Two priests and one deacon from the diocese provide law enforcement support as chaplains
By Gabrielle Nolan
Law enforcement professionals keep us safe, maintain law and order, and run to dangerous situations when others are running away. Such an important and intense work calls for a special type of support.
During daily routines, as well as in times of crisis, chaplains are present to assist police officers and law enforcement staff. Chaplains are a necessary component to the law enforcement profession to provide encouragement, counsel, and prayer.
The Diocese of Knoxville currently has one deacon and two priests who serve in this important capacity, alongside their regular ministerial roles.
Each chaplain receives permission from Bishop Richard F. Stika to pursue chaplaincy.
“It’s very important work,” said Bishop Stika, who himself served as a law enforcement chaplain in St. Louis with the Metropolitan Police Department.
“Another term for who we call law enforcement is peace officer, to bring peace into a situation,” the bishop said. “As a priest, it’s part of our responsibility to bring peace and serenity in the lives of people by knowing God.”
Deacon Patrick Murphy-Racey serves at St. John XXIII University Parish, and he also serves as a chaplain for the Knox County Sheriff’s Office.
“Most of my ministry is actually in the right-hand seat of a squad car,” Deacon Murphy-Racey said. “I spend about 100 hours a month riding along with officers on patrol, and I also go to K-9 training.”
“I think there’s almost 1,000 employees of the Knoxville sheriff’s office, so through the grapevine I hear about people who have died, or I hear about people who have cancer, and I go visit them. I go out,” he continued. “I’m a deacon that’s very much on offense every day.”
“I have amazing relationships with officers,” he added.
Deacon Murphy-Racey didn’t always want to be a chaplain for law enforcement.
“I blame Deacon Jim Lawson totally for this,” he explained. “During my formation time, Deacon Jim continually asked me over and over and over again. Every time I said no, he’d come back and ask me again, are you interested in doing law enforcement chaplaincy?”
Then during a visit to his hometown of Chicago, Deacon Murphy-Racey was leaving a bakery when he saw a police officer sitting in his car parked on the street. Two police officers in New York City had just been murdered, and so Deacon Murphy-Racey felt compelled to treat the officer to breakfast.
“I gave him this little bag of doughnuts and coffee, and I said, ‘Hey, man, I hope you don’t mind I got you some breakfast.’ I said, ‘I feel really terrible about what happened in Brooklyn yesterday.’ And a crazy thing happened; he started to sob, just bawling,” the deacon said.
“I was so freaked out by this; I literally gave him the stuff, and I ran away. I didn’t know what to do. I just never saw that reaction happening. And so, the following day I was driving back to Tennessee, and I called Deacon Jim, and I said, ‘Hey, man, I think I’m ready to get interested in chaplaincy because this crazy thing happened to me yesterday,’ and I told him about it.”
Deacon Murphy-Racey goes on calls with the sheriff’s office once or twice per month, attending to where he is needed.
“I go to suicides, I go to murders, I go to traffic accidents where people die, I go to natural deaths in homes, I go all the time. So, one of the things I do is respond to death, people who die in Knox County. And then the other thing I do, which is really sad, is death notifications,” he said. “To be able to take that away from officers is really, really important to me.”
“One way I look at my work as a chaplain is that I come every Sunday, and I get to assist at the altar as minister of the cup, and I breathe in deeply the Eucharist; and when I breathe out, it’s typically in police cars,” Deacon Murphy-Racey said.
“It’s an amazing ministry; it’s so powerful. The shared experiences I’ve had of trauma with officers has really been fascinating to go through things. I got shot at once on Clinton Highway. You wouldn’t believe the stuff I’ve gotten into; it’s pretty wild,” he said.
To counterbalance his work, Deacon Murphy-Racey feeds his hobby of motorcycling.
“I have been very passionate about motorcycling,” he said. “And I have to say, too, that the motorcycling is really therapeutic for me, and it’s very much about mental health. It’s very difficult to be a chaplain and be as active as I am and see the things I see on a regular basis. It requires a lot of balance, and the motorcycling really, really balances me.”
“It helps me kind of recover from trauma . . . primary trauma that I experience myself but also secondary trauma where I get the trauma from others. I’m with them and praying with them and listening to them. . . . So, I think the motorcycling is really, really important for me. It helps me stay balanced . . . and the chaplaincy helps me, too, because it helps me realize what’s important.”
‘The ministry of presence’
Father Martin Gladysz, associate pastor at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, is also a chaplain for the Knox County Sheriff’s Office. He was previously a chaplain for the Knoxville Police Department from September 2019 to May 2022.
“I love the service people,” he said. “I am so happy to go on the ride-along with the officers. This is really exciting to be with them.”
