Serving “a double calling” as a priest and Navy chaplain

“I will always support non-violent forms of protest,” says Bishop Joseph L. Coffey, one of four auxiliary bishops of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services, “I don’t support tearing down statues or vandalizing or destroying private or public property.”

Left: Bishop Joseph L. Coffey; right: Army soldiers and military family members speak with Father Lukasz J. Willenberg following a March 7 Mass at one of the Catholic chapels at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C. in this June 2016 photo. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

Bishop Joseph L. Coffey, 60, is one of four auxiliary bishops of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA. He was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 1996, and a bishop in 2019.

He was born in Minnesota and grew up in Philadelphia. He is the fifth of nine children; his father was a physician and served in the U.S. Navy. Both his parents were devout Catholics and daily communicants; he has 46 nieces and nephews and 12 great nieces and nephews.

After graduating from La Salle University in 1982, he taught grade school, worked as a ski instructor in Switzerland and sold cars in Germany and Belgium before entering Philadelphia’s St. Charles Borromeo Seminary at age 30.

In 2001, he was given permission by Philadelphia’s Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua for full-time active duty as a Navy chaplain, and has since served in assignments throughout the U.S. and all over the world. He retired from the Navy in May. As an auxiliary bishop, he serves as episcopal vicar for Veteran’s Affairs. He spoke with CWR on July 8th about his life and vocation, as well as some recent events.

CWR: Why did you want to join the Navy?

Bishop Coffey: I met a recruiter while I was at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary who told me that each of the military branches had programs in which I would be able to receive a direct commission as a chaplain candidate. I spoke to Cardinal Bevilacqua, and he gave me permission to apply for the program as a seminarian. He told me, however, that he wouldn’t give permission for me to go on active duty until I had been ordained for five years.

So, in 1992 I entered the U.S. Navy Chaplain Candidate Program with the rank of ensign. I was in the reserve for the next nine years. I was ordained a priest in 1996, and served at St. Katherine of Siena Parish in northern Philadelphia. After five years, I asked the Cardinal if I could go on active duty, and he said yes.

I think there are many priests who would love to serve in the military as I have, but their bishops can not spare them because there is a priest shortage in many areas. I’ve been blessed to have serve 19 years in the Navy, and enjoyed it. In my position I was able to minister to members of the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard. On May 31, I retired.

CWR: What were some of your more interesting assignments?

Bishop Coffey: I started out with the Marines as part of the Combat Assault Battalion on Okinawa. I was also command chaplain onboard the USS George Washington, a super carrier with 5,000 sailors. I was able to say Mass onboard while we sailed in the Persian Gulf; I was also flown by helicopter to say Mass on a smaller ship.

I also served at Camp Pendleton in California, which included a seven-month deployment to Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan, a New Jersey boot camp and I was a Navy recruiter for three years working out of St. Louis. I was in Japan for two years serving on the USS Ronald Reagan, deployed to the South China Sea serving off the coast of North and South Korea. Once I had the chance to celebrate Mass atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima.

I’ve been very blessed to say Mass and hear confessions, and engage in counseling with our sailors and Marines, helping them with their troubles. It is now my pleasure to be vicar for veteran’s affairs for the military archdiocese.

CWR: Your career in the military was a positive one?

Bishop Coffey: I feel blessed and grateful to serve in a double calling as a priest and Navy chaplain. Not everyone is called to my life, but according to my way of thinking, had I not been there, these sailors and Marines would not have been able to receive the sacraments that we Catholics believe are so important. That is why I encourage our priests and seminarians with an interest to consider a life as a military chaplain. Some will find they really enjoy it.

CWR: Is there a great demand for military chaplains?

Bishop Coffey: Yes, a tremendous demand and a great shortage. Our archbishop, Timothy Broglio, always tells our fellow bishops about this need all the time, and that he’d be grateful if they can release some of their priests to us for three to 20 years. When I joined the Navy Chaplain program in 1992, there were more than 200 priests in the Navy chaplain corps. Now we’re down to fewer than 50. They have a similar need in other branches of the service. I would encourage our bishops to be generous in allowing their priests to participate in the program.

