By Lois Rogers | Correspondent
Throughout 25 years of priestly ministry, the heart of Father Michael G. Lankford-Stokes’ mission has remained the same: sharing the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist with as many faithful as possible.
Serving three communities over the decades as a parochial vicar and pastor enabled him to do that in a parish setting, but the time came when he felt called to add a new dimension to this mission – serving the members of the United States Armed Forces as a chaplain.
Since 2005, when he sought and received permission from Bishop John M. Smith to become a chaplain for the Department of Veterans Affairs (Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA) he has focused on being present for both parish and military communities.
On weekends, he can be found in the parish setting, celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in Fair Haven’s Nativity Church or St. Catherine Church, Middletown. Weekdays, Father Lankford-Stokes commutes from Monmouth County to East Orange, where he ministers from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. to veterans in the V.A. hospital.
He said ministering simultaneously in these divergent spheres adds a depth and balance to each that is profoundly rewarding. “The very good thing about it is that you can do parish work you would otherwise lose in a hospital setting,” he said. “You need a congregation to stay grounded.”
Being grounded, he said, is of the utmost importance if a chaplain is to help veterans deal with “the difficulties inflicted upon them by war. … You need to put all of your energy into it as you hope for the best.”
A Call to Catholicism
Father Lankford-Stokes is enthusiastic when describing his early childhood. Born in Athens, where his late father, Charles Lankford, a Navy engineer, was stationed with the U.S. military, his family lived in Greece, Spain, Morocco, Panama, England, or as he says, “all over.” His late mother, Carol Stokes, was a professor of military history and a historian for the Army Signal Corps.
When the family settled in Michigan, he and his brother, David, attended public school and worshiped with their parents in the Episcopal tradition. Drawn to religious life, he experienced a pull toward Catholicism as a youth.
As a college student in Michigan State University, he attended Catholic worship and realized that the seed that “was already germinating” had blossomed into a call for conversion. He converted to Catholicism in 1979 while in college, during which time he became friends with a local pastor.
“I made the change very consciously. Coming from the Episcopalian tradition, which is steeped in liturgy” was a big change, Father Lankford said. “But to have the True Presence and the Apostolic belief that the magisterium teaches” confirmed the decision, he said.
Father Lankford-Stokes entered Pontifical College Josephinum Seminary in Worthington, Ohio, in 1986.
As a seminarian, he served in St. James Parish, Pennington, and was a transitional deacon in St. Justin the Martyr Parish, Toms River. Ordained to the priesthood May 16, 1992, in St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton, by Bishop John C. Reiss, the newly ordained priest was appointed parochial vicar in St. James Parish, Red Bank.
He later served as parochial vicar and temporary administrator in St. Anthony Parish, Trenton, before being assigned as administrator to St. Jerome Parish, West Long Branch, in 2000. He was appointed pastor of the parish in 2001.
A New Ministry
After 15 years devoted to parish ministry, in 2005, he felt the time might be at hand to consider a change. He took a three-month sabbatical for discernment.
“I knew there was a great need for chaplains, particularly Catholic priests, and there was an opportunity for a position,” he said of hospital ministry, which Bishop Smith approved.
For eight hours Monday through Friday, Father Lankford-Stokes sees patients, including walk-ins, sits on committees, and leads groups in the substance abuse ward and serves as chaplain in the spinal cord unit.
“I have a lot of duties,” he said, explaining that veterans come to the hospital seeking respite and recovery from complicated circumstances. “My job is to help them through the difficulties inflicted upon them by war.”
“Going on what I learned in the seminary and what I learned along the way helping in hospitals” – including Red Bank’s Riverview and St. Francis Medical Center, Trenton – “the work is so rewarding,” he said.
“I bring a sympathetic ear and a willingness to hear troubles and see where their spirituality is,” he added.
In the VA hospital, Father Lankford-Stokes lends that willing ear to staff as well as patients. “On the floors, I talk to everyone” and after a while, patients, doctors and nurses pay him the highest compliment telling others, “Father’s good to talk to.”
“It doesn’t get much better than that,” he said.