By Debbie Gregory.
The Archdiocese of the Military Services is looking to increase the numbers of priests serving in the military. Though Catholics account for roughly one quarter of all U.S. service members worldwide, there are slightly more than 