CWR: What were some common problems you observed when you counseled sailors and Marines?

Bishop Coffey: They are young people with problems not that different from society at large. They are people in their late teens and early 20s, so it is basically college-age ministry, individuals who have big questions about their Faith and purpose in life. They have the added burden of serving in the military.

I like to tell them the story of Pope St. John Paul II who had to go to seminary in secret in Poland, and credited the West with saving his country from Nazi Germany. I tell them that their service is honorable.

They have problems in relationships, especially when they are gone from home for a long time, and I can tell them that I have felt the same stress and I can sympathize with their situation. And, that is why I like to say to them with so many other people, “Thank you for your service.”

CWR: What are you doing as an auxiliary bishop?

Bishop Coffey: Archbishop Broglio is our archbishop, who has an archdiocese that is really worldwide. We have one auxiliary bishop who serves those east of the Mississippi River, and another one West, and a third who covers Europe and Asia.

My area is veteran’s affairs. There are 150 VA medical centers in the U.S., and most have Catholic priests as chaplains. These chaplains must be officially endorsed, indicating that each has been properly ordained, has credentials and the right skill sets. I visit these medical centers, work with priests, and help them with their problems. My residence is in a rectory in Baltimore.

But for me, the issue of veteran’s affairs is important. We had previously had many elderly veterans, and those with serious illnesses or injuries, who were in need of care but faced long waiting periods to see a doctor. I’m pleased to report that the situation has addressed by the current Administration and has greatly improved in the past few years.

We also have veterans who suffer from PTSD or who have war injuries who commit suicide at much higher rates than those who have not served in the military. We also want to ensure that we’re getting such persons considering suicide the help they need.

But doing our work has been a challenge with COVID-19; I have to take all the precautions when I visit a medical center. I practice social distancing, and wear a mask and gloves. Our VA hospitals are unique and independent from one another, with some having strict policies and others less so.

CWR: You’ve prayed outside of abortion clinics and participated with Operation Rescue. Why is the pro-life issue important to you?

Bishop Coffey: I can remember when the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down in 1973. I was 13. My dad told us about it at the dinner table. From that moment, I became a pro-lifer. In the years following, we made many annual trips down to Washington, D.C. for the annual March for Life. We want to see the U.S. Supreme Court overturn Roe. But we know that will not end our pro-life efforts; we will have to continue our work at the state level. As the majority of bishops at last year’s meeting indicated last year, abortion is the preeminent life issue of our time.

CWR: As part of Operation Rescue, you physically blocked doors of abortion clinics to save the lives of the unborn. In recent weeks, we’ve seen religious statues pulled down by mobs. In some instances, rosary-praying Catholics have encircled these statues to prevent their being pulled down. If the occasion arises, would you be willing to join with other Catholics to stand in front of our religious statues to keep them from being torn down by mobs?

Bishop Coffey: I will always support non-violent forms of protest. I don’t support tearing down statues or vandalizing or destroying private or public property. I think most people support the rule of law. Laws are made to promote justice and justice is rendering to one what is his due.

I have never thought about it or been asked to join Catholics to stand in front of a religious statue to keep it from being torn down. I think it would be a courageous and commendable thing to protect religious statues sacred to Catholics and those of other faiths as well. Yes, I would pray about it and consider joining those trying to protect the statues.

CWR: The Navy said June 24 that its sailors were prohibited from attending indoor religious services. [Archbishop Broglio referred to it as “odious to Catholics” What are your thoughts on it?

Bishop Coffey: I wholeheartedly agree with Archbishop Broglio’s July 5th statement on Navy Orders prohibiting participation in off-base indoor religious services. I invite everyone to read it on the Archdiocese for the Military Services website [linked above]. It is odious to Catholics and it should be to people of other faiths and people of good will who believe in religious liberty.

