From courtroom to the confessional: Combat vet priest fights spiritual battles now

Fr. John Maksym, associate pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Lake Orion, was ordained to the priesthood in May after a long and distinguished career as a U.S. military judge, serving in combat zones and courts around the world. Despite his well-traveled and decorated life, which includes a Bronze Star, Fr. Maksym says nothing is more meaningful that forgiving sins and presiding during the Eucharist at Mass. (Photos by Matthew Rich | Special to Detroit Catholic)

Later-in-life vocation more fulfilling than any past honors, newly ordained Fr. Maksym says

LAKE ORION — Fr. John Maksym has served in a combat zone in Iraq. He has sat as a senior judge for the U.S. Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals. But of all the positions he’s had in life, none are more meaningful to him than standing at the altar during the consecration, holding the Body and Blood of Christ in his hands.

Fr. Maksym first felt the call to the priesthood when he was just 5 years old. Fifty-one years later, on May 19, 2018, he was finally ordained at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Detroit. 

Life in the military

After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1983, and while pursuing his law degree at the Detroit College of Law, Fr. Maksym was commissioned to the Judge Advocate General (JAG) Student Program, the legal branch of the military concerned with military justice and military law. He served in many roles throughout his distinguished military law career. 

While in Iraq in 2007, he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for brave or meritorious action in a combat zone. He served on the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., from 2008-12 and then transferred to Japan to finish his military career as the Circuit Military Judge for the Western Pacific. His jurisdiction covered one-fifth of the world.  

Moving from the military to the priesthood — believe it or not — was a natural fit.

“Being a naval officer is all about duty, service and obedience,” Fr. Maksym said. “We know how to take orders and be leaders, and that’s what you need to be a priest — duty, service and obedience.”

Fr. Maksym vests in the sacristy at St. Joseph Parish in Lake Orion.
Fr. Maksym visits with school children at St. Joseph School. Despite hearing his own call "at age 5," the newly ordained priest says God was persistent in calling him to a life of service in the Church -- a calling he finally answered at age 56.

In the back of his mind, Fr. Maksym always considered the priesthood since that first thought as a young boy. When one of his judicial colleagues heard about his plans to enter the seminary, he said, “It’s about time.” As a judge, Fr. Maksym would quote saints and verses from the Old Testament in his oral arguments in court, and a crucifix hung on the wall in his judicial chambers. He also attended daily Mass.

“I think God called me at five, and again in middle school, and again and again. He never stopped calling me,” Fr. Maksym said. “I simply didn’t answer.”

Yet the Holy Spirit persisted, and Fr. Maksym entered seminary at age 52, just two weeks after retiring from the Navy in August 2015. Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron assigned him to the Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Mass., structured specifically for the formation of seminarians age 30 and older.

“Archbishop Vigneron was so gracious, and (then-director of priestly vocations) Fr. (Tim) Birney was so engaging and encouraging during the process,” Fr. Maksym said. Fr. Joseph Horn, the current vocations director for the archdiocese, has also been “a good friend and so supportive,” he added.

“When you’re lucky enough to have an archbishop who believes in older vocations and believes in the calling of the Holy Spirit, God will not lose,” Fr. Maksym said.

Fr. Maksym believes that every young man — whether he’s the star football player or the star of the chess club — should ask whether God is calling him to serve at His altar.

“Sometimes I think we haven’t bragged enough about the life of a priest,” Fr. Maksym said. “It is ever so humbling to have a miracle in your hands. To be able to share Christ with people and be part of their lives — that’s an incredible life to live at any age. It’s really the highest form of existence for a Catholic man.”

Since arriving at St. Joseph Parish earlier this year, Fr. Maksym has encouraged parishioners to take frequent advantage of the sacrament of confession. "The graces of confession are the greatest we can gain, short of the Eucharist," he says.

The power of reconciliation

As the associate pastor at St. Joseph Parish in Lake Orion, Fr. Maksym encourages parishioners to frequent the sacrament of confession. He shares with them that he goes about once a week because he is a “character,” but he asks them to consider going once a month.

“The graces from confession are the greatest we can gain, short of the Eucharist,” Fr. Maksym said. “I believe a priest should always make himself available for confession because it brings people great peace and safe harbor.”

Fr. Maksym encourages people to stop by the confessional after Mass and invites them to email or call him directly to set up a time to meet him in the confessional. He feels strongly that confession should not be made by appointment through the parish office, but directly through the priest to maintain the privacy of the individual.

“We sell ourselves short as priests when we don’t make confession open, honest, non-threatening and kind,” he said. “If we make it open and easy for people, they will flock to it.”

The people at St. Joseph have responded to Fr. Maksym’s call. He has already heard hundreds of confessions in his first four months and hopes the upward trend will continue.

Fr. Maksym wears his clerics when traveling, he says, because he’s proud to be a priest. People will even stop him in the airport or other public places and ask him to hear their confession — a request he's always glad to accommodate.

“I get to do this amazing thing: through the grace of the Holy Spirit, I get to forgive sins,” he said. “Why wouldn’t I do that? Making myself available for this sacrament whenever I can is something I will forever do.”

Fr. John Maksym laughs outside St. Joseph Church in Lake Orion -- a testament to the love he has for his newfound vocation. At his ordination, the former Navy judge put it this way: "To put things in nautical terms, I hope to serve as a sound spiritual navigator while realizing that in the main, it will be the laity who will be bringing the message of Christ’s mercy, kindness, selflessness and compassion into their workplace, their family lives and to their friends. The diocesan priest must be stationed at the spiritual field hospital on the front lines of life — countering unhealthy secularism and relativism while carrying the salvific message of Jesus the Christ."