I WISH THIS COLUMN could be accompanied by a soundtrack of Rev. Robert McLaughlin's laugh.

It was a deep roar, punctuated by a fabulous "ootz" sound when he inhaled for the next bellow. It was one of those big, generous laughs that made you want to howl with mirth, too.

I imagine I speak for most people who loved him when I say it's unfathomable that the world won't hear that laugh again.

Father Mac - as the 65-year-old Roman Catholic priest was referred to by anyone who knew him longer than five minutes - died last Thursday while on a getaway to his family's place in the peaceful mountains of upstate Wyoming County.

"When he was there, you could see the tension drain away from him," said his sister, Loretta McLaughlin, whom I called shortly after hearing that Father Mac had suffered a cardiac arrest, a not-surprising outcome of the heart problems he'd suffered the last few years.

"When you bear other people's burdens, you need to recharge your battery or you have nothing left to give. The mountains gave Bob a chance to reflect on the silence and beauty of all God's creations, not just the human creation, with its clutter."

The mountain house is of modest size, but Father Mac added a roomy, enclosed porch retrofitted with an altar from a nearby, defunct convent. There, among the chirps of birds and in view of grazing deer and the occasional black bear, he'd celebrate Mass with family, friends or retired neighbors who couldn't get to church easily.

"Afterward, we'd convert the porch back into a breakfast room," said Loretta.

What a wonderfully "Father Mac" sort of space - casually hospitable to the twin needs of the spirit and belly.

At the time of his death, Father Mac had been pastor of St. Basil the Great Roman Catholic Church in Kimberton, Chester County, for more than a decade. Before that, for 16 years, he was director of Temple University's Neumann Center - a gig perfectly suited to his wonderful ability to connect with young adults.

Indeed, Father Mac was "the cool priest" when, as a teen, I knew him at Holy Martyrs Church, where he was associate rector. (I know - this is the second time in two weeks that I've written about my childhood parish; please indulge me once more, for Father Mac's sake.)

I was one of a gaggle of kids who worked at the rectory, and he'd talk with us for hours in the kitchen - about music and school, friendships and sports. He challenged our ideas, explored our notions about God, told us time and again to respect our parents. He could remember every joke he ever heard.

He was awesome.

I lost touch with Father Mac after he left Holy Martyrs, but reconnected with him five years ago, after he read a column I wrote about the grand jury's report on the sex-abuse scandal of the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

By then, Father Mac was at St. Basil's, whose people embraced him as tightly as we had at Holy Martyrs. Together, they'd built a magnificent new church, which Father Mac proudly showed off during my subsequent visit with him there.

Afterward, he shared with me the anguish he felt about the church's cover-up of its sins, and he courageously allowed me to write a column about how bluntly he'd spoken with his parishioners about it during Mass.

He abhorred the cover-up, he'd roared from the altar and vowed to protect the children of his parish, even if it meant putting to use his license to carry a firearm - a license which he then pulled from his robes and flashed to his flock.

I lost count of how many e-mails I received in grateful response to Father Mac's bravery in the pulpit. However, let me say that, if Catholics could elect their leaders, Father Mac would've been wearing a bishop's mitre these past five years.

But Father Mac was so much more than that show-stopping moment of bravado.

He was also a brilliant theologian. A lover of Irish history. A world traveler. An Internet geek before anyone knew what the World Wide Web was.

And, above all, a man of unflagging love of those he served.

"He bore other people's crosses. He carried people in his heart, for years," said Loretta. "Since he died, there has been an outpouring of love from people he knew from every placement he ever had. He even stayed in touch with his first-grade nun! Everyone says he impacted their lives. But he would say that they impacted his. Once he met you, you were in his heart forever."

His laugh will always be in mine.

Transfer of Father Mac's body will be at 4 p.m. today, followed by a viewing and then Mass at 7 p.m. at St. Basil the Great Church, 2340 Kimberton Rd., Kimberton. A Funeral Mass will be said at 11 a.m. tomorrow, also at St. Basil; friends may call at 9 a.m. Burial will be in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, Cheltenham.

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

http://go.philly.com/polaneczky. Read Ronnie's blog at http://go.philly.com/ronnieblog.