Just today I received an email from a Navy LT who was upset because his daughter will soon be receiving her first Holy Communion at a Mass off-base and he believed that the Navy order prohibited him from going. I understand the Navy has now corrected this situation. I don’t think the local commanders were consciously opposed to religious liberty but concerned with sailors’ health due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Catholics in the military have a great champion in Archbishop Broglio.

[Editor’s note: On July 8th, the day this interview took place, the Navy rescinded the ban on indoor religious service participation, saying sailors could attend if proper social distancing were observed. Archbishop Broglio responded on July 9: “The revision of the US Navy’s orders to allow for the participation by Navy personnel in indoor religious services, provided that the appropriate guidelines are met, is most welcome.  The change recognizes that worship is a part of the exercise of religious liberty and helps to ensure the readiness of the forces who defend us. It is clear that the Catholic Church has taken to heart the CDC measures and organized the celebration of the sacraments in ways that ensure the safety of participants, good order and the dignity of the rites.  I am sure that other religious groups will do the same. I am grateful to the Department of the Navy and everyone else who contributed to this timely revision.”]

CWR: What else do you want to share about the military archdiocese?

Bishop Coffey: First off, many Catholics don’t know our archdiocese exists, so I’m grateful for this opportunity to share about our work. And second, I would remind people that the archdiocese is not financially supported by the U.S. government or other dioceses of the Catholic Church. The bishops did vote for a national collection for the archdiocese to be held every three years, for which Archbishop Broglio is grateful, but we really rely on individuals who send in contributions. More donations would be most welcome.


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About Jim Graves 185 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.

3 Comments

  1. In 1968-70 I served on an aircraft carrier, and we were fortunate enough to have permanently onboard a Catholic chaplain (and a Protestant minister). The small ship’s library doubled as a chapel, even with a quick daily mass at noon. One of the ship’s final missions was in the central Pacific to recover the first lunar astronauts to walk on the moon (Apollo XI, July 1969). The captain, a devout Catholic, sent a valued souvenir to Pope Paul VI to be included in the incomparable Vatican stamp collection.

    A month later, at taps and under a very dark and very starry sky, the Catholic chaplain took his turn on night prayer, and then conferred on the entire ship’s crew the papal response and blessing: “The Secretariat of State is graciously directed by the Holy Father to acknowledge receipt of the special philatelic envelope [not the more official ones, but a more limited edition produced on the ship] from the captain and crew of the USS Hornet…and in expressing His sincere appreciation of the loyal filial devotion which prompted this gesture, has the honour to convey, to pledge of abundant divine graces, the paternal Apostolic Benediction of His Holiness.”

    In our quickly less-united world again, thanks be to the Navy and all military chaplains who administer the sacramental life of the indwelled, perennial and universal Church.

  2. When I joined the Navy, one of my objectives was to join a religion. I leaned towards Catholicism, but was not sure. At my first duty station, I went to Mass for 3 Sundays. Then midnight Christmas Eve Mass came up. As I walked toward the chapel, I seriously wondered if it really meant anything by going to this Mass. At the moment of my deepest doubt, there was a power failure for the entire base. And something made me feel that God had just given me an answer, but I did not know what the answer was. The Mass was held in candle light. It was the most moving Mass I ever attended. You could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit among all of us. The chaplain, a full Navy Commander, said that in all his 19 years as a priest, he never had a Mass like this – he said it was so very special and somehow different. The next day I was talking to an Electrician’s Mate about the power outage. He said it had everyone confused. He stated that our base lost its electricity, but the outlying homes near the base did not. He said that was impossible, as all were connected to the same power lines. I smiled inside, knowing that God had done this. Before I got out of the Navy, I became Catholic, and it was the best thing I have ever done. I would love to tell the amazing story of what happened when I first received Communion in the Navy, but it is another lengthy story.

  3. Thank you for this wonderful article on Bishop Coffey. He holds a special place in the hearts of many pro life San Diego Catholics. However, could Archbishop Bergoglio not bring himself to give credit where credit is due? It’s because of Trump that that order was rescinded!.

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