CHARLESTON, South Carolina — Father Allen Corrigan likes to say that he first started flying an airplane in elementary school.
When the priest from the Cleveland Diocese was in the third grade at Catholic school, he would “fly his desk,” drawing the controls of an imaginary cockpit on the surface and pretending to fly during class. The young man’s interest was noticed by the nuns who taught him and it never fell away.
In 1997, several years after he was ordained, Corrigan took to the skies for real. He learned to fly and became the co-owner of a Cessna 172 Skyhawk.
As a priest who loves having wings, he is also a member of the National Association of Priest Pilots, an organization of Catholic clergy who share a love for aviation.
The group’s members call themselves the Flying Padres. First formed in 1964 by two priests from Kentucky, the organization started with about 80 members. An endorsement from Blessed Paul VI soon followed. The National Association of Priest Pilots today has more than 100 members in the U.S. and overseas, including Brazil, Africa and Australia. Members include priests and bishops. They have various levels of flying experience — from students to experienced professionals and flight instructors.
The organization held its national conference in Charleston for the first time July 10-12. Thirty priests from the U.S. and as far away as Jamaica spent three days worshipping and praying together. They visited historic sites in the city and talked about the two things that bring them together: their commitment to sharing the Gospel and the joy of soaring through the skies.
Msgr. John Hemann, a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa, has been a member since the beginning and currently serves as treasurer. He started taking flying lessons shortly after he was ordained in 1961 and earned his pilot’s license in 1964. Over the years he has owned or flown 11 different airplanes. Only recently he stopped piloting himself, being content to ride with his fellow priests as a passenger.
“Many people are surprised when they hear about a group of Catholic priests who are also pilots,” Hemann told The Catholic Miscellany, newspaper of the Diocese of Charleston. “It is something many don’t think a priest would do.”
Hemann enjoys being part of NAPP because of the close friendships he has made with fellow clergy who share a love of flying. He readily discusses the diversity of experience the men bring to the table.
Some are diocesan priests while others belong to religious orders. Hemann spent 28 years as a military chaplain, retiring as a brigadier general in the National Guard. Father Joe McCaffrey, a NAPP member and pastor of Sts. John and Paul Parish in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, is a chaplain for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Hemann also is proud of the group’s commitment to charity. He said they regularly raise money to purchase airplanes for priests doing mission work overseas to help them minister in the field.
Many of the priests say flying offers a unique chance to evangelize.
“As a priest and a pilot, you encounter people you wouldn’t ordinarily meet,” McCaffrey said. “Many of them fly themselves, or are initially interested in the fact that you are a pilot, and those conversations will often turn into a chance to talk about God and the church. It’s a whole different way of encountering people.”
McCaffrey, who has been flying since 1998, tells the story of a friendship with a couple at one of his parishes. The wife was Catholic. Her husband was not, but he had an interest in flying. McCaffrey showed the man his plane and invited him on a few flights. Along the way, talk moved from flying to spiritual matters, and now the man has joined the church.
Flying also serves as a much-needed release from the daily stresses of running a parish or serving in ministry. Father John Schmitz, pastor of two parishes in the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri, and the group’s president, said he tries to fly in his Cessna 150 once a week, although sometimes his work makes that a challenge.
When they are above the clouds, many priest pilot members say they find inspiration for homilies and learn new dimensions of their faith.
Being high in the air at the controls of a plane offers a different way of understanding life, they said, and a new focus on surrendering completely to God.
“When you are 3,000 feet up, you have a very different perspective on life,” Corrigan said. “You can’t worry about the little things.”
Knauss is a reporter at The Catholic Miscellany, newspaper of the Diocese of Charleston.