Bishop Joseph Coffey is one of four auxiliary bishops of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, the largest archdiocese in the world. Since his installation on March 25, 2019, he has logged thousands of hours and miles all over his territory, the entire United States. As vicar for veterans’ affairs, his duties include visiting chaplains of VAMC (veterans hospitals). A decorated Navy captain himself, an adventurous globe-trotter and a tireless worker in the cause of the sanctity of all human life, he is uniquely suited to the task. The Register caught up with him by phone on the road.
Father Coffey smiles with a Missionary of Charity sister.
The installation Mass for Bishop Coffey was on March 25, 2019.
Bishop Coffey baptizes a baby on board a U.S. Navy ship.
What are you doing during these days of pandemic?
This past week I visited about six veterans’ hospitals in Florida. I encourage chaplains to be strong when it comes to anointing someone with COVID-19. A lot of the veterans are elderly with comorbidities. They really need their priest-chaplain to anoint them and hear their confessions.
How do you take this pandemic?
I’ve always believed that God does not will evil but sometimes he allows it. Why? It’s always a mystery. Surely, he is trying to get our attention, to make changes, to right that which is clearly wrong, to repent of our sins of commission and omission.
You recently went to a rally to close abortion centers in Maryland during the pandemic. What message did you have for Gov. Larry Hogan, a Catholic?
The governor ordered the cancellation of all elective surgery. We went to ask him to enforce his own order, as other governors had. I read that his response was that abortion was “essential.” Our message was essential to help save some innocent lives. I’ve been blessed to meet pro-lifers from all over the country in my almost 20 years on active duty as a Navy chaplain, and I’ve never met anyone who condemned a woman for her decision. We know how desperate, alone and scared they can be. As a priest, I’ve been able to offer the great healing that comes with confession. We’re all sinners — every one of us. We all need God’s healing and love. That was the message I hoped to share with Gov. Hogan.
How did your dedication to the cause of life begin?
I was 13 years old in 1973. I remember my dad, who was a founding member of Physicians for Life, and my mom telling us nine kids at the dinner table what a terrible decision had just been handed down by the Supreme Court. When I got to high school at Archbishop John Carroll in Radnor, Pennsylvania, the school sent us down to Washington for what was to become the annual March for Life. I’ve been fortunate to go many times since, including when I was at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, later as a priest, and this past year as a newly ordained bishop.
For a few years I was involved with Operation Rescue. We would sit in front of the abortion-clinic doors trying to buy time for our sidewalk counselors to offer help to the women coming for their appointments. I was inspired by many courageous men and women rescuers. We were always peaceful and nonviolent. I was arrested in about a dozen cities, including my hometown of Philadelphia. There were some memorable moments and people who got arrested with us, including the late Bishop Austin Vaughan of New York. My greatest memory was the Good Friday rescue of 1989, when I got arrested with my mom and several of my siblings. She told me it was one of the happiest days of her life.
Did you ever save a child’s life?
I think the far greater impact has been praying the Rosary in front of Planned Parenthood and other clinics. We have had people come up to us and introduce their children to us. They tell us that when they saw someone praying in front of the clinic, they changed their minds and are eternally grateful.
You were one of three bishops to go out and join pro-lifers in the Rosary during last fall’s U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. What made you go out and join them?
I did that because I was asked to do it by some laypeople. They tell me that they get such tremendous encouragement when they see a seminarian, priest or bishop praying the Rosary in front of Planned Parenthood. I tell them that they inspire and encourage me. Several of my brothers and sisters are active in praying in front of clinics. I would encourage people to ask their priests and bishops to join them in praying the Rosary in front of abortion clinics.
Where do you see the pro-life movement now?
There is clearly a lot of momentum in the right direction with the Gosnell and Unplanned movies, and many incredible pro-life groups starting, and more and more crisis-pregnancy centers opening, offering real help to women in need. There is a real feeling that Roe can and will be overturned. It’s an unjust law, just as Dred Scott was an unjust law. Laws are written to promote justice, and I learned in the seminary that justice, which is a cardinal virtue, is rendering to one what is his due. God gave all of us a right to life. The smallest child can look at a picture from an ultrasound and know it’s a baby. From the moment of conception, all that is needed is time and nourishment. It’s not a potential human life, but a human life with great potential!
How will you serve the pro-life movement now that you are a bishop?
I will continue to speak out from the pulpit and pray in front of clinics. I have written letters to the editors of newspapers, to my senators and representatives urging them to vote to defund Planned Parenthood, to financially support the many worthy pro-life groups, and encourage them to vote. There are so many important issues that concern us, but my brother bishops in the USCCB recently voted in favor of calling this the “preeminent” issue of our time. Catholics must not vote for any candidate for any office that promotes the taking of innocent human life. To knowingly do so would be a grave sin. I have believed for many years that Satan, the Father of Lies and Darkness, will not give up abortion easily. It will take sacrifice, prayer, fasting and effort. I hate to say this, but I think few of us could honestly say we were doing all that we could to put an end to this great American and worldwide holocaust of abortion. I know I haven’t done enough! Let’s continue to encourage each other, clergy and laity together, to continue to fight for every human life, especially the most vulnerable from conception to natural death so that, in the words of my good friend, Father Frank Pavone, of Priests for Life, “abortion is not only illegal but unthinkable!” And I would add, “Just like slavery!”
Register correspondent Susie Lloyd writes from Pennsylvania.