Many Catholic chaplains have the mission of serving the faithful. Others, however, are assigned to serve those men and women who serve others. Here are some of their stories.

Deacon Alfred Coleman

chaplain for mens home
Deacon Coleman

Not all labor has visible results.

“You paint a room, and you see that it’s painted,” said Deacon Alfred Coleman. “When you give your faith, you’re not always sure if your presence and time have done anything.”

Deacon Coleman, 49, is director and chaplain of Zacchaeus House, a non-treatment residential home in the Archdiocese of Chicago. In addition to his work with the men, he trains and coordinates volunteers who are assigned as one-on-one mentors.

There are challenges to working with men who are emerging from some of the darkest times of their lives. When some of them seem so broken, volunteers may wonder if they’re really making a difference.

“It’s not like coming here to build anything,” Deacon Coleman said. “I tell them that it’s about being available so that the guys know there’s someone to listen when they’re ready to talk. It’s about helping them find words for their pain and frustration. People who go to adoration grasp the concept of presence. Others may need to be encouraged. It’s important for the volunteers to understand that just listening and praying, and sharing their own experiences, make a difference.”

Caring for each other in those quiet ways, he added, is honoring God’s creation of humanity.

Father Bob McLaughlin

Father Bob McLaughlin said “yes” when asked to become chaplain of the Cedar Grove Fire Department in Cedar Grove, N.J. A year later, he’s also a probationary member-in-training.

“I thought that joining the department would be a way to get to know the firefighters and to experience what they experience,” he said. “This way, I get to spend more time with them.”

firemens chaplain
Father Bob McLaughlin is a firefighter-in-training as well as a chaplain. Courtesy photo

Father McLaughlin, 37, is parochial vicar of St. Catherine of Siena Church. His time in training, hanging around the fire halls and answering calls puts him in the presence of people who don’t always have time nor opportunities to attend religious services.

“This is one way of reaching out and walking amidst the people in their lives and being present when their need for God arises,” he said. “I pray that I am able to reveal God’s love and mercy at that hour, and offer some consolation and compassion.”

That’s not just related to firefighting. One recent morning, a member lost his aunt and asked Father McLaughlin to meet him at the nursing home where they prayed together.

“I’m sure that my presence brought him comfort,” he said.

As chaplain, he’s also called to offer prayers at funerals of retired members or to represent the volunteer department at community services. And he’s always finding opportunities to talk to the men.

“The guys really like that I have been willing to be at their level and to respond (to fires) with them,” Father McLaughlin said. “I’ve felt a lot of comfortable familiarity with them, a lot of conversations that become teachable moments.”

Father Michael Zaniolo

Father Michael Zaniolo took a youth group to Chicago O’Hare International Airport to meet the chaplain as a way to expose them to priests who aren’t assigned to parishes.

airport chaplain
Father Michael Zaniolo celebrates Mass for airport employees. Photo by Karen Callaway/Catholic New World

“It was such a marvelous experience to see a priest in action at an airport,” he said. “Everywhere we went, people said, ‘Hi, Father, how are you?’ and he’d tell people who worked there that he was praying for their mother, or their new baby, or whatever was going on in their lives. He took us to the control tower, and they were glad to see him. I thought this would be a great place to be a priest.”

Father Zaniolo, 55, is the administrator of the Interfaith Airport Chapels of Chicago, has been Catholic chaplain of O’Hare and Midway Airports for 12 years, and is president of the National Conference of Catholic Airport Chaplains.

There are 40,000 employees at O’Hare and 3,000 at Midway, not counting temporaries. That includes enough Catholics to keep him busy with 19 Masses a week (some celebrated by visiting priests), all of them short enough to accommodate the employees’ half-hour meal breaks.

“The only exception is Easter Vigil, which I can say in 45 minutes without omitting anything,” he said.

Father Zaniolo hears confessions and listens to anyone who wants to talk. Sometimes that’s grief or trauma counseling after there has been an accident.

“Although many people come to the chapel, I do a lot of wandering around the airports to meet them where they are,” he said. “This really allows me to be a priest.”

Father Joseph R. McCaffrey

As chaplain to the FBI’s Pittsburgh office, Father Joseph R. McCaffrey ministers to people in life-and-death situations, and at times, he said, “when there are questions about evil.”

Father Joseph McCaffrey is chaplain to the FBI in Pittsburgh. Courtesy photo

Like when a drug informant killed two agents. Or in 1994 when U.S. Air Flight 427 crashed near the Pittsburgh International Airport, killing all 132 people on board.

Or when he spent 10 days in Shanksville, Pa., after hijacked Flight 93 slammed into the ground on Sept. 11, 2001. In those dark days after the terrorist attack, he counseled police, firefighters and other responders, as well as FBI agents, comforted the victims’ families and celebrated Masses.

Father McCaffrey, 53, is pastor of Sts. John and Paul Parish in Sewickley, Pa. He became the FBI regional office’s first chaplain 20 years ago and ministers to agents who have personal or work problems, or who have been affected by the crimes and traumas they encounter.

“People have normal reactions to abnormal situations that can have long-term effects, and that can be truly disruptive to their normal life,” he said. “Unfortunately, the media shows the police and first responders not being affected by any of this, and that’s not reality. If you’re a normal, well-balanced person, these things should bother you.”

The approach to counseling, he added, is “not all touchy-feely.” Rather, it’s trying to help people talk about what they went through in a safe, professional and confidential environment.

“The intense historical events that I have been privileged to assist with have very much enriched me as a person and as a priest,” Father McCaffrey said. “It has been very enriching for me, both educationally, because I have benefited a great deal from the training, and also for just being able to be with these fine men and women and their dedicated service.”

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.