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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.
Who likes to talk more than Congressmen? My job was pretty easy. Just listen, listen, listen.
Was it difficult to lead prayer for such a diverse group of Members from all different faiths?
God prepared me so I was never disarmed or frightened by it.
Even before I was a seminarian, I lived in an interfaith setting. My mother, was raised Lutheran and became Catholic to marry my dad. But my grandparents, whom I was very close with, were Lutherans until the day they died. They attended all my religious services as a kid and priest, and I would go to their Masonic Order meetings.
I’m at home with differences. In fact, after a year as chaplain, I knew more Protestants and Jews than I did Catholics.
Are there any particular phrases a chaplain doesn’t say during prayers on the House floor?
Public prayer is a work of language, so I did wrestle with the right words and tried to find the common language. Not too theological, not too narrowly Christian, but I didn’t beg off from the truth of things either.
I always looked to formulate a prayer to which all Members could rally. I tried to grasp something that was in the air — the mood of the times. Never political issues. Never what was going to be debated on the floor. Just something based in Scriptures that would resonate no matter a Member’s faith or lack of faith. I tried to get at a deep human dimension of what was happening.
Concluding phrases of prayers can cause problems. The end for me was usually “forever and ever.” Also the phrase “Lord God” speaks to numerous faiths. Jesus is called the Lord, but Lord can also mean just God, so it’s inclusive.
Did Members come to you individually for spiritual guidance?
People did come, but I would also go. If I knew two or three Members would be at a gathering or reception — as long as it wasn’t a single party or fundraising — I would go.
During House votes, when I wasn’t too busy, I’d go up to the floor and stand beside the doors of the Speaker’s Lobby (rotating between both doors for both parties) to chat with Members.
Just being present in the midst of their busy and demanding work, I was able to connect — and that’s a big part of the job.
Can you give us an example of a time you helped a Member in a personal crisis?
The first time someone asked me to talk, the Member was torn between two fates: Should he leave Congress and run for governor or stay?
I was honored that he came to me, but I realized that he just needed to talk and hear himself to know what he was thinking.
If Members talk to their spouses they may hear, “Oh, here we go again,” or “What about the kids?” The conversations turns to the what-ifs and all the problems, which already haunt Members deep down. If they go to their political parties, the parties think about their own interests.
As chaplain, I’d help these Members with what I call the “ultimate search,” what God wants. Without that theological language, I help Members find their direction and purpose, which comes from within.
Can you recall a time where your job called you to boost spirits in Congress?
After 9/11, the police evacuated the Capitol and told us to head toward the Library of Congress. I was walking with a Member and a woman who works in the [House] Clerk’s office. A year later, Roll Call ran a picture of us and someone asked what I was saying to those people as we walked away. I don’t remember what I was saying at all, but I was doing what I usually do as chaplain: being present and listening.
On a given Saturday in January, I heard that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) had been shot. I’d met her and her husband no more than three days after she came to Congress because they hoped to marry. Mark is Catholic and she’s Jewish, and they wanted to talk to me about that.
After I received the news, I called the Catholic bishop’s office in Tucson and learned the bishop was in the Holy Land. I thought about flying down to counsel them. I slept on it to see whether it was the right thing.
I woke up with sciatica, which I had never had before. That was God answering my prayer: Forget the flight. Only then did I think about visiting her staff. And that was where I needed to be. They were suffering. I led prayer and listened to them through the difficult time.
As a member of the church, what are your thoughts on the separation of church and state?
I’m a great believer. It’s America’s greatest export to the rest of the world. Religions create problems for governments; governments create problems for religions. America sorts it out. We have the best experiment for religious freedom in the world.
Have you ever squabbled with people who don’t believe your job should even exist because of the separation? What do you tells these sorts?
My predecessor gave me a stack of court briefs pertaining to this issue — it’s more than a foot high.
People who complain about it have a misguided notion about what the separation of church and state actually is, but every once in awhile it needs to be tested, so we go over it again in court.
Congress finds great strength in having a chaplain and having prayer. And people don’t have to attend prayer. It’s not imposed on anyone.
It took more than 100 years for the House to appoint a Catholic priest to the position. How long do you think it will be before a rabbi, imam or Buddhist monk leads Congress in spiritual matters?
This is a line I learned from the chair: “The Chair cannot comment on any hypothetical.” What-ifs? — I’m no prophet. I cannot tell.
What will you miss most about your job?
The constant stimulus of Members’ wits and their optimism. It might be glib to say that Members come here to make the world a better place, but I think it’s really true, and it’s an honor to see them try.