Retired Navy chaplain now leads vets on pilgrimage to Lourdes

Fr Kaul 2 Military members gather at the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary in Lourdes, France, during the annual Warriors to Lourdes pilgrimage sponsored by the Knights of Columbus. Fr. John Kaul, a priest from the Archdiocese of Detroit and retired U.S. Navy chaplain, leads and trains chaplains for the annual pilgrimage. Photos courtesy of Fr. John Kaul

LIVONIA — After Fr. John Kaul was ordained in 1975, his aunt offered to pay for a trip to Rome.

In the shadows of Rome and St. Peter’s Basilica, the newly ordained Catholic priest from Wyandotte found his true calling.

“Down the road from Rome is Naples, the anchorage for the U.S. Sixth Fleet,” Fr. Kaul told The Michigan Catholic. “I went down there, where there is this big ol’ aircraft carrier, the Forrestal, and by God’s doing I ran into the Catholic chaplain of the ship standing on the pier.”

Fr. Kaul always had an attraction to ships, building models of Navy ships as a hobby. In the seminary, he never seriously considered being a Navy chaplain, but after talking to the chaplain of the Sixth Fleet, Fr. Kaul returned to Detroit with a newfound purpose.

“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,’” Fr. Kaul said. “He said he would let me go if I did two parish assignments. So I spent two years at Sacred Heart (Dearborn) and then five years at St. Joan of Arc (St. Clair Shores), and joined the Navy in 1982.”

Fr. Kaul spent the next 26 years of his priestly ministry with the Navy, ministering to Sailors and Marines of every different faith, from the Mediterranean to the South Pacific.

Fr Kaul 1 Fr. John Kaul, left, and Protestant minister Tom Giuntoli head for Mass in 2001 at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

“Chaplaincy is a missionary model of ministry,” Fr. Kaul said. “In a parish setting, everyone goes to a parish, and you find a priest in the rectory. In the military, a priest goes out to where the people are. We’re hand-in-pocket with everybody, and not just the Catholics; on an aircraft carrier, you’re called to minister to all 5,000 people of all persuasions or none at all.”

Fr. Kaul said the motto of a military chaplain is to provide and facilitate, meaning he’s a listener, a counselor, a confessor, or just a familiar face for service members who need someone to talk to who can remind them of home.

“Priests in the military are there to give you a feeling of being at home, providing something familiar again,” Fr. Kaul said. “The military takes you out, away from your family, your town, your girlfriend, your church. All that stuff is gone, and suddenly you find someone on the base with a church, and the chaplain seems like a nice guy. It creates an association you are familiar with.”

Reconnecting veterans

After 26 years of active service with the Navy, followed by year as a civilian contractor to continue his service, due to the shortage of chaplains in the Navy, Fr. Kaul recently returned to the Archdiocese of Detroit, where he is continuing a new call to service: mentoring chaplains to the Knights of Columbus-sponsored Warriors to Lourdes Pilgrimage.

The pilgrimage is a way for the Knights to give back to veterans, many of whom are wounded or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, sending them and their families to the healing shrines and grottos of Our Lady of Lourdes in France.

The Knights of Columbus pay for all the expenses of the trip, but encourage people to sponsor a pilgrim for $2,600 on the pilgrimage’s website,

Fr. Kaul said the pilgrimage reconnects veterans with their military roots, making them feel like they are part of a unit again while engaging in spiritual exercises with accompanying chaplains.

The Knights of Columbus pilgrimage, which this year is May 15-22, also coincides with the International Military Pilgrimage, a pilgrimage of soldiers from NATO countries that’s taken place since the end of World War II.

“After I was finished with the Navy as a contractor, I was at the submarine base in King’s Bay, Ga., before moving to Washington, D.C., where I was the vocations director for the military archdiocese,” Fr. Kaul said. “Archbishop Timothy Broglio, the head of the military archdiocese, put me in touch with Col. Chuck Gallina, the Veterans Affairs liaison for the Knights of Columbus in New Haven. He told me about Warriors to Lourdes, and for five years now I’ve headed up this cadre of chaplains that goes up with the pilgrimage.”

Fr. Kaul Fr. Kaul

Fr. Kaul is in charge of 16 chaplains who accompany the 222 pilgrims going on this year’s trip. The pilgrims are leaving from seven different locations in the United States and Germany and meeting up in Paris. From Paris, the pilgrims are organized into groups, each with a chaplain, and make the 50-minute flight south to Lourdes, a small town in the south of France near the Spanish border in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains.

“The whole thing is set up like a military war plan,” Fr. Kaul said. “We have two battalions and a headquarters, two hotels for the pilgrims and another hotel for staff people. It’s mostly Army and Marines. But it’s parading, marching, singing at all parts of the day.”

A call to serve

Fr. Kaul admits organizing chaplains, who usually are “independent operators,” is a challenge.

“I tell my chaplains, you become the spiritual director for your particular group,” Fr. Kaul said. “I expect them to spend their time with the pilgrims. You have them as your number one responsibility.”

Organizing chaplains aside, Fr. Kaul said the best part of the pilgrimage is the chance to witness the joy and fulfillment the veterans experience in Lourdes.

“When we are walking to the Marian shrines, to the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, the underground Basilica of St. Pius X, what astounds me is Protestants who have trouble with Marian devotions forever and ever just take right to this,” Fr. Kaul said. “Whether someone is big into Marian devotions or not, they’re moved by the faith of 40,000 other people showing up to one place on purpose. If that doesn’t move you, check your pulse.”

Fr. Kaul said this will be his last year as head of the chaplain corps for the pilgrimage, but he hopes many veterans have the chance to experience the healing available in Lourdes.

“The reconnection these vets feel when they go on this pilgrimage is amazing,” Fr. Kaul said. “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.”

Archbishop Vigneron in Lourdes

Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron took a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, May 2-8. To see photos from the Archbishop’s pilgrimage visit the archbishop’s Facebook page.

Memorial Day prayer

God of power and mercy,
you destroy war and put down earthly pride.
Banish violence from our midst and wipe away our tears,
that we may all deserve to be called your sons and daughters.
Keep in your mercy those men and women
who have died in the cause of freedom
and bring them safely
into your kingdom of justice and peace.
We ask this though Jesus Christ our Lord.
Source: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops