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From family man to man of God: Jim Bors' seminary story


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By Nancy Lavin | February 16, 2018

Jim Bors Mount St. Mary's SeminarianA woven tapestry depicting the Virgin Mary cradling baby Jesus hangs on the wall above Jim Bors’ bed.

The artwork fits the setting: the dormitory at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, where Jim is studying to become a priest.

But when Jim looks at the image, he sees not just the love between holy mother and son. He also sees his late wife, Shirley, and the compassion and encouragement with which she raised their two sons, Michael and Jeff.

Conversation comes easily to Jim, 56. He smiles often as he speaks, hand movements punctuating his sentences. He grows even more animated when he talks about Shirley. He laughs as he recalls knocking on the door of every house with a white station wagon in the driveway in the small Idaho town where they met. He didn’t know her name then, but he was desperate to find the girl he saw at the church picnic.

His tone is reverent as he remembers her later, as a mother to their two sons.

“She was so good with identifying and discerning what each of our boys were good at and where their strengths were,” he said.

One of those sons, Michael, who’s pursuing a master’s degree in philosophy at the Catholic University of America in D.C., shares Jim’s introspective, philosophical mindset. Jeff, the other son and an officer with the U.S. Coast Guard stationed in Hawaii, has his dad’s mechanical inclinations and love of sports.

Jim’s voice grows quieter, though, when he talks about Shirley’s mental illness, a struggle that, exacerbated by a bad reaction to medication intended to treat her disease, led to her suicide in 2010. She was 50.

Her death was completely unexpected.

“Devastating,” Jim said.

Overnight, he became a single father of then-teenage boys. The hectic pace he had maintained — juggling travel for work, church activities and time with family — came to an instant halt.

“It was like hitting a brick wall,” Jim recalled. “Up until that point, I had never really slowed down in my whole life, had never really experienced suffering.”

In his grief, he turned to God, and became, in his words, “just totally dependent on him.”

Even in his loss, he never doubted his faith or blamed God. Instead, religion is what gave him comfort in those moments of questioning and hurt.

So avid and apparent was his devotion that within six months of his wife’s death, members of his congregation began asking him if he thought about becoming a priest, he said.

FROM FAMILY MAN TO MAN OF GOD

His initial response, “no,” eventually gave way to consideration, and later, serious contemplation of the vocation. He delayed the decision in part so he could continue to be a father to his two sons.

Jeff, his younger son, noticed his dad’s commitment to their church and to his faith growing stronger after his mom died. In retrospect, Jeff realized moments when his dad hinted at his vocational aspirations.

“We thought he was joking,” Jeff recalled of his and his brother Mike’s reactions to those references.

Jim’s desire to become a priest intensified as the years passed. As his boys grew up and became independent, moving away to pursue college and careers, Jim decided the time had come to voice his inner calling to his children.

It was during a trip to Europe in 2015, sitting in a restaurant in France, when Jim made his pitch. He posed it as a question about the various options he could pursue in his own life: another marriage, remaining single, and becoming a priest among them. He then shared his own answer.

“I think I probably had my fork in midair for like 30 minutes just talking to them,” Jim recalled.

He vowed that if his sons opposed the idea, he would end the discussion there. But their response was positive, “supportive,” Jim said.

Jeff characterized his reaction similarly.

“My initial reaction was ‘yes,’” he recalled in a phone interview Tuesday. “Then when I thought about more, it was a little weird. Like, you’re not a priest; you’re my dad.”

Michael progressed in somewhat the opposite manner.

“My first feeling was astonishment, because the idea was so out of the ordinary — I had never before imagined my father becoming a priest,” Michael wrote in an email Wednesday. “When the idea had settled more, I realized that his desire fit with his lifelong commitment to living and sharing the Gospel.”

There are still moments when Jeff has found it unsettling.

For example, asked whether he considered himself religious, Jeff answered “somewhat.”

He went on to explain, “Most of my friends would probably say I am deeply religious, but when I compare myself to my dad, it kind of skews my views a little bit.”

Jeff later said he was glad his dad had found a new purpose and in a way, a new family to guide after losing his wife to suicide and, in some sense, also losing his children to adulthood.

FINDING GOD

Jim never contemplated the priesthood during his childhood, despite a strong Catholic upbringing, he said. If anything, he remembered the annoyance he and his siblings shared at their parents’ insistence on attending Mass even while on vacation.

He played sports in high school, with an interest in “mechanical things,” which informed his decision to study mechanical engineering at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. It was there, in a nondenominational Bible study with his fellow midshipmen, that he experienced “one of those God moments,” as he put it.

Seeing his classmates’ pervasive passion for God gave him a different perspective on faith, on how to make it his own, on how to take it outside the four walls of church on Sundays and into all aspects of his life. Still, he had no inklings toward priesthood at the time.

“If anything, the influence of my Protestant friends encouraged me to live my life as a Christian where I was a layperson,” he said.

His faith persisted postgraduation during months of training in preparation for his deployment on a nuclear submarine in Pearl Harbor. Training led him to Idaho — and to the church picnic where he met his future wife, Shirley.

He spotted her with her nieces and nephews, struck both by her beauty and her obvious knack for caring for children.

