Priests in Uniform: Twice Called to Serve

10/28/2011

A growing number of men bravely fill a crucial need as Catholic military chaplains

by Maureen Boyle

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Soldiers participate in an early morning march as part of the CHaplain Basic Officer Leadership Course at Fort Jackson, S.C. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

During his most recent deployment, Father Francis Foley flew every Saturday from the flight deck of a nuclear-powered supercarrier, the USS Nimitz, to nearby smaller naval vessels cruising the often-treacherous waters of the Persian Gulf, the western Pacific Ocean or the Arabian Sea.

Today 265 active-duty Catholic chaplains minister to the 1.5 million Catholic service personnel and their families in
all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, serving
at 229 military installations in 29 countries throughout
the world.

A 53-year-old chaplain for the U.S. Navy, Father Foley would be dressed in light brown khakis and a gilt cross marking his chaplain post pinned to the left collar of his uniform shirt. Carrying a Mass kit and accompanied by an assistant, he would jump into a SH-60 Seahawk helicopter with up to eight or nine Navy personnel. He would say an Act of Contrition and offer the crew general absolution before taking off for a 30- to 45-minute flight.

Since sailors, Marines, soldiers and airmen often cannot walk down the street to a parish church, the Catholic chaplain must go to them, said Father Foley, who is a member of Harry G. Johansing Council 4429 in Twentynine Palms, Calif.

While serving aboard the Nimitz, he celebrated daily Mass in the ship’s small chapel, often with five to 12 others. Sunday Mass, however, usually drew several hundreds and was celebrated in the ship’s foc’sle, a large open area under the flight deck and located in the forward-most part of the 1,000-foot-long, 100,000-ton vessel. His weekday routine — which began at 6:30 a.m. and ended more than 15 hours later — also involved greeting crew members, attending senior officer meetings, sharing meals with the ship’s crew and offering counsel, spiritual or otherwise.

“It was exciting, never dull. I loved it,” said Father Foley of his service from 2008 to 2010 as the command chaplain of one of the Navy’s largest warships. Because many young Catholics in the military know little about their faith and do not regularly attend Mass, he added, a chaplain’s encounter with them is significant. “It becomes an occasion of grace.”

Yet, today there are only 265 active-duty Catholic chaplains who minister to the 1.5 million Catholic service personnel and their families in all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. These dedicated men serve at 229 military installations in 29 countries throughout the world.

A PLEDGE OF SUPPORT

Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, describes the Catholic military chaplaincy as “a vocation within a vocation” — involving men who have answered God’s call to the priesthood and have then responded to a need within this particular ministry.

“We are engaged in some of the longest wars in the history of the United States, with servicemen and women living far from home. … It makes the chaplain’s work all that much more important,” said Archbishop Broglio, who has headed the archdiocese since 2007.

To address the severe shortage of military chaplains — about 500 more priests are needed, according to Archbishop Broglio — the Knights of Columbus established a new scholarship program to assist seminarians preparing to become Catholic chaplains in the U.S. Armed Forces. The program will distribute $1 million in scholarship money to the archdiocese over a period of five years, at a rate of $200,000 per year.

In particular, the scholarships will support the Co-Sponsored Seminarian Program, which the military archdiocese established three years ago. If a young man is accepted into the program, the military archdiocese in most cases will pay 50 percent of a seminarian’s five-year education — typically $12,500 per year — with the other half funded by his diocese. Following his priestly ordination, he will serve three years at a parish or in a religious community before serving as a military chaplain for a minimum of three to five years.

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(Top to bottom) Father Gary Studniewski leads soldiers in prayer • Father Fausto Kaverenge, drinks water during a chaplsin training exercise. • Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, greets soldiers in Iraq. • Father Francis Foley distributes the Eucharist to soldiers in Afghanistan.

Since the program began, it has seen positive results, with a increase from seven seminarians in 2008 to 32 in 2011.

“One bright light on the horizon is that the numbers are increasing, and that is a tremendous source of encouragement,” Archbishop Broglio said.

The archbishop credits the Holy Spirit first and foremost for bringing more seminarians to the co-sponsored program. He also credits Father John McLaughlin, who served as the first national vocations director for the archdiocese from 2008 to 2011, and Conventual Franciscan Father Kerry Abbott, who assumed the post after Father McLaughlin’s retirement.

Father Abbott, 57, recently retired after 21 years as an Air Force chaplain. During a deployment in Afghanistan, he was one of only three priests responsible for the pastoral care of the soldiers and Marines on 25 military bases. Every day, Father Abbott would make a 10- to 15-mile trek through deserts or mountain ranges to tend to his flock.

“These men and women are in … forward locations, at the ‘tip of the spear,’ to bring freedom and self-determination to others. And the chaplain brings to them what they cannot otherwise receive through any other means — the sacraments of the Church,” said Father Abbott, who is a member of Mary, Star of the Sea Council 511 in Hampton, Va.

