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Chicago priest off to minister to House


How was your week?” Fr. Daniel P. Coughlin asked parishioners during Mass on Sunday, March 26, at St. Clement’s Church in Chicago, where he has been a resident priest for the past several years. The congregation laughed at the sly question, since Coughlin had on Wednesday been appointed the first Catholic chaplain to the House of Representatives in the 211-year history of the legislative body.

At 65, Dan Coughlin still looks like an altar boy. That isn’t surprising when one considers that his 85-year-old mother, Lucille, is an usher at Wrigley Field, home to the Chicago Cubs. They each appear to have genes inherited from Methuselah. (Coughlin’s father, an Irish immigrant, died 20 years ago. The priest has a brother in Chicago and a sister in Phoenix.)

Coughlin has had years of political experience in the church. It’s not likely that a member of Congress will rattle him. He can be as prudent as a tailor in a fat men’s clothing store.

For nearly 40 years since his ordination in 1960, Coughlin has lived close to the eternal flame at Chicago’s Pastoral Center (read chancery). He often made the terna (or slate) of might-be bishops spun out by the clerical gossip mills. He served in several parishes, including Holy Name Cathedral. He had a brief stint as pastor of St. Francis Xavier in LaGrange, Ill.

Coughlin has a graduate degree in pastoral studies from Loyola University and worked on the Environment and Art Committee for the Chicago archdiocese. He served overseas with the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta and was a scholar in residence at the North American College in Rome.

For nearly five years he has been the co-vicar for priests in the archdiocese, a sensitive position generally reserved for priests who enjoy both the support of the bishop and the priest corps. The position sometimes involves dealing with troubled priests - men who would be summarily terminated for lesser conflicts in other professions. The effort often leaves the vicar more muddied than the troubled priest.

Coughlin’s term as vicar was to expire in June, and his successor, Fr. James T. Kaczorowski, had already been appointed and cheered as a popular Polish appointment as well as a man fluent in Spanish. In all likelihood, Coughlin would have been rewarded with a parish dipped in butter to serve out his final years on active duty. (As a rule, Chicago clergy serve until age 70.)

The chaplain’s position, which carries a stipend an estimated five times that of a Chicago priest, should keep Coughlin from having to hold drop parties on his Golden Jubilee.

The appointment was a surprise. Coughlin was called for an interview on Monday, March 20 - the first hint that his biretta was in the ring. On Wednesday, he received a second call from House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s office and was asked to be on the next plane to Washington. He was sworn in immediately.

Hastert, angry after four months of rancor on a relatively minor issue, was determined to get the matter behind him. He had been accused of anti-Catholic bias because at first he backed a Presbyterian for the chaplain’s job, although a Catholic priest had received the most votes of a bipartisan committee, created by Hastert. The committee submitted a three-candidate list without the vote tally and in alphabetical order.

When Hastert named the Presbyterian minister, Democrats on the committee said they did not understand why the committee’s first choice was not selected. They said the priest, in a final round of interviews, had been asked about his clerical collar and the ability of one who is celibate to counsel married couples, questions Democratic committee members said were inappropriate.

The quarrel colored other congressional issues as well as the Republican primary campaign. Even in making the announcement of Coughlin’s historic appointment, Hastert castigated Democrats for “bringing shame on the House.”

The appointment not only boosted Coughlin to a position with more visibility than many bishoprics; it also underlined the emerging clout of Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George. With New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor and Washington’s Cardinal James Hickey both 80 years old and ailing, Hastert, an Illinois Republican and a Protestant, turned to George several weeks ago and asked him to recommend a candidate, as reported in both the Chicago Tribune and New York Times.

Hastert had invited George as his guest to President Clinton’s State of the Union address, where the cardinal sat with the speaker’s wife and earned a lot of face time during Clinton’s 90-minute speech.

Coughlin will open the session each morning with a prayer and serve as pastor to the 435-member body and their staffs. The bureaucracy makes for a huge parish. In addition, the chaplain is often called upon to speak at church and political gatherings.

The New York Times announced Coughlin’s appointment with a front-page picture. It was a story that normally merited a back-page paragraph, but the Times reported that tempers had gotten so heated that some members of Congress were minded to eliminate the chaplain’s position entirely. Other reports hinted that some legislators had reservations about a celibate chaplain counseling married members. Further, almost invisible in the background but a consideration nonetheless, it was likely that the abortion issue clouded the debate.

Asked if some members of Congress were wary that a Catholic chaplain would introduce the issue in the opening prayer or would use his good offices to lobby Catholic Congress members about their obligations, one Washington priest close to the Congress, who declined to be quoted, said: “You hit the nail on the head.”

It isn’t likely that Daniel Coughlin will be controversial. As a member of St. Clement’s Parish, where Coughlin has been in residence, this columist had heard Coughlin speak often. His style can be dramatic, a kind of verbal pointillism - thoughts delivered as dots and short brushstrokes. Of late, his sentiments have become more outspoken, characteristic of a priest on the back nine of his career. He has a well-modulated voice and a gentle demeanor, and he is good at working the curb after Mass.

Chances are he will have to rein in a bit. While the chamber is virtually empty during the opening prayer, the chaplain’s sentiments appear in the Congressional Record. Further, unlike the elected members’ thoughts, the chaplain’s cannot be edited.

Coughlin’s appointment was received gracefully by his Chicago clerical colleagues. “He’s not exactly long on pastoral experience,” one priest said. “But he’ll do all right.” More important, his patron, George, is not the kind of bishop who would pressure the chaplain to introduce a point of view. Clearly, George did not put him through a punch list before passing on his name to Hastert. George is conservative but he doesn’t clone clergy.

The media were all over the patio outside St. Clement’s for the early Masses. “Any pastor wants to be welcomed,” Coughlin told the congregation, “and I feel welcomed.”

“I leave here with a sense of ministry,” he continued. “I will pray by being present to all the members of the House - one House, undivided, with liberty and justice for all.”

During a brief, private interview prior to his departure Mass, Coughlin told this columnist that he had been using a prayer from Thoughts in Solitude by the late Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. Coughlin was praying for his next assignment, without a thought about the Congressional post.

“My Lord God,” Merton’s prayer read, “I have no idea where I am going. ... Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. ... And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.”

The prayer seemed to fit.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he models chasubles for the Acme Vestment Company. He’s at unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, April 7, 2000