January 11, 2013

2013 Religious Vocations Supplement

Archdiocesan priest ministered around the world as Navy chaplain

By Mary Ann Garber

Msgr. John WrightBlinking back tears, comedian Bob Hope and actress Ann Margaret greeted the seriously wounded Marine shortly after he was airlifted to a remote field hospital in South Vietnam for emergency surgery.

The comedian and actress were visiting enlisted men and women during their U.S.O. Christmas Tour in 1968 in the midst of the hard-fought Vietnam War.

Standing with them was Father John Wright, a young Navy chaplain from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis stationed with a medical battalion at a field hospital near Da Nang to minister to injured members of the First Marine Division.

Father Wright administered the sacrament of the sick and prayed with the Marine before the soldier was evacuated by helicopter to a military base hospital in an urgent attempt to save his life.

The chaplain never learned what happened to the young soldier, who had been critically wounded by a land mine.

“When you have been in combat, you appreciate what it is to be alive,” Msgr. Wright said during a recent interview about his 50 years of priestly ministry and 30 years of military service, which earned him the rank of captain in the U.S. Navy.

“You feel very necessary as a priest,” he said. “I administered many, many last rites, and it increased my faith. I knew that what I was doing was very important.”

Reflecting on his year as a war chaplain in South Vietnam from October 1968 to October 1969, Msgr. Wright said he will always remember all of the heroes that he met—many of whom made the ultimate sacrifice—on the front lines of battles in the dense jungles.

Serving God and his country throughout the world has been “a tremendous honor,” Msgr. Wright said. “I’m thankful for 30 years in the military [as a chaplain], and I’m thankful, above all, for the priesthood and 50 years of ministry.

“It makes you feel more humble because of what you see happening through the sacraments,” he said. “I’ve given the sacrament of the sick—I don’t know how many times—which is a great joy. I’ve helped a number of brave young sailors and Marines as they lay dying. How they faced death [with so much courage] was amazing. The Lord’s presence is very real.”

At military bases throughout the U.S., Msgr. Wright witnessed many exchanges of wedding vows and baptized scores of infants and adults while serving Catholic enlisted men and women and their families.

As a child, John Milton Wright never dreamed that he would tour the world.

He was born on Sept. 23, 1936, in Huntington, Ind., and lived on a farm outside South Whitley, Ind., for five years.

In 1941, his parents, Dennis and Mildred Wright, moved their young family to Indianapolis. His father was a teacher at Howe High School, and worked as a house painter during the summer months.

One hot day, Dennis Wright came home from a painting job then unexpectedly died of a heart attack at age 45. John, the youngest of four siblings, was only 9.

In 1948, his mother entered the full communion of the Church, and he did too. He was baptized at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in 1949.

After two years at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, John enrolled at the former Saint Meinrad High School in southern Indiana.

“God knows,” Msgr. Wright said with a smile when asked why he decided to begin seminary studies at the former Saint Meinrad College.

“In 1958, the archdiocese selected me as one of two seminarians to go to [The] Catholic University [of America] in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “I studied theology there, and on May 6, 1962, was ordained a priest for this diocese by Archbishop Paul C. Schulte at Saint Meinrad. I eventually got a master’s degree in sociology and religion.”

His first assignments on May 28, 1962, were associate pastor of St. Pius X Parish and religion teacher at Bishop Chatard High School, both in Indianapolis.

On June 2, 1965, he was named associate pastor of Holy Spirit Parish and religion teacher at Father Thomas Scecina Memorial High School, both in Indianapolis.

Two years later, Father Wright and Father Paul Richart were summoned to the chancery by Archbishop Schulte and told that the Military Archdiocese needed their service as chaplains.

“It was a surprise,” he recalled about his May 23, 1967, appointment. “I had a brother with a military career in the Navy so I said I’d like to go into the Navy.”

During the course of many assignments over three decades, Father Wright traveled all over the world, including overseas service on the U.S.S. Franklin D. Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier deployed in the Mediterranean.

“It was a great duty,” he said. “It was a tremendous experience.”

That assignment took him from Israel to Spain and many points in between.

En route home, the ship got caught in a hurricane, and 40-foot waves swamped the deck. The huge aircraft carrier sustained $5 million worth of damage.

“We had to ride out the storm for 18 hours,” he said. “A lot of people were praying pretty hard, including myself!”

New orders sent him back to Catholic University for a year of post-graduate studies then to Newport, R.I., to teach chaplaincy classes at a Navy base there.

From there, he was appointed a Catholic chaplain for the Navy base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

Next was a stint as chaplain of the Navy’s Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean.

“While I was there, I started having some heart trouble,” Msgr. Wright said. “After about a year there, they sent me to the Navy hospital in Bethesda, Md. I was home on medical leave in Indianapolis on

Jan. 2, 1982, when I had a heart attack in my niece’s car. Fortunately, she took me to Community Hospital, but I was dead when I got there. The doctors saved me.”

After three weeks in intensive care, the 45-year-old priest was sent back to the Navy hospital at Bethesda for three months of rehabilitation then limited duty at Newport teaching chaplaincy classes.

Later, he assisted the Navy’s Chief of Chaplains at the Naval Military Personnel Command adjacent to the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., from 1983 until 1985.

After that assignment, Father Wright was sent to the submarine school at the Naval Training Center in Orlando, Fla.

Then he returned to the Chief of Chaplains office as his executive assistant.

From 1989 until 1992, Father Wright served at the Submarine Force Atlantic in Norfolk, and traveled in a nuclear-powered sub for five days.

“It was absolutely amazing,” he said of that underwater experience.

Next, he was transferred to the Naval Training Center in San Diego.

On Aug. 8, 1994, he was named a prelate of honor by Blessed John Paul II and honored during a public conferral liturgy at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral on Feb. 19, 1995.

After three decades of military service, Msgr. Wright retired from active duty on July 1, 1997. He continues to provide

part-time sacramental assistance at parishes in the Diocese of San Diego.

“I died when I was 45,” he said, “and I’ve had 30-plus years of life that I didn’t expect to have since then. Now I’m 76.”

His devotions to Mary and St. Joseph carried him through many life challenges.

In retirement, Msgr. Wright enjoys reading and studying the Civil War.

“The world is a marvelous place,” he said, “and there are marvelous people that I’ve met in all of my tours. I’ve always liked to travel, and being a military priest has given me a great deal of that.”

Msgr. Wright encourages young men considering God’s call to the priesthood to “give seminary a try, and if you’re going to try, give it your all.”

Last summer, he returned to Indiana for a seminary reunion at Saint Meinrad and had a chance to see a priest friend, Father David Lawler, associate pastor of St. Christopher Parish in Indianapolis.

“John is very cordial, very outgoing, has a great sense of humor and is very bright,” Father Lawler said of his former seminary classmate. “After all these years, he’s still the same old guy. He’s a real fine priest, a man of integrity, and has marvelous pastoral skills.”

(For more information on vocations to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, log on to www.HearGodsCall.com.)

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