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 Catholic memory?
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 priesthood.
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 your work?
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 military service?
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 supported.
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.