Veteran’s Day is a day to remember and honor those who have served our country. It’s a time we set aside to thank those who have risked their lives and sacrificed family time to keep us safe. I want to encourage everyone to remember one of the often-overlooked veterans in our military: Catholic Chaplains.
Catholics worldwide were reminded of the service of Catholic priests in the Armed Services as the remains of Father Emil Kapaun were recently returned to the United States. It is important to remember we still have priests serving in the military. The Church recognized the crucial role chaplains play in the military when Pope Saint John Paul II established the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA (AMS) and gave pastoral care of the 1.8 million Catholics in the American military to the Archdiocese. As of 2020, the Archdiocese only had 204 Roman Catholic priests serving as active-duty chaplains to the over 1.8 million Catholics in uniform.
The life of a military priest (Chaplain) is unlike the lives other priests live. Many Catholics are familiar with the photos of Fr. Kapaun holding Mass outside. The Catholic chaplain goes and provides the Sacraments to wherever the military servicemembers may be located. This ministry could bring them to hold Mass in the desert or on the deck of an aircraft carrier. It could also require priests to rush into battle to provide the Sacraments to those dying. The chaplain deals with a constantly changing “congregation” as the servicemembers and their families move frequently.
The sad reality, however, is there continues to be a decline in those willing to enter such vital ministry. “Because of a current shortage of priests serving as officers in the chaplain corps of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, the Archdiocese also endorses priests to fill GS (General Schedule) and contract positions at military installations around the world.” (Archdiocese website)
The shortage also endangered the availability of Mass at one of the largest naval base cities in the United States last year. The United States Navy, citing budget concerns and issues, considered not renewing the contracts the Navy had with civilian Catholic priests. The concern jeopardized the availability of the Sacraments to the Catholic servicemembers stationed at the bases because the civilian Catholic priests celebrated Mass at naval bases in the area. The civilian priests filled the void of priests left because of a lack of active-duty chaplains to fill that role. As a result, the elimination of the contracts could have resulted in Mass coming to an end at naval bases in San Diego, California. Thankfully, the Navy chose not to suspend the contracts, but the threat renewed a concern about the lack of active-duty chaplains to serve the military.
According to the Archdiocese, Catholic priests must not only be ordained but also meet the military requirements to be a commissioned officer since all Chaplains in the military are commissioned officers. Catholic priests serve military servicemembers and their families in all branches of the Armed forces, which includes active-duty, Reserve, National Guard, Civil Air Patrol and Coast Guard.
As we celebrate Veteran’s Day, I want to encourage everyone to pray for priests serving as Military Chaplains. Additionally, pray for more men to respond to the call and enter a life of service not just to the Church, but to the nation. To those men who are serving as chaplains, or have served in the past, we thank you and salute you.