House Chaplain Daniel Coughlin (center) leads Rep. Howard Coble and a staffer away from the Capitol after it was evacuated because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. While he doesnt remember exactly what he was saying to them, Coughlin says he was being present and listening.
After leading prayer on the House floor and counseling Members of Congress for more than a decade, the Rev. Daniel Coughlin — simply “Father Dan” to many — retired in April from his position as House chaplain. Coughlin, the House’s first Roman Catholic chaplain and a Chicago native, reflected on his 11-year stint in an interview with Roll Call.
Look back 11 years ago and tell us about your first day on the job. Everything happened so quickly. Then-Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) office interviewed me for the job only 10 days before I started. They told me to keep my interview quiet — I didn’t even tell my mother for a week or so.
Ten days later — it was a Thursday — I got a call asking how quickly I could come to Washington. I said, “Well, it’s 8:35, and I can probably be at [Chicago’s] O’Hare [airport] by 10 a.m.”
I hadn’t packed anything. I just hopped on the plane, and some hours later I was sworn in. I didn’t have much time to be nervous or think about it much. After being sworn in, they asked me to stay and lead my first House prayer the next morning. “Sorry,” I said, explaining that I had to return home. “I didn’t bring a toothbrush.”
Why did you want the job? Before the interview, I had no thoughts, dreams or aspirations about being chaplain, but the cardinal in Chicago put me on a short list. I was honored and blown away in the whole sudden idea of serving in Washington.
I will say one of the great graces of God happened the first week I took the job, confirming that I’d made the right decision. In the past, after I taught or preached, I’d exit the room and I’d beat myself up because I was never satisfied with what I said or how I said it. After I came to Congress, that stopped. It was, I think, a confirmation from God.
Talk about your job as House chaplain. What were your duties and responsibilities? Congress begins every formal session with prayer. I led those prayers.
Some Members who weren’t present for prayer told me they watched my prayers on TV or read them from the Congressional Record. That affirmation stuck with me.
Beyond that, the job is about establishing relationships, and the biggest part of that is listening. I was there to listen to Members talk about critical moments in their careers, personal issues or concerns, spiritual problems or health problems in their families, staff problems.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.