Pope confers title 'monsignor' on Detroit priest, retired Navy chaplain Fr. John Kaul

On Oct. 18, the Archdiocese of Detroit and the Archdiocese for the Military Services announced Pope Francis has named Fr. John L. Kaul, a retired priest of the Detroit archdiocese who served more than a quarter-century as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy, a "Chaplain to His Holiness," which carries the honorary title of "monsignor." (Photo courtesy of the Archdiocese for the Military Services)

Msgr. Kaul, 76, served for a quarter-century in the U.S. Navy, says he's 'humbled and grateful' for the 'Lord's gracious goodness'

DETROIT — Pope Francis has named Detroit’s own Fr. John L. Kaul, a retired U.S. Navy chaplain, a “chaplain of his Holiness,” which carries the honorary title of “monsignor.”

The newly named Msgr. Kaul, 76, a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit for 48 years, notably served for more than a quarter of a century with the U.S. Navy, including serving overseas as a chaplain with the Archdiocese for the Military Services.

"I am so very humbled and grateful for the generous kindness of Pope Francis, Archbishop (Allen H.) Vigneron, and Archbishop (Timothy P.) Broglio in recognizing my 48 years of ministry to the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, the government and the Military Archdiocese, and the Archdiocese of Detroit,” Msgr. Kaul said in a statement. “The Lord’s gracious goodness has overwhelmed me yet again, and I am so very appreciative of those who encouraged and mentored me through those years — cardinals, archbishops, senior officers — in this wonderful vocation and ministry which has been the joy of my life.”

The Apostolic Nunciature of the United States gave notice of the honor last week to Msgr. Kaul’s current and past bishops, Archbishop Vigneron of the Archdiocese of Detroit, and Archbishop Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, who surprised the Msgr. Kaul with the news.

“It brings me great joy to see Msgr. Kaul’s decades of ministry to the men and women of our armed services honored by our Holy Father,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “As we approach Veterans Day, a day when we honor all those who selflessly served to protect our country, it is a great blessing to have a military chaplain and son of the Archdiocese of Detroit recognized in such a special manner.”

Archbishop Broglio said he was "delighted" to see Msgr. Kaul honored, noting the priest also served as vocations director for the Archdiocese for the Military Services and worked on the canonization cause of Servant of God Fr. Vincent Capodanno, a Navy chaplain killed in Vietnam.

"He has always said 'yes' to the needs of this global 'local' Church," Archbishop Broglio said.

The conferral of the title of "monsignor" has become notably rarer under Pope Francis, who revised the norms governing the practice in 2014. Not all priests are eligible for the honor; priests must either have worked closely with the Holy Father in the Vatican or have otherwise reached the age of 65 and are recommended by their bishops. The title confers no additional theological significance, but is given in appreciation of a priest's service.

Born March 26, 1947, Msgr. Kaul grew up in Wyandotte and was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Detroit on May 24, 1975.

Following his ordination, his aunt offered to pay for a trip to Rome. He visited the nearby city of Naples, which also happened to be the anchorage for the U.S. Sixth Fleet. In a 2018 Michigan Catholic article, then-Fr. Kaul said he ran into the Catholic chaplain of the fleet. When he returned to Detroit from Italy, he knew he was called to join the Navy.

“I was hooked, and I went back to Cardinal (John) Dearden (archbishop of Detroit at the time) and said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to let me join the Navy.' He just looked at me and said, ‘Calm down, son,’” Msgr. Kaul said in 2018. “He said he would let me go if I did two parish assignments. So I spent two years at Sacred Heart (in Dearborn) and then five years at St. Joan of Arc (in St. Clair Shores), and joined the Navy in 1982.”

Msgr. John Kaul, left, and Protestant minister Tom Giuntoli head for Mass in 2001 at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. (Archive photo)
Msgr. John Kaul, left, and Protestant minister Tom Giuntoli head for Mass in 2001 at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. (Archive photo)

Msgr. Kaul enlisted in the Navy as a commissioned lieutenant and went on to serve as a chaplain with endorsement and faculties from the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA. Msgr. Kaul retired from the Navy with the rank of captain in 2008, but went on to serve as a civilian contractor for the government, working as a substitute for military service priests in the southeastern states and in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Msgr. Kaul has earned several honors and recognitions for his service, including the Meritorious Service Medal twice, the Navy Commendation Medal four times, Overseas Deployment Ribbon four times and the Joint Service Achievement Medal.

In an interview with Detroit Catholic, Msgr. Kaul said that this new achievement was "the icing on the cake."

"Being recognized for contributions that you make working for anyone is certainly a morale boost, but what you have done is just the joy of your life anyway, and you are not expecting any reward other than the satisfaction that you are doing what God called you to do, and you love what you do, and you enjoy your work…and then comes this; just so very unexpected." Msgr. Kaul said. "The other kinds of things that come your way in the military, promotions and such, you kind of know that will be happening, but this is just so out of the blue."

In 2011, he joined the staff of the Archdiocese for the Military Services and served in various capacities, including for five years as spiritual director for the Warriors to Lourdes project of the Knights of Columbus, a pilgrimage sponsored by the Knights as a way to give back to veterans by sending them and their families to the healing shrines and grottos of Our Lady of Lourdes in France.

“The reconnection these vets feel when they go on this pilgrimage is amazing,” Msgr. Kaul said in 2018. “Often, when they come home wounded or medically discharged, they don’t feel like the military is still looking after them. The VA is good at this stuff, but it’s not the Army, Navy or Air Force. So you see all the interaction between soldiers, praying together, laughing together, being in each other’s company, all from the Lourdes spiritual exercises, and it just moves the soul.”

Msgr. Kaul, who was granted senior status in the Archdiocese of Detroit in 2017, served as a member of the archdiocesan Presbyteral Council from 2020-23, and continues to assist in many Detroit-area parishes under the leadership of Archbishop Vigneron.

He also currently serves on the Board of Governors for the Archdiocese for the Military Services.

Msgr. Kaul's tours of duty with the Navy included the following:

This article was updated on Oct. 25 with quotes from Msgr. Kaul.


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