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Posted October 29, 2005

Washington Theological Union
Distinguished Service Award Celebration
Rev. Daniel P. Coughlin

October 26, 2005

Thank you, Father Burkhard. I know that the Distinguished Service Award received from Washington Theological Union has a most significant history and it is intended to be personal. I am humbled by the honor and I accept it personally. But this award and the evening’s celebration contain many levels of meaning.

At this period in the nation’s history when religion’s place in government is scrutinized and the role of chaplain and prayer in the legislature has been contested in the courts, I accept this award gladly to affirm the power of prayer to transform the world we live in and underscore the importance of chaplaincy in the workplace of government leaders, especially in times of crisis.

I am proud to receive this award as an American Catholic priest during these times when respect for priests has been tarnished and a subtle but real anticlericalism can be found even in surprising corners of the Church.

Tonight I would like to express publicly my gratitude to the Speaker of the House, J. Dennis Hastert and Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago, for giving me the opportunity to serve as Chaplain in the House over these past five years.

Being a priest has always been a joy and a challenge. A priest is often invited into a broader circle of relationships than most and the priest is definitely drawn into a deeper vision of humanity than the public camera can catch. So in Congress no two days are alike and every day I meet new people who work on the Hill or are just visiting. Walking through the halls of the Capitol I meet many young people and I say to them “What would you like to be when you grow up? You’ve got a lot of time to think about it. But I bet you don’t want to be bored. And if you don’t want to be bored, be a priest or a politician.”

I have visited WTU up on Laurel Street. Besides wonderful students and dedicated faculty, I found there some memorable works of art. One rather large piece lingers in my mind. It hangs on a wall near the entryway. It is an artist’s interpretation of Jacob’s ladder in the Hebrew Scriptures. And to me it is also the mystic ascent of contemplation or Benedict’s measurable steps of humility, I took it as a memorable symbol for WTU of this excellent institution of theology and reflection. As instruments in the Lord’s hands we move ourselves and are moved by interaction with others to be shaped, refined and made over again and again. The Lord has wonderful hands, and feet and eyes to speak to us everyday. The Lord uses all humanity to shape us – an imitation of the One True One. The Only Begotten.

My dear friends, I find my work on Capitol Hill - what I’ve longed for all my life - a balance of contemplation and action, prayer and reflection, words and listening I have always sought in this life. I wrestle with angels at times to create prayer that will lift controversy to resolve and inspire differences to seek the common good. In pastoral care of Members and those around them I have uncovered depths of public service, the highest motivations and contemporary suffering that the public will never know or appreciate. I stood with people and I’ve learned from people that America is in good hands. I’ve come to know Navy doctors and learned parliamentarians who are committed to a noble institution, the people’s House which they love. They want it only to be healthy and work with civility. The House is a wonderful institution to the people who work there. Some honor it and are honored by it more than others. But I’ve come to realize that there are many who come to Washington without be elected and are truly dedicated to work and service and guide this country. What is not only revealed through Members and staff, I’ve come to realize what good friends are all about. I have found so clearly in the Clerk’s Office. Karen and Don. And the work of government no longer frightens me. I remember early on being taken to the leadership of both parties, and one of them saying to me, “Now whatever you’ve heard about us before you got here” and thought to myself “I’ve never thought about you before.” “Whatever you thought about us before you got here, get to know us on a first name basis.” And so I’ve tried. So I know many Members on a first name basis. Don’t ask me where they’re from or what they’re party affiliation is.

Never being one who looks at the world in a one dimensional way, I am struck again by that Jacob’s Ladder. Which invites me to go higher but always go deeper. To seek what is best and sometimes what is most painful in humanity. I discover in my vertical climb what I’ve always hoped for: America, that is a sign and a gift to the world; and America, that is very vulnerable, like the poorest in the world. I love working there – I love working for God and country at one and the same time.

The reason why I was willing to fall victim to tonight’s festivities was I learned that WTU wanted to create stronger relationships with people on the Hill. As a professional school of leadership and theological formation, they would like to be more instrumental in shaping Catholic leaders or others for public service and create a place for greater faith reflection on the world of politics.

My hope is that more and more young Catholic people will see work on the Hill as true ministry. And someday, maybe with the help of WTU, I would love to host an interfaith symposium on the Theology of Power – something I think America needs.

My hope also tonight is to thank you from the bottom of my heart and that you fully understand my thank you; acknowledging the authentic gifts of Father John Burkhard and the Board. I accept this award and accept your presence here as fond friendship. I also am grateful to Kevin Locke, Vice President for Institutional Advancement, for all his work on this event and for Kathryn Dempsey and her assistance. And for Gene Hemrick who has found a home at WTU working with reflection on the priesthood and I think it is he who passed on my name.

I am somewhat overwhelmed by all of you who have gathered here tonight. I thank you for attending this event and for your interest and support of WTU.

I am especially thankful that the WTU brought my Mother here. You know we’ re always concerned about her in the off-times. I want you to know that the Soxs are still holding her interests. Luckily neither she nor anyone in the House has asked for me to pray for them before the House. But she just finished 17 years of ushering at Wrigley Field. And it was a year and a half ago that a friend of mine was asking “Well how long is your Mother going to do that?” And I said “Well I don’t know.” And he said “Well I have an even better question, how long are you going to keep doing what you are doing?” And I said “I have four major obstacles to thinking about retirement. They are: John Paul II, Chief Justice Rehnquist; Greenspan and my Mother – and she’s the only one still standing.”

For all you at WTU I want to show my deepest respect and I have one request, whenever you see that Ladder pray for the Members and the Chaplain. When you pass by the art piece of Jacob’s ladder think of me either climbing the heights or carefully going down to the depths of humanity. Know that the joys and the sorrows of all people need to be the joys and sorrows of all Christ’s followers. By climbing to the height of their aspirations or listening to the depths we will become one. Until God is all in all, let the name of the Lord be praised!