For 25 years of ministry, Father Raphael has served as ‘an ambassador of Christ’

Father John Raphael, who serves as a staff chaplain for Saint Thomas Health, recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. Here, he meets with heart transplant recipient Joni Launer, left, and Nancy McClendon, the mother of her heart donor, at Saint Thomas West Hospital on July 12, 2019.
Tennessee Register file photo by Andy Telli

Before Father John Raphael was ordained as a priest in 1995, his hometown newspaper in New Orleans did an article on the ordinands from the city that year and asked each for a motto for their pending priesthood.

Father Raphael chose: “To be an ambassador of Christ and to be a dispenser of the mysteries of God.”

“Twenty-five years later, the goal is the same,” said Father Raphael, a staff chaplain for Saint Thomas Health since 2012, who celebrated the 25th anniversary of his ordination on Wednesday, May 20.

During his 25 years as a priest, each assignment he has had has been “radically different,” Father Raphael said, from a parish priest to college chaplain to high school teacher and administrator to working in a hospital.

But there is one constant, he said. “Wherever you are and whatever you are doing you bring the priesthood into it.”

Father Raphael grew up in New Orleans, the son of two teachers. His father had been raised a Catholic and his mother a Baptist. “In New Orleans, there are a lot of Catholics and Protestants in the same family,” he said.

“My brother and I were actually raised in my mother’s church,” but they were familiar with the Catholic Church through his father’s side of the family.

Attracted by the liturgy and the rituals of the Catholic Church, “At 13, I decided I really wanted to be Catholic,” Father Raphael said. His parents agreed and he began taking instruction with a priest at his local parish. After about a year, he was received into the Church.

As a high school sophomore, Father Raphael transferred to St. Augustine High School, which had been founded in 1951 to educate African-American boys. “Keep in mind, the schools were still segregated,” he said.

The school was operated by priests from the Society of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, also known as the Josephites, who came to the United States in the middle of the 19th century to serve and minister to African-American Catholics, a mission they have to this day.

St. Augustine was founded anticipating the social changes regarding race that were coming to the United States, Father Raphael said. The Josephites’ message to their students, he said, was “you will be as prepared as anyone else. … You have to go forth, but with the character of a Knight,” which is the school’s mascot.

“At St. Augustine we were taught some things are so important it’s worth losing as long as you take a stand,” Father Raphael said.

After graduating from St. Augustine in 1985, Father Raphael enrolled at the University of Notre Dame, graduating with a degree in philosophy in 1989.

“I had a big social life in high school and college,” playing the saxophone in the band at both St. Augustine and Notre Dame. “I had a wide range of friends.”

He also had an active faith life at Notre Dame, attending daily Mass and praying the rosary in the school’s famous Grotto.

“The religious dimension kept tugging at me, tugging at me,” Father Raphael said. “Toward the end of my sophomore year, I realized I had to make my faith the most important thing in my life and everything had to grow out of that.”

He started thinking about the priesthood as well, though he resisted the idea at first. “By my junior year, it was pretty clear to me that I wanted to be a priest.”

“At the time I was not overly interested in the diocesan priesthood,” Father Raphael said, so he began exploring several religious orders.

In choosing an order, “fidelity to the teachings of the Church and the proper celebration of the sacraments were important to me,” Father Raphael said.

“In order for the sacraments to mean something, we have to reach out so the sacraments are not just things to be done, but touch people,” Father Raphael said.

Because he had been taught by the Josephites in high school, Father Raphael decided to visit the order’s St. Joseph Seminary in Washington, D.C. “I immediately knew, this is where I needed to be,” he said. It was the second time he felt that way; the other was on his first visit to Notre Dame.

He was accepted by the Josephites and entered the seminary in the fall of 1989. The Josephite seminarians studied under the Dominicans. “I’m a Thomist to the core,” Father Raphael said. “I thoroughly enjoyed my seminary time.”

“I grew up thoroughly in the John Paul II era,” he said. “In many ways I think I’m emblematic of what a seminary student and priest of that JPII era would be.”

His first assignment after his ordination in 1995 was as an associate pastor at a parish in Beaumont, Texas, for four years. That was followed by five years as the Catholic chaplain at Howard University in Washington.

In 2004, he returned to New Orleans and his alma mater, St. Augustine, as a teacher, assistant principal, principal and ultimately president.

He helped the school through the transition after Hurricane Katrina hit the city in 2005 and remained at the school until 2011.

While living at the Josephites’ provincial house in Baltimore, the late Jerry Kearney, the vice president of mission for Saint Thomas Health invited Father Raphael to come to Nashville to serve as a hospital chaplain.

“I wasn’t interested in it,” said Father Raphael, who at the time was exploring the possibility of becoming a military chaplain. “Jerry was very persistent. It was a low-grade persistence, but it wouldn’t end.”

He eventually agreed to come to Nashville to visit Saint Thomas’ three hospitals in Nashville and Murfreesboro and meet Bishop David Choby.

“Bishop Choby was the essence of kindness,” Father Raphael said. “The initial conversation I had with Bishop Choby really floored me.”

Five years later, Father Raphael spent time with Bishop Choby who was hospitalized and near death. “The night before he died, he was in a very, very talkative mood,” Father Raphael recalled. “What struck me, he brought back topics we had talked about at our very first meeting. I found that amazing.”

It was his visit to the hospital in Rutherford County that sealed Father Raphael’s decision to come to Nashville. “It is clear I am supposed to be here,” he said. “Just as definitely as it was with Notre Dame, as it was with the Josephites, so it was here.”

“I had never been a hospital chaplain. This was a new world to me,” Father Raphael said. But he was working with “great people,” and “almost immediately I found … I took to it.”

“People come here vulnerable and in a time of anxiety,” Father Raphael said. “You are able to bring some peace … and to bring the sacraments.”

“You look for the signs of providence and grace that are there,” he said. “They welcome you into their hearts, they welcome you into their lives.”

Father Raphael is happy to be part of the legacy of the Daughters of Charity, who founded Saint Thomas Hospital, and he appreciates “the ability to keep the faith dimension of Catholic health

care visible and prominent in the work of what we do. It’s not an appendage, it’s at the heart of what we do.”

His work as a chaplain at Saint Thomas and for the Nashville Guild of the Catholic Medical Association was recognized by the Catholic Medical Association during its annual convention in September 2019 as the “Chaplain of the Year.”

“It was a big surprise,” Father Raphael said of winning the award. “It’s great when you can win an award just by going to work.”