Military Chaplains Coping in Iraq

Interview With Archbishop Edwin O'Brien

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WASHINGTON, D.C., DEC. 2, 2003 (Zenit.org).- The priests on the front lines in Iraq are not only ministering to Catholic soldiers -- they are reaching out to the Iraqis.



Military Ordinariate Archbishop Edwin O'Brien shared with ZENIT how the military commanders are relying on chaplains to communicate with Iraqi religious leaders in order to understand the needs of the native people.

Along with that special role, the limited number of priests from the Archdiocese for the Military Services are trying to serve the many Catholics in the armed forces.

Q: What special problems are U.S. military chaplains facing in Iraq?

Archbishop O'Brien: They are facing the same problems chaplains face during any time of war -- strange terrain, a different culture, immanent threat of danger, separation from home and an atmosphere of high stress.

The particular problem for chaplains especially is that there are relatively few in relationship to the number of Catholics they serve in their own units and in other units. Each military unit has a chaplain -- some are priests but far and away, most are Protestant ministers.

A priest is responsible for the pastoral care of all of the soldiers in his unit -- Catholic and non-Catholic. Plus, a priest must minister to Catholic soldiers in other units that are assigned to Protestant ministers.

Q: How does working in a Muslim country affect the ministry? Do chaplains have to be more discreet? Are there special concerns about interreligious sensibilities?

Archbishop O'Brien: I was over in Iraq a few weeks ago and found that the military commanders rely on chaplains to interface with the religious community where the soldiers are situated.

Given the strong disorientation of the Iraqi people, the military commanders see the importance of engaging the religious leadership of Iraq to every extent possible in explaining the situation, discovering the needs of the Iraqi people, resolving tensions and settling any disputes. The chaplains are doing this rather effectively.

Q: What are the particular spiritual struggles of the men and women who are stationed in Iraq at this time?

Archbishop O'Brien: They are experiencing those that you would expect in any deployment -- there are so many tensions and challenges.

One of the struggles of Catholic soldiers is to find a chaplain to whom they can speak and from whom they can receive sacraments. There are many Catholics over there who very rarely see a priest, and that is a real struggle, frustration and disappointment for them.

Q: Did the Vatican's opposition to the Iraq war cause complications for Catholics in uniform?

Archbishop O'Brien: The Vatican's opposition to the war in Iraq certainly was noted by everyone.

Our people were aware of the general statements of the Holy See and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in posing questions relative to the just-war theory and in coming to grips with those answers -- always allowing for prudent judgment in the application of the just war theory to this specific situation.

Q: What percentage of the military is Catholic? Besides offering the sacraments to the troops, do the chaplains do any catechesis or continuing education?

Archbishop O'Brien: We figure Catholics to be 25% to 30% of the military. The Military Ordinariate serves military personnel and families at 220 installations in 29 countries, patients in 172 Veterans Administration hospitals, and is responsible for federal employees serving in 134 countries.

Counting full- and part-time priests in uniform, about 1,000 chaplains serve more than 1.5 million Catholics a year, including 375,000 Catholic men and women in uniform; 900,000 family members of soldiers; 204,000 Catholics in the Reserves and the National Guard; 29,000 Catholic residents in VA Hospitals; and 66,000 Catholics in government service overseas.

The priests serving full time as chaplains number 400, and are on loan from 142 dioceses and 44 religious communities. Wherever the chaplains are stationed, troops have many opportunities to receive counseling and instruction, and they take advantage of that.

We have provided them, through the help of the Knights of Columbus, a booklet of prayers and teachings of the Church that is a rich spiritual resource -- it often leads to fruitful discussion with the chaplains and among the soldiers.

Q: What is the military doing to attract more chaplains?

Archbishop O'Brien: Each of the armed services has someone who is responsible for recruiting Catholic chaplains. If that recruiter is not a priest, it is a Protestant minister -- a recent change due to the shortage of priests. These recruiters make the rounds to seminaries and talk to the young men there about serving our country's soldiers.

Each branch of the armed services puts out full-page ads in Catholic periodicals and has prepared films and other support resources to garner interest in being a chaplain. The military also writes personal letters to priests, telling them the needs of the various branches and asking them if they would consider the chaplaincy.

We in the Military Archdiocese are constantly speaking to bishops and responding to any inquiring men. We complement the work of armed services, communicating the need for chaplains to serve our soldiers and attracting priests to fill that need. We're open to any inquiries or any suggestions to help in this area. We hope that we are doing our best.

We hold days of discernment and retreats here at Catholic University's theological college. Close to 30 men in uniform have expressed interest in the priesthood; they'll take a few days' leave from service and come to the seminary to experience the life.

We have a co-sponsorship program in which we join with a bishop to support a man in seminary. After the seminarian is ordained a priest for the bishop's diocese, he serves three years there. Afterwards, he is released for full-time ministry in whichever branch of the military he chooses.

In the chaplain candidacy program, seminarians spend a summer in uniform, on a ship or on a military installation. It's a great pastoral experience to be with the soldiers and see their need for chaplains. The seminarian has no obligation to put a uniform on after that summer in the program.

Among our bishops, I've been seeing more sympathy and interest in the chaplaincy. Bishops have been more generous in the last couple of years because they are quite aware of the urgent need and the impact it has had in their own communities with families left behind who need support.

Military families need to pray for vocations and look for them in their own families. I often speak about how parents need to support young men who are discerning. Something close to 17% of seminarians in the United States have some military experience and that number has grown.

I always ask that petitions for vocations to the priesthood and to the chaplain program be included at Masses. Everywhere we go, we tell people prayer is the basis of resolving the lack of vocations -- both to the military archdiocese and the priesthood in general. I am not sure we are praying hard enough -- and if we don't pray, we don't deserve vocations.