojourn toward greater spiritual understanding
When Father David Boettner, pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral, returned to Knoxville Nov. 19 from a four-month sabbatical, parishioners and Sacred Heart Cathedral School students gave him a rousing welcome home.
It was a fitting end to not only his studies in Rome but also to a spiritual journey where he walked some 600 miles over 33 days, a pilgrimage that took him from Lourdes, France, across the Pyrenees Mountains to Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
When he began forming the sabbatical in 2010, he planned a pilgrimage that would challenge him physically and spiritually. And while a 600-mile trip by foot would intimidate most people, he embraced the test.
In fact, it wasn’t a complete stretch for the priest who is in his 19th year of religious service to the Diocese of Knoxville. Father Boettner is an experienced hiker who often walks the Appalachian Trail and other routes in the Great Smoky Mountains and Cherokee National Forest.
The idea of making a sabbatical came from spiritual direction and personal reflection on the gift of priesthood. Father Boettner said he felt a strong desire to engage in deep theological studies again as well as having the time for prayerful reflection.
“A sabbatical opportunity is a time to step out of the flow of your normal ministries and relook at the way you engage in ministry,” he said. “I wanted to update my theological studies in an intentional way.”
There were three parts to his plan: extended time for prayer and reflection; to study and read more deeply; and to do a solo pilgrimage in thanksgiving for the gift of his priesthood.
His studies would take him to the Institute for Continuing Theological Education based at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.
Then there were three parts to the pilgrimage itself.
It began in Lourdes, France, on July 19, where he spent two days praying for the pilgrimage. He then traveled by train to St. Jean Pied de Port, France, at the foot of the Pyrenees, where his trek began.
“I knew that prayer was an essential part of preparing for the pilgrimage. Lourdes was the perfect place to pray and prepare for it,” Father Boettner explained.
And while he usually plans every detail of a trip, he intentionally left some steps unplanned as a way to walk closer with God.
“I wanted to be more open and more serendipitous. The point of a pilgrimage is you have to let yourself be led. I wasn’t worried,” he said. “That was the theme of the whole sabbatical. Trust in God and he will do everything for you. Even as unfamiliar as everything was, it wasn’t scary.”
Traveling by himself, carrying only a 20-pound backpack with provisions, he occasionally would walk with small groups making the same trek. Averaging about 20 miles a day, he would hike from daybreak to dusk, sleeping in hostels along the way.
“Everyday was full of wonder and of the amazing presence of God,” Father Boettner said. “There was an overwhelming sense of gratitude. It was a journey of gratitude for everything God has put in my life.”
His pilgrimage concluded in Santiago de Compostela and Finisterre, Spain, on the country’s west coast. He flew from there to Rome on Sept. 4, where he began his studies in theology and Scripture at the Pontifical North American College.
Father Boettner studied Scripture under Father Craig Morrison, OCarm, and theology under Scripture scholar Scott Brodeur. Also, he studied biomedical ethics with Father Mark Attard, OCarm, and with the Congregation for the Causes of Saints under Monsignor Robert Sarno, who worked on the recent canonizations of Sts. Marianne Cope and Kateri Tekakwitha. He studied liturgy under Father Jim Moroney, rector of the St. John Seminary in Brighton, Mass.
“We had a wealth of experts in their field. Hopefully this makes me a better priest, a better pastor and a little smarter,” Father Boettner said, noting that his visits to France, Spain, Italy and a 10-day trip to the Holy Land, which was his first time there, are helping him understand the universality of the Church. “It has given me so much food for my ministry.”
Before he left Knoxville in July, Father Boettner developed a blog called Peregrinus (Latin for “pilgrim”) about his travels. He chronicled the pilgrimage daily, complete with photos taken with his Droid Incredible 2 smart phone. Pam Rhoades, Sacred Heart Cathedral School’s communications director, compiled Father Boettner’s posts and photos and edited the blog.
Looking back on the past four months, Father Boettner describes the sabbatical as a “challenging experience” that tested him mentally, physically and spiritually. It was an experience he knows he can’t recreate.
“You can’t ever recapture a pilgrimage because you will be different next time you go,” he said, adding that he will reflect on the sabbatical experience for the rest of his life. “Pilgrims never stop being a pilgrim. They may not be on a trail, but they’re still a pilgrim.”