Once a month, all of the chaplains attend a meeting for the sheriff’s office and meet with different departments. A meeting at the airport allowed chaplains to ride with the pilots of the helicopters for the sheriff’s office.
“It was so perfect, and so cold at the same time,” Father Gladysz laughed.
Father Gladysz noted that for chaplaincy in law enforcement, there are “two sides of this work.”
“One is work with and for officers and all employees of the sheriff’s office, and the second is for the community,” he said.
Father Gladysz has been called many times to emotionally support a family during a “terrible moment of their life.”
In dealing with the darker parts of this ministry, Father Gladysz compares it to hearing confessions.
“This is a gift; this is a privilege of the confessor that we don’t remember it,” he said. “If I will go to my room after the confession of 20 people, and I will think about their sins, I will be done. It’s too much for the one person. God’s grace is that . . . I am not thinking about it. I am finishing confession, and I am free of all of the memories, and I think the same grace from God is in this kind of situation. I’m talking about myself, I don’t know how the different chaplains are struggling with this.”
There are more than 30 chaplains working for the Knox County Sheriff Office, but Father Gladysz is the only Catholic priest. For many of the officers, he is the first Catholic priest they have ever met.
“I just love to be with them. I just love that they can meet, [for] the first time, the Catholic priest,” Father Gladysz said.
“This is the ministry of presence. I am not expecting any fruits,” he said. “I am not going to the ride-along with the officers and starting a homily for them or start evangelization for them. No, I am just with them. And I am so happy that some of them, they want to talk—we are making a conversation about God, with others we talk about what kind of movies we are watching.”
“To spend the time to be with them, for me this is the best prize of being a chaplain. . . . This is why I am a priest, to be with people. Maybe not always to preach to them about Jesus but to give a witness.”
Father Gladysz has one officer in particular he calls a friend.
“I have been with him like three times already on the ride-along, and with him it was the most beautiful conversation about God,” he explained. “But what is interesting, he is Muslim. He’s a great guy . . . it’s like a friendship between the Catholic priest and a Muslim. This is the person that I’m talking about God with a lot.”
The variety of denominations among chaplains also allows for ecumenical conversations.
“I’m so grateful I have an opportunity to meet so many of my brother pastors from the different denominations,” Father Gladysz said. “Probably I never would have met these guys in my ministry.”
‘Grace in all things’
Paulist Father Charlie Donahue, pastor at Immaculate Conception Parish in Knoxville, served as a chaplain for the Knoxville Police Department (KPD) from July 2011 to 2014, when he left the diocese for a new assignment. He returned to Knoxville in 2021 and resumed his chaplaincy work.
“I had done a program called Leadership Knoxville . . . and one of my partners in that was the new-then chief of police,” Father Donahue explained. “He told me about the chaplain corps.”
Father Donahue went through the four-month training to learn the intricacies of law enforcement and chaplaincy for law enforcement.
“First, we are there for the officers and staff of the KPD,” he said. “And then, [secondly], is to be of use to the KPD, particularly to help calm situations . . . in the aftermath of violence or in the aftermath of a death.”
There also is a request to attend as many roll calls as possible.
“A roll call is before every shift; there is a large meeting with all the officers and leadership that are going to be on for the next 10 or 12 hours, whatever the shift is going to be. So, you’re there with them, you pray with them, and you’re a known quantity for them, and they know that you’re a resource for them that day.”
“We have a duty day. It’s a 24-hour period where one of us is the principal chaplain, and on those days I try to be at KPD headquarters a lot, in and around the building, and at as many roll calls as I can make,” Father Donahue said.
Being present to the officers and unfortunate circumstances is also a reminder of faith to the chaplains themselves.
“You’re meeting people on what are some of the worst days of their lives, and that is a space that is difficult but in a weird way is beautiful because you can sort of bring God into whatever, even the most horrible things,” Father Donahue said. “The chaplain is kind of a reminder that God’s in control, and that the community is there to help.”
“In the end, what we want to convey to everyone is that they’re not alone,” he added.
A rewarding part of the ministry for Father Donahue is getting the chance to “talk to people who would not necessarily go to church.”
“It’s not that you’re getting them to come to your church; you’re just hearing them out, you’re listening to them, you’re seeing where they’re coming from,” he said. “It’s a chance to get to know people on a spiritual level that might be outside of my faith tradition, and it enables us to see grace in all things.”
Father Donahue noted that the Knoxville Police Department is “aggressively looking for more chaplains” and that he is now the sole Catholic chaplain for the KPD.
“If you feel a tug and a call to seek further information, I’m happy to be a resource,” he said.