It’s a small miracle that BU’s new Catholic chaplain is a priest. It’s a big miracle that he’s even alive.
Big miracle first: just before Christmas 1978, Boston College junior John McLaughlin was strolling through Faneuil Hall around eight at night with his brother. It was the era of the urban drug-and-crime plague, and five thugs jumped them. One sucker-punched McLaughlin. His brother decked the guy; perhaps in panic, one of the others stabbed McLaughlin from behind, hitting his liver and a lung. As his strength ebbed along with his blood, he prayed to God to care for his family if he died. He spent that Christmas at Tufts Medical Center, where, he says, “they saved my life.” Still, just three years ago he needed surgery related to that old injury.
It took more than a brush with mortality to steer him to the priesthood. After graduation, he worked various jobs, including as a wrestling coach at his alma mater, Woburn High School. At the time, McLaughlin says, he was a “punch-the-clock-Catholic.” Working long hours, he’d say, “Well, God, you understand, I’m busy,” when he skipped church. Then in 1986, four of his wrestlers hit a tree driving back from a tournament. Two died, and the others were seriously hurt. The small miracle followed: watching the survivors’ families pray for recovery, he was struck that “neither was angry with God at the accident. A lot of people can get angry, saying, ‘Why did you do this to me—I go to church.’…They never said that. They just looked at God to be the one to help them.” Their faith, and that of thousands of pilgrims he saw on a later trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina with one of his injured wrestlers, led him to reexamine his life. At 32, he entered St. John’s Seminary, in Brighton.
The theme linking these experiences is the fragility of life, and once you’ve grasped that fragility, you don’t sweat little things, like replacing an icon—in this case, McLaughlin’s predecessor as BU’s Catholic chaplain, Sister Olga Yaqob. Yaqob endeared herself to Catholics and non-Catholics at BU with her warm personality, tireless energy, and a “ministry of hugging,” as McLaughlin, 53, puts it. “She’d hug everybody. That’s a little different from me.” But he’s had to replace popular priests before in his parish assignments. “I’m not really here to fill the shoes,” he says. “I’m here to do my job.”
So far, say students who’ve worked with him, he’s putting his own stamp on the Catholic Center. Literally. A key goal is to publicize the center as a “safe house for kids” apart from religious observance, a place to relax, he says. In pursuit of that goal, he is installing a basement TV and has “turned Sister Olga’s office into a lounge, with free coffee, tea, soda, snacks,” says Joseph Austin (CAS’13).
“He’s a very comforting presence,” says Amanda Calderon (CAS’13), secretary of the center’s executive committee. “No one can be Sister Olga. In a motherly sense, she’s just so compassionate, and all the students really feel her love. He’s more of that masculine presence, the fatherly presence that we need. He’s relatable. He made sure to let us all know, this is who I am, this is where I come from, these are my experiences.”
McLaughlin bantered easily at an information fair for campus religious groups in September. Asked to pose for a photo conversing with students, he obliged, telling the group, “Act like you need to talk to me.”
“So tell me about the Catholic Center,” a woman complied. “I don’t know,” replied McLaughlin, “you’ll have to ask Sarah,” referring to center intern Sarah Doyle (CAS’11), who stood nearby.
Yaqob, who assisted McLaughlin during his first days at the University, says that watching him interact with students, “I witnessed the heart of Christ, the Good Shepherd. Father John is a very humble leader, compassionate shepherd, and dedicated priest.”
He is also experienced in youth work. “I’ve always worked with young people,” he says, recalling his coaching days. “And “I’m not that old that I can’t remember those moments of youth. I like the challenges. It keeps you young.”
McLaughlin, a Woburn, Mass., native with a wrestler’s burly build, arrived at BU after three years as the first vocations director for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA,, a post that had him roaming the globe, and Facebook, to meet servicemen and -women contemplating the religious life. When the archdiocese first phoned him about the job, he says, “I thought it was a joke. I said, ‘Who are you, really?’ I didn’t put my name in for anything. It’s the largest diocese in the world, territorially.” (If you’re a Catholic soldier posted in Bora Bora, you’re in the spiritual jurisdiction of the military archdiocese.) Pastoring a Methuen, Mass., church at the time, McLaughlin got the blessing of Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley for three years with the military. When he began, he says, 5 members of the armed forces were in seminary; at his departure, that number was more than 40, and 5 women were considering becoming nuns.
In his new ministry, he says, his marching orders are pretty open-ended. O’Malley “is very laissez-faire on things. They don’t tell you what you’re going to do. They like to keep the continuity of last year.” Even if you’re not a big hugger.