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Father John McLaughlin has been recruited by the Archdiocese for Military Services to drum up priestly vocations among military personnel.
BY Tim Drake
Father John McLaughlin became the first
vocations director for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, in June.
Although he hasn’t served in the
military, Father McLaughlin has faced both danger and death. Formerly with the
Archdiocese of Boston, Father McLaughlin is now promoting religious vocations
among America’s servicemen and women.
He spoke with Register senior writer
Tim Drake from his office in Washington, D.C.
Where are you from originally?
I’m from Woburn, Mass., 12 miles
north of Boston. We call it the “holy city.” One parish in particular has had
more priests per capita than any parish in the country, with more than 80
priests ordained from it. In 1995, I was the sixth guy ordained in six years.
Tell me about your family.
I have three brothers, all younger.
I grew up Catholic. My parents have a real estate business. They own and
maintain properties. That’s what I used to do before I became a priest.
Do you have a favorite childhood
During confirmation practice, the
priest pulled me up in front to show everyone how the bishop used to slap the
confirmand. He gave me a good slap because I had been talking during practice.
What led to your own vocation?
I was in real estate and owned my
own properties and coached high school wrestling for about 10 years. One night
in 1986, a car accident killed two of my wrestlers on the last day of the
season. My captain was left a quadriplegic, and another young man was left in a
coma. Both of them came from very religious families. John Turner came out of
his coma and is doing well. I baptized two of his children.
I accompanied the other young man,
Tim Donovan, on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje in 1988. Tim was in a wheelchair. I
thought I was taking him on the pilgrimage, but in the end, it was he who was
taking me. That experience brought me back to my faith.
What was it about the pilgrimage
that moved you?
There’s a great peace you get there.
A lot of people look for that peace. I was working, doing what I was supposed
to do, trying to make more money. That didn’t give me the same peace that I got
from the prayer that was going on over there. That propelled me toward the
You also had a profound
experience earlier in your life. Can you tell me about that?
At the age of 20, I was getting
ready for a wrestling tournament and had to cut my weight over Christmas. Two
days before Christmas, my mom, who’s half Italian, was cooking these sauces, so
my brother and I left to go check out the lights in Boston. While walking near
Boston’s Faneuil Hall marketplace, a group of guys threw a bottle at me, and
another hit me from behind with a knife. My brother Gary grabbed me and took me
out of there. I was going to turn to face the guy, so Gary probably saved me.
I was stabbed in the liver and was
saved by Boston Hospital. As I lay there bleeding and getting weaker, all I
could think about was God. I prayed to God to take care of my family and was
also praying for forgiveness so that if I died, I would be with God. As I look
back on my life, I never asked, ‘”Why me?” I was just in the wrong place at the
wrong time, and I needed some help from God. The fact that during one of the
darkest moments I was reaching out to God made an impression on me.
How dire is the need for
Catholic military chaplains?
It’s pretty great. We have around
300 for all the services. When you think of the number of people in the
military and the fact that 24% of them are Catholic, that’s not a great number.
The chaplains can’t be everywhere, so sacramentally — bringing the Eucharist,
anointing the sick and dying, and hearing confessions — they’re not able to
minister to the men and women as they should.
Some dioceses have been really good
about freeing up men for service to the Military Archdiocese, and some haven’t
been supportive — perhaps because they are facing shortages of their own.
You didn’t serve in the military
service yourself. Do you see that as an advantage or disadvantage in your work?
My father was a Marine. The first
song I ever knew as a kid was the Marine Corps hymn. That’s what he used to
rock us to sleep with.
There’s a friendly rivalry among the
services. I say to people that because I wasn’t in the service, I have no
prejudices towards one or the other. I’ve met with many people in my job, and
they don’t care. They just want to talk to you as a priest.
What’s the biggest challenge of
We’re the largest diocese in the
world because we go all over the place. Time management is a big concern. I’m
trying to figure out where to go, what to hit, and when to do it.
Because of the huge distance that I
cover, I can’t randomly stop into all the bases. The chaplains have been
helpful in getting me names and setting up visits.
I’ve been traveling to different
bases and talking to guys who have an interest in religious life. I just got
back from Fort Bragg, where I met with three different guys.
I’m soliciting people to become
priests or religious, but am not just soliciting for the Military Archdiocese.
Priests cannot go into the Military Archdiocese; they have to be sponsored by
another diocese. We do not have people who are priests just for us. If they
want to come into the Military Archdiocese or become priests, I direct
inquirers to their diocese or diocesan vocation director.
The Military Archdiocese hasn’t
had a vocation director until now. Why now?
Why not now? Statistically, about
13% of people in seminaries have military backgrounds. We have a lot of young
people between 18 and 30 years of age who have had life-altering military
experiences. We need to be directing our attention towards them.
After World War II, there was an
incredible spike in vocations. We’re looking at that and what happens after
wars. The Military Archdiocese has been talking about this position for a
while. The question wasn’t if, but when,
they were going to start it.
Is there a longer lag time
between a candidate showing an interest and eventual ordination because of
Some have to wait until their term
of service has ended to come in. We have others that might be able to relax
their military service. The diocesan vocation director can often meet a
candidate and get them in within the next calendar year. That’s not always
possible for us. That’s okay, though, because the people are discerning during
that time whether it’s the right thing.
Are there particular qualities
that make those who have served in the military good candidates for the
priesthood or religious life?
The young people I’ve met are
tremendous. Their sense of duty, discipline, and their willingness to sacrifice
brings them to a willingness to sacrifice for God. I’ve been overwhelmed at the
type of people they are. They’ve seen things, done things, and learned the
discipline of service like no one else.
What can families do to
encourage religious vocations?
That’s the big problem. People
wonder why numbers are going down. Internationally, the numbers in third-world
nations are really high. The comfort level in America is at the highest in
history. That’s part of the reason. Vocations are nurtured. If people aren’t
going to church or talking about the priesthood in the family, it’s not being
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.