“I just noticed how graceful she was with them,” he recalled.

He finally found the girl — not by knocking on doors, but later, by asking the pastor for her name and looking up her number in the phone book — ensuing in a whirlwind of four months of dating at the end of which, about to head to his assignment in Hawaii, he proposed. They married four months later.

After his deployment in Hawaii ended, the couple returned to Annapolis, where Jim served as an instructor for the Naval Academy. Having returned to familiar, more permanent territory, he became involved with a local church, leading Bible studies and prayer groups. Shirley served as a lector, reading the Bible passages at Mass, although Jim acknowledged she was not as active in her faith as he.

His decision to leave the Navy — ironically, because he wanted to spend more time with his family — also opened up a new avenue for sharing his faith with others. His switch to the private sector, as consultant and project manager for a series of manufacturing companies, necessitated frequent travel to national and international destinations.

His goal to spend more time at home didn’t turn out as he hoped, but, determined to seize the opportunity before him, Jim began using the long plane rides to share his faith with others.

SHARING THE FAITH

Jim’s evangelization approach was very specific — casual but honed by experience.

He started with general questions, the standard conversation between a pair of seat-mates on an airplane. Gradually, he would turn to more specific topics that subtly gave way to a discussion about faith and God.

Not everyone was interested. But Jim found that, in most cases, his openness inspired others to follow suit.

The rare occasions in which he met someone who was unfamiliar with faith and God were particularly meaningful, opportunities to plant a seed, regardless of whether his evangelization message was taken to heart.

He employs that same tactic now in his seminary work.

Jim’s current pastoral assignment — an outreach component that sends seminarians into the community to put their spiritual and academic teachings into practice — sends him to St. Maria Goretti High School in Hagerstown, where he and another seminarian teach high school seniors. Other assignments, determined by seminary faculty, send students to prisons, hospitals and nearby parishes, with locations rotated on an annual basis.

On Wednesday, Jim taught a class at St. Maria Goretti about human suffering by posing a series of questions to the dozen students seated before him.

“Yes!” he responded enthusiastically when a student answered a question as he had hoped. He didn’t elaborate much before moving on to a new question.

“I like taking the Socratic approach,” he explained after the lesson ended. “I want to engage them, to help them to think critically at this time when they are facing all these things ... going off to college, peer pressure ... and the role faith can play.”

Theresa Doub, chairwoman for the school’s religion department, also spoke to the value of Jim’s philosophy-centered approach for her students.

“What Jim does is this beautiful blending of philosophy and theology together, showing how we can come to understand God through logic and reason, that faith and reason go together,” Doub said.

Jim named extending his service beyond the walls of the church, to the community and particularly the poor, as a focus of his priestly pursuit.

Last fall, he started a volunteer project at the seminary delivering turkeys and groceries to the homes of low-income families in northern Frederick and Adams counties at Thanksgiving. The simple grocery drop-off in turn led to conversation and personal connections — his intent all along.

“There’s a lot of good ways to serve the poor,” he said. “What I really wanted is for us seminarians to actively meet the poor people where they live ... to establish that connection between the seminary and the community.”

Asked whether he thought words or actions were more important for priests to use, he answered, “you need both.”

‘A GIFT’

Despite the years and experiences that separate them, Jim feels a kinship with the mostly younger seminarians, in part because they remind him of his own, 20-something sons. Their shared vocational calling also creates a sense of closeness between seminarians of all ages, as does their physical proximity to one another in the shared dormitories.

Trading in his house for a dorm room never fazed Bors, he said. After a career of living out of suitcases and shuttling between hotel rooms, he enjoys the permanency. He has made the room feel like home, lining it with bookshelves and family photographs. A glass beverage dispenser containing a murky brown liquid sits on the corner of his desk: the fruits of his kombucha brewing operation.

He welcomed the change to becoming a student after 25 years in the workforce. For a man who never slowed down, who found himself constantly juggling professional, personal and spiritual life, the opportunity to focus on a single pursuit was, in Jim’s words, “a pure gift.”

Even the strict schedule — regular morning Masses and daily meditation times along with classes, trips to St. Maria Goretti and other activities — is more freeing than restrictive, he said.

“In my classes, I’m reading the greatest books that have ever been written,” he said. “I’m in the company of great men who have the same desire I have. I am just so grateful for this whole experience.”

Now in his third year of the six-year program, he’s in no hurry to cut short his remaining studies. But he’s eager, too, for the next steps: ordination and leading his own parish.

He feels Shirley’s presence with him every step of the way.

“I think of her every day,” he said. “First thing in the morning, when I wake up, in my prayers, always.”

Although the Catholic Church considers suicide a sin, it also teaches that God welcomes anyone who asks for forgiveness at any point, even in the final moments of life. Jim feels at peace imagining this was the case for Shirley.

He emphasized, too, that he chooses to remember her for her life, not her death.

Asked what he thought Shirley would say about his priestly pursuits, he answered, “she wouldn’t be surprised. It obviously wouldn’t have been something she would have thought about because we were married, but ... because it makes me happy, she would want me to.”



Photo courtesy of Bill Green of the Frederick News-Post.

 
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