“The harvest is great, but the workers are few,” he continued, adding that blessings often arise from burdens. Greater numbers of exceptional young men in recent years have responded to the vocation to become military chaplains.

ANSWERING THE CALL

Some of the co-sponsored seminarians are familiar with life in the armed services, with one in 10 having grown up in a military family, according to Father Abbott. Seminarians are also often recruited from among active-duty servicemen or from the service academies, such as West Point or the U.S. Naval Academy.

As a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Michael Hofer said he felt called not only to the priesthood, but also to serve as an Air Force chaplain. At the academy, he began and led a Bible study and prayer group, and he fell in love with teaching the faith and guiding others to Christ. Also strengthened by frequent reception of the sacraments, he decided to pursue the priesthood directly after his graduation. At 24 years old, he is a first-year theology student, co-sponsored by the Diocese of Rapid City, S.D, and on track to be ordained in 2016.

Hofer said he does not fear being a chaplain in war zones, but enthusiastically looks forward to serving with men and women in uniform and being among them to answer their profound questions about God, life and death. “Hopefully, I will point them in the right direction and point them to God,” he said.

Deacon Christopher Rhodes, a 33-year-old native of Dallas and a graduate of Morehouse College, was serving in the U.S. Army as a commanding officer stationed in Korea. He had long been discerning a vocation to the priesthood but made his final decision when he realized he would rather counsel troops as a priest than administer disciplinary actions as a commanding officer.

“It’s a huge task — what a commander must do is train and protect the troops. A chaplain must be taking the same care, but on the spiritual level,” said Deacon Rhodes, who is co-sponsored by the Archdiocese of Louisville, Ky., and is scheduled to be ordained a priest in May 2012.

‘TOTAL WITNESSES FOR CHRIST’

For those in the armed forces serving at home or abroad, a Catholic chaplain acts as an anchor, helping a serviceman or woman draw on an inner strength that is an absolute necessity in military life. Sadly, due to the demands of war, the critical shortage of Catholic chaplains is felt especially in dangerous outposts like Iraq and Afghanistan. There, troops sometimes go six weeks or more without ever seeing a Catholic chaplain, according to U.S. Army Col. Robert Carpenter, who retired from active duty after 31 years of service in 2009.

“These young men and women lose their close friends in battle and what do they do? They want to go see the chaplain,” said Carpenter, a member of Our Lady of the Rosary Council 12982 in Bristow, Va.

With deployment rates so high, the Catholic chaplain is also essential for families on the home front. By offering marriage counseling and support to soldiers, “they are helping keep that family together,” Carpenter said.

He recalled a moment while serving in Baghdad, Iraq, when he fully realized the lengths to which a Catholic military chaplain will go to bring Christ to those entrusted to his pastoral care. Three years ago on Easter Sunday, a day when the enemy was particularly hostile toward American troops, Father Abbott was celebrating Mass in a small chapel with several dozen troops. The chapel suddenly came under heavy artillery fire with rocket-propelled grenades exploding all around the building. Everyone took cover, Carpenter said, except Father Abbott, who kept going, continuing to say Mass even in the face of imminent danger and death.

These brave Catholic chaplains, he added, “are not just officers and priests, but total witnesses for Christ.”

FAITHFUL, JOYFUL PRESENCE

At present, Father Foley no longer lives among 5,500 military personnel on the floating city of an aircraft carrier, serving instead as the deputy command chaplain of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing in San Diego. Until he leaves early next year for his second tour in Afghanistan, he will continue his pastoral duties with the Marines and their families stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.

Part of his duties includes welcoming back sailors and Marines as they return from distant war zones. Once a week, he stands alongside another chaplain and other officers, including the commanding general, as a plane carrying sailors and Marines lands at the air station. Some of the returning personnel have suffered serious combat wounds.

“We thank them for their service to our country, and if they are with their mother and father, we thank them for sharing the most precious gift they have. Then, we say a prayer with them if they are open to it,” Father Foley said.

The meetings are usually brief, lasting perhaps 20 minutes, but they send a message that is greater than the moment itself: “It tells them we care about you and we are praying for you,” Father Foley said. “With the grace of God, I’m privileged to be there and to be an instrument of God’s grace.”

As the co-sponsored seminarians — the next generation of Catholic military chaplains — prepare themselves for ordination and life in the armed services, Father Foley offers words of wisdom that come from almost 20 years as a military chaplain. He advises them to love Jesus Christ and the Church above all else, to count their blessings, and to not be afraid of hard work.

But most of all, he said, those in the armed services must see in their Catholic chaplain the joyfulness of being a Catholic, of being a priest and of being with them: “Be faithful, be joyful and let them see that joy of Christ.”

Maureen Boyle writes from Silver Spring, Md.