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The InterVIEW

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A regular feature of The Catholic New World, The InterVIEW is an in-depth conversation with a person whose words, actions or ideas affect today's Catholic. It may be affirming of faith or confrontational. But it will always be stimulating.

When Father Daniel Coughlin, 73, became the first Catholic priest to serve as Chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2000, the appointment followed months of controversy over whether then Speaker Dennis Hastert’s first choice, a Presbyterian, reflected an anti-Catholic bias.

When the Rev. Charles Parker Wright removed himself for consideration, Hastert, an Illinois Republican, turned to Coughlin on the recommendation of Cardinal George — even though Coughlin had never applied for the job. A native of Chicago and graduate of St. Andrew School, as well as archdiocesan seminaries, Coughlin spoke with assistant editor Michelle Martin during a recent visit he made to the city.

The Catholic New World: What was it like when you were appointed? Did the controversy affect you?

Father Daniel Coughlin: The issue was not whether it was appropriate to have a Catholic chaplain, and the controversy really was not about me. It had stretched into the previous year.

The preceding chaplain, Jim Ford, was the first Lutheran chaplain in history, and after serving 21 years he approached the speaker, Dennis Hastert, and said he was going to be retiring. Mr. Hastert created a committee and they winnowed it down from 72 resumes to three.

The story came out later that over the Thanksgiving break he received the three resumes and called the leadership of both parties in the House and said of the three, he was leaning towards a particular one. Before the holiday weekend was over, there were five political stories out there, one of which was that he was anti- Catholic.

One of the three [candidates] was a Catholic priest from Milwaukee, and [Hastert] wasn’t going in that direction. So he just dropped it, and asked Jim Ford to hold on a little bit more. Everything was up for grabs then.

TCNW: What do you do?

Coughlin: I find that I’m much more busy now. It’s like somebody in a parish — you just know more people and more people know you. It’s all relationships and trust.

Trust is not just built upon Catholic faith. The trust is the chaplaincy. It’s broader than just dealing with Catholics. I get to know some of their families, I get to know their staff.

In the past year, I have had to measure my time. If I’m going to go over to one of the office buildings, it’s a five-minute walk. But now I get stopped by members, or by the police, or a teenage page or someone from the kitchen staff on the way. It’s a little village that way.

It’s not all real heavy and serious. It’s chat, catching up on their families or somebody who was ill, or hearing a story, or referring to somebody else who they think needs my prayers.

The first year I said “yes” to everything. Part of it was finding out where members were. As a Catholic priest, it was a big adjustment. ... They don’t come to me, like on Sunday, when you see them all.

I see them when they’re at work. Entirely different. When are they relaxed? When are they at their best? Most people wouldn’t say at work.

TCNW: What’s it like serving a congregation of many faiths, and none?

Coughlin: I find a great familiarity in conversation as a chaplain with my cohort Barry Black (retired Navy chaplain and Seventh-Day Adventist), who is chaplain for the Senate, but also with military chaplains.

It’s government work, everything is about government decisions, mobilizations and paralysis and sometimes frustration because things aren’t happening. I find a great affinity with military chaplains. Of course, since I went (to Washington), we’ve been at war. But they — on larger bases — usually have a cadre of diverse faiths. I’m there for everyone.

When I started, the first week, I was led around by the hand to the leadership on both sides of the aisle. In that conversation, a few them said, “Whatever you thought about us before” — I never thought about you before, I wanted to say — “whatever you thought about us before, get to know us on a first-name basis.”

TCNW: Has the position of the chaplain there been challenged?

Coughlin: It’s been taken to court since I’m there. ... It really disturbs members, many members, when the chaplaincy or the “under God” phrase is contested in court.

TCNW: How did the job change after Sept. 11?

Coughlin: Before that, people would say, “Are you enjoying it?” The word enjoy would come up readily, and I would say, “Yes, yes. I’m enjoying it. It’s wonderful.”

I don’t say that anymore after Sept. 11. Because on Sept. 11, I learned the meaning of a Latin word: gravitas (“high seriousness”). There’s more to it than just enjoyment. I came to know how seriously members take the chaplaincy and prayer.

It was a memorable day. The only thing Congress did that day was pray. There was a guest chaplain, a Catholic, Father Gerry Creedon from Alexandria.

I went up and asked him, “Have you incorporated anything in your prayer about New York?” Because this is just before 10 a.m. in Washington.

He said, “I thought I would wing it.” And I said, “You can't do that. I need a record.”

He turned over his prepared prayer and wrote just three lines. He was finishing the third line and the pro-tem chair [of Congress] said we’re going in. He gaveled, and he said the prayer would be led by the guest chaplain.

Gerry said the prayer, Amen and the chair gaveled. They didn’t even do the pledge. The only thing Congress did that day was pray. I find that an ironic and wonderful story.