In June Father John McLaughlin left his parish north of Boston to become the first vocations director for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, which serves Catholics in the branches of the U.S. military, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and people in U.S. government service overseas. McLaughlin will travel to bases around the country to build relationships with the chaplains in closest touch with those considering a call to Catholic religious life. Retreats and correspondence with interested troops will follow. He will also speak to military personnel about the possibility of pursuing a religious vocation, said a June 12 Associated Press story by Jay Lindsay.
He and church leaders believe the armed forces offer a promising source of vocations. Members of the military service, he thinks, could be open to service in the church as well. “You start realizing how fragile life is,” he said. “And when people start thinking in those terms, they eventually start thinking about helping people in life.”
Besides facing questions of life and death, service men and women tend to have traits necessary for religious life, including self-discipline and a willingness to sacrifice, said Monsignor James Dixon of the Military Archdiocese.
Church officials estimate 11 percent of seminary students during the last three years have served in the military or had a parent who served. The archdiocese has for a long time reached out to service members but never had the money to hire someone dedicated to that job, Dixon said. “We finally got to the point where we think it’s become an absolute necessity,” he said.
McLaughlin believes he’ll be helping both the church and the troops in his new job. If he succeeds in recruiting more priests to dioceses, he said, those dioceses may be more likely to allow their priests to serve in the military, where the priest shortage is particularly acute.
In the Army, for instance, only 100 priests serve more than 105,000 Catholic soldiers, said Chaplain Ran Dolinger, a spokesman at the Army’s office of Chief of Chaplains.
Army chaplain Paul Hurley, who attended seminary with McLaughlin in the early 1990s, campaigned for his friend to get the job without McLaughlin’s knowledge. Hurley said McLaughlin has an authenticity and a knack for getting young people to talk about what’s important to them. Those characteristics are crucial when someone is deciding if life as a priest, sister, or brother is right, he said. “He’s got that special touch,” Hurley said. “He finds a way of connecting with people where they’re at.”
A former Boston College wrestler and later a high school coach, McLaughlin, 50, said his first major encounter with God came when he was stabbed in the liver at age 20 while walking near Boston’s Faneuil Hall marketplace. He and his brother were jumped without provocation, he said. As he lay on the street, McLaughlin prayed for forgiveness and for his family. “Even when I faced the worst hardship I turned to God,” McLaughlin said.
His commitment to the priesthood came more than a decade later, after experiencing an overwhelming peace during visits to a Marian shrine. “I thought, this is what God wants me to do, is to tell people about that and bring that peace of God to them,” he said.
“The hope is that they’ll think about it, talk to me about it, and then at the end of their [military] commitment, that’s when they’ll make the decisions,” he said. “All I know is that if I show them I enjoy the priesthood and believe in it, if God wants it to happen, it will happen.”
How do you think the church would best serve those in the military? What do you think are good ways for the church to recruit vocations to religious life among military personnel?