Father Alfred Audette has been ordained only five years, but he leans an experienced, compassionate ear into the confessional grille: world-savvy but never world-weary.
"There isn't a businessman who can tell me anything I haven't lived before. There isn't a married man or woman who can tell me anything I haven't heard before. And there isn't a kid who can tell me anything I haven't seen before," says the pastor of St. Marguerite Bourgeoys parish.
He states this matter-of-factly, without a boast or sigh, knowing that not many clergy have lived the life he has lived: hot-shot fighter pilot with 200 missions over North Vietnam, Air Force consultant on race relations, advisor to police, business entrepreneur, husband, father of four, widower, grandfather of 14--and now administrator of a rural church with a leaky roof and a hemorrhaging debt that got him in trouble with some parishioners when he began bingo as a Band-Aid.
The mortgage seems to have bugged him more than dodging missiles over Haiphong Harbor. Mulling over parish finances, he forgot to renew his pilot's license and no longer rents a plane to take the altar boys up for a ride.
Graying and trim at 64, Audette is evidence of a recent phenomenon in the Catholic Church: the late vocation. His path to the pulpit did not begin with a pious mother praying for a priest in the family.
"My mother passed away when I was very young," he said. "I was in an orphanage for a number of years. . . . There were no family role models, but at nearby Attleboro [Mass.], there was a tiny airport with small planes and dashing pilots to dream on."
He entered the Air Force during the Korean War and on a blind date at an officers club, he met Mary Ann Poling. "She was dynamite. I proposed to her 25 seconds after we met, called her every day after that for 10 days and married her two months later."
After a second Vietnam tour, Audette moved to Strategic Air Command in Omaha. At a conference of staff chiefs and generals, Audette was asked for ideas on improving Air Force race relations and proposed a costly program to fly officers to intensive one-week seminars.
The chief of staff bought the precedent-setting plan, and Audette soon was promoted to full colonel. He was sent to the National War College, then served as defense attache in Portugal.
Bored with his last assignment as a Pentagon intelligence briefer, Audette left the military after 30 years to open a business consultancy in the Washington area.
"The call to the priesthood never came," he says, "until my wife was diagnosed with incurable cancer. The moment she slipped away at 4 o'clock on that Sunday morning, I knew where I was going."
He went to Catholic University, living in a nearby Josephite monastery. Using a tape recorder to audit canon law courses, Audette crammed four years of theology into three at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia.
Battling with budgets as well as for souls, Audette now wishes that his seminary curriculum had included some accounting courses. Yet he admits to enjoying a different kind of challenge from MIGs coming up on his screen.
"Everyone said it would be difficult for me to be a priest," he said.
"Difficult to give up my home, my car, my lifestyle. But the point is none of the above. It's the excitement of the enterprise God has called me to."