Navy Priest is, in a sense, the story of a certain type of American who seems to have died with the 20th century.
Capt. Jake Laboon, S.J., grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1920s and 1930s. Swimming in deep Catholic waters that have since receded, he and four of his siblings went on to religious life.
Laboon was six-and-a-half feet tall, a remarkable athlete, a serenely affable, Newmanesque Christian gentleman. He was a war hero at a time when that still impressed everyone. He became a Naval officer at a time when it conferred universal respect. And he became a priest in the 1950s, when the American church was at peace with itself, unified and riding high.
In Navy Priest, Richard Gribble, C.S.C., gives us John Francis Laboon, Jr. (1921-1988): World War II submariner, Jesuit, educator, chaplain, career Naval officer, retreat master and parish pastor. Laboon was, as one observer put it, “a man of peace who entered the profession of warriors to keep the peace.”
Fr. Gribble repeatedly thrusts Laboon’s life into exhaustive historical context. In doing so he gives us not only Laboon’s life, but his times. And by extension, he gives us an exercise in contrast against our own time and the lives that populate it. America doesn’t seem capable of making Jake Laboons anymore.
Fr. Gribble takes the reader through the story of Pittsburgh, the Great Depression and World War II. He tells you more than a non-Navy person probably wants to know about life at the U.S. Naval Academy in the early 1940s. He walks you through the changing role and ultimate triumph of American Catholicism in the post-World War II years—and into the post-Vatican II disintegration of that triumph. He continues through the deepening disillusionment of the Vietnam years. He wraps up in the 1980s, when Laboon ran afoul of the archbishop of Baltimore because he supported his old friend Oliver North from the pulpit.
The only thing that remains solid through it all is Laboon himself. And one gets the sense that Laboon was such a rock because of the sturdy Catholic stuff of which he was made. Being a good Navy man didn’t hurt either.
Along the way, Fr. Laboon makes interesting friends, including North, whose life he helped to save in Vietnam; the future Sen. Jim Webb, recent presidential candidate; and Adm. Mike Mullen, recent chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
One thing you get clear in Navy Priest is that Jake Laboon was a fine, dignified example of humanity. The book contains countless, almost monotonous quotations from Laboon’s contemporaries to that effect. One finds the quotations to be out of proportion to anecdotes that actually illustrate who Laboon was. As a result, the reader feels at times that Gribble is telling about Laboon, but not showing him.
There is scarcely a shred of evidence in the book that Laboon was anything less than a prince among men. While evidently true, this makes his biography a challenge. How do you find dramatic tension in the story of a man about whom no one has a harsh word to say?
Unless the reader is a Navy veteran, some of the warrens Fr. Gribble explores might be excruciating. Fr. Gribble probably didn’t need to provide a rundown of the subjects Laboon took in high school, the grades he got at the Naval Academy or the dimensions of the vessels on which he was stationed.
In fact, in the early going, Fr. Gribble gets so lost in detail, he does little to communicate to the reader just why he should care about Jake Laboon. But in addressing Laboon’s later years, Fr. Gribble gives us more to chew on. Presumably, this is in part because he has more extant material to work with.
At war in Vietnam, Laboon stated on the one hand that by his presence as chaplain he was not “approving or disapproving” the war—that “I am here because these young Marines need me.” On the other hand, he said that “I realized that it was there that America must stem the spread of communism.” In 1969, Laboon lamented the lack of support for the soldiers: “This is what hurts the troops so much. … most Americans would consider them fools for being involved” in the war.
One can easily imagine how Laboon would have felt about the Pax Christi protesters who disrupted his friend Cardinal John O’Connor as O’Connor presided over the launching of the U.S.S. Laboon in 1993. A protester took over the podium, saying it was inappropriate for a warship to be named after a priest.
Here and there, Fr. Gribble squirrels away in the footnotes some compelling details about Laboon. For instance, in footnotes you learn that Padre Pio had prophesied to Jake’s father that Jake would become a priest. You find Laboon in a foxhole with Marines in Vietnam, under heavy fire, calmly lighting a cigar. You see a baseball game in which a Marine intentionally ran into Laboon at first base, with Laboon about to slug the Marine before being reminded he was a priest. You watch Laboon yelling at the umpire from the stands during a Navy baseball game because, as Laboon explained, “You have to keep them honest.” You see Laboon telling a Navy woman that their planned service aboard ships would “ruin” the Navy. You also find an admiral complimenting Jake by way of a swipe at the Jesuits: “Jesuits are very prone to offer their opinions on many things. Few, however, have the experience to back up those opinions as did Jake.”
In its totality, Navy Priest portrays a man who lived for God and country, a humble example to all around him—whether Catholic or not—but one who was not afraid to hold those around him to a high moral standard. As Laboon once put it to a group of officers, “The day you were sworn in as midshipmen…that was the moment you died to yourself.”
What a foreign notion that seems today, in an indulgent age that prizes self ever farther above self-sacrifice. What a long distance we have come since the era that gave rise to Jake Laboon.
But that’s precisely why Navy Priest is worth marinating in for a few hundred pages. Amidst all the superlatives about Fr. Laboon and his legacy, one encounters a coherent way of living that gives the 21st-century reader an antidote to the current zeitgeist.