January 24, 2019
Paulist Fr. Tom Hall was four years old when he was first captivated by Catholic worship.
He yelled out in an incense-filled Gothic Revival cathedral full of hushed worshipers, “Mommy, what are they doing?”
“Shhh,” his mother said. “They’re talking to God.”
“Even when I say that now, my heart leaps,” Fr. Tom says. “I thought, ‘That’s where I want to be. I want to be someplace where people talk to God.’ I want to lead people and show people, teach people how to communicate with God, how to pray to God.”
As a boy growing up in Los Angeles, these desires stuck with him.
“I was not like any 14-year-old kid. They were all thinking about hot cars and hot girls. I used to lay in bed… and I would think about the Holy Trinity,” Fr. Tom remembered. “I had a great theology teacher. He had a way of communicating the doctrines of our faith in a way that drew us deeply into the mystery … And I just would never tire of wrapping my mind around this.”
Fr. Tom had another love as well: the military. His older brother was in the Navy for a time and Fr. Tom was drawn to images of ships at sea. Then one day, his dad, an engineer contracting with the U.S. Navy, brought him on a tour of aircraft carriers.
“It just opened up my fantasy life about how great it would be to be on a big ship like that crossing the Pacific Ocean, going to faraway lands,” Fr. Tom says.
It got even better. On one trip around the Naval yard, a chaplain introduced himself. Fr. Tom was thrilled.
“Oh my gosh, this guy’s a priest,” he recalls thinking. “And he’s also a Naval officer and he’s also on an aircraft carrier and he’s going to be riding the ship across the Pacific Ocean to Japan and Southeast Asia. And it just unlocked so many childhood dreams that I had of the priesthood, the wanderlust, the excitement about being on such a technical marvel as an aircraft carrier. And it all just came together.”
He went through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps while studying at Marquette University. When he felt called to be a priest, he first joined the Jesuits, and then was ordained with the Paulist Fathers in 1977. As the child of a Baptist father, Fr. Tom liked the Paulist focus on ecumenism. That ecumenism came in handy during his career. He fulfilled his youthful dreams as a U.S. Navy chaplain for 30 years. He worked with people of all faiths. The experience, he says, was wonderful.
“I felt like I was being used by the Holy Spirit,” says Fr. Tom. “I felt like I was being affirmed in my faith that I was there for these guys and gals that were experiencing loneliness, shame, sadness, desolation.”
Fr. Tom gave brutally honest talks to the deploying troops about the importance of unburdening themselves, and the sailors and Marines would line up for confession before going to war.
“I’d say, ‘Most of you are going to come back but some of you are going to come back in body bags. And I only pray that if you are any of those who will die in the sands of the Arabian Desert that you will have some time before then, find a buddy or a trusted witness that you can share with, share your secrets your fears and your resentments. And I will be available after this presentation if any of you want to share them with me,” Fr. Tom would say. “I’d be there for two hours. I’d go outside of the tent and these guys would be lined up in the sands of the Mojave Desert and they would all kneel down before me and some of the guys would cry.”
Fr. Tom fostered his own spiritual resilience by reading from St. Teresa of Avila on board the noisy Desert Duck helicopter flying over the Persian Gulf for seven hours at a time.
“You know how good it feels to get a massage after a workout? That’s how I felt when I was reading Teresa of Avila,” Fr. Tom says. “It was a spiritual respite from all of the craziness around me.”
It took years for Fr. Tom to find more respite from the trauma of war. That came when he walked the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in 2010. He said it was his most grueling psychological and spiritual experience.
After Fr. Tom officially retired from the Navy, he went on to be a chaplain at the Betty Ford Center, and for the Army.
These days, Fr. Tom continues work as a chaplain and satisfies his wanderlust in a rather different marine environment: on cruise ships. The job includes presiding at daily Mass for passengers and crew, leading non-denominational Christian worship, and identifying someone on board to lead Jewish services (or doing it himself if he cannot find someone who will fill the role).
He jokes about other roles: “I go to console those who lose at bingo and congratulate those who win. I applaud for even the worst of singers in the Karaoke Lounge,” Fr. Tom says.
Fr. Tom loves to explore when the ships dock. And he’s still as fascinated by the Holy Trinity as he was as a teen.
“Yesterday, I was on a tour of Buddhist monasteries and temples in Bangkok,” he wrote in an email over New Years 2019. “One of the temples is called the ‘Temple of the Charity Among Three Friends.’ AND, the architecture of the structure is a compilation of triangles. Hmmm, hints of the Holy Trinity..As a Paulist priest, I’m always looking for the similarities among our world’s great religions, rather than the differences.”