U.S. Marine chaplain Father Bill Devine celebrates Mass at a military camp in the Iraqi desert. (CNS photo from Reuters)
The Archdiocese for the Military Services USA is unlike any other diocese in the country. It serves military personnel and families at 220 installations in 29 countries, as well as patients in 153 veterans’ hospitals. It is also responsible for federal employees serving in 180 countries. Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, who was installed in 2008, writes about the unique challenges facing the archdiocese and his hopes for the future.
Jesus came to earth to be with us, to be one of us. Like Jesus, we are called to do the same for those in our care. It’s certainly a challenge to minister to 1.5 million people who are spread across the globe. But we try to take every opportunity we can to be where our service men and women are—when they are in danger, when they are lonely, when they are hurt, when they are dying.
Earlier this year, one of our auxiliary bishops e-mailed me about his Good Friday celebration at a military base in Iraq. In the middle of the service, they were attacked by rockets and had to run for cover. While they were under cover, the bishop led them in the Our Father and the General Intercessions. Later on, when the all-clear sounded, they held the rest of the service. But the fact that the bishop was with them, sharing their personal danger, made a deep impression on those men and women.
A Sacrificial Presence. The best ministry is done by chaplains who are out and about, going where the men and women are and talking with them. The great blessing of these chaplains is their willingness to sacrifice themselves in order to reach out, to find people, and to be present.
Some chaplains thrive in deployment. The job is almost 100 percent pastoral, and there’s a great deal of freedom to be with those in uniform. There’s no question that priests who are in deployed areas are also in danger, simply because they’re constantly traveling from one group to another. It’s very significant that the first chaplain to die from his wounds in Iraq was a Catholic priest, Fr. Tim Vakoc.
There’s a tremendous problem with suicides in the armed forces, and the chaplains are always on the front lines to try to reach out to those at risk. They’re also one of the first people called when a suicide occurs or when someone is killed.
I just had a message from our chaplain in Afghanistan that seven service people were killed in a bombing attack. Three were Catholic. And there was the chaplain, ready to pray and offer the sacraments. In such situations, even though the bodies are sent home, we hold memorial services to offer some closure and consolation to those who remain. No one comes out of that unscathed. Military chaplains also minister to families as they come to Dover Air Force Base to reclaim the remains and at the time of the funeral. It’s a constant commitment.
Occasionally, I get the privilege of taking on this direct kind of pastoral role as well. On one of my first visits to a veterans’ hospital, I was escorted into the room of a strapping young marine. He was so afflicted by a brain injury that he couldn’t speak. It was tragic to see this handsome young man who looked fine physically but was obviously hurt. I was deeply moved to be able to be there with him, to hold his hand, and to pray with him.
The Need for More Priests. The greatest challenge we face is the scarcity of priests. We have only 265 active-duty priests serving as military chaplains around the world. In the smaller Forward Operating Bases, visits from chaplains are very sporadic. A priest friend of mine brought me a letter from a family member who was distressed because the son had seen a priest only once in six months. And I said, “Tell the family that’s actually pretty good, because some go a lot longer without the sacraments.” Our priests try to get to as many places as they can, but there are so few of them, and the need is so great.
Because priests are not always available, we try to designate Catholic leaders to serve the community. They lead Liturgy of the Word services and the praying of the rosary. We provide them with electronic devices that have resources such as homilies and Scripture readings that can be downloaded as well. In these situations the already precious issues of The Word Among Us become invaluable. The ability to put not only the daily readings in the hands of our men and women in uniform but also prayers, articles of interest, and other spiritual guides is priceless.
So my first goal for the archdiocese is to increase the number of active-duty chaplains—both to seek more priests and retain the ones we have.
It’s also important that we identify the service men and women who need our assistance and reach out to them in a more effective way than we are doing now. Where are the Catholics, and if they are not participating in the chapel activities, why not? How can we reach out to them? This is a young church. Most of our people are between the ages of eighteen and twenty-eight. And because of that, we have to learn a whole new language in order to speak to them. We have to improve our outreach to them, to find ways to bring the gospel to them.
Prayers for Peace and Vocations. Our Catholics stateside can help us with their financial assistance and especially their prayers. First, pray for a lasting and just peace in the world. And second, pray for vocations to the chaplaincy. The country is at war, and everyone is stretched to the limits of what he or she can do. For priests, the demands are very great, and they obviously suffer all of the same difficulties that military men and women do. And even those who are not deployed are under strain, ministering to the families of those who are deployed.
A couple of years ago, I was able to spend Holy Week in Iraq. I celebrated two Holy Thursday Masses—one in Mosul and one in Baghdad. Kneeling down to wash the feet of the soldiers in both places was very moving for me. The service men and women really appreciated the fact that their shepherd had chosen to be there with them. And every time I’ve gone to the Middle East or on an aircraft carrier, I’m struck by how grateful people are. I want our service men and women to know that we, their shepherds, care for them. We want to bring Christ to them. And I know that with God’s grace, we will continue to do so.
Meeting Jesus in the Printed Word
The numbers are staggering: 265 active-duty priests serving 1.5 million people spread throughout the world. That’s the challenge of the Archdiocese for the Military Services USA. In every military base, on every naval ship, in every theater of war, there are service men and women longing to meet the Lord and receive his strength, his comfort, and his encouragement. Clearly, the chaplains can’t meet every need at every location all the time.
That’s why The Word Among Us Partners has a military outreach program. Thanks to generous readers like you, Catholics serving in the military, as well as believers in other challenging situations, are able to receive The Word Among Us magazine and other materials that can help them connect with God. Working with prison and military chaplains, we are building bridges of hope and faith to 54,000 inmates in the U.S. and Canada and to 23,000 service men and women. Through crisis pregnancy centers and Project Rachel post-abortion ministries, we offer some 4,000 women a bridge to life.
But so many more are asking for help. Will you help us reach them? Please pray for these ministries and become a Partner. You can make a tax-deductible donation—of $100, $50, or whatever you can give—http://www.partners.com or by sending a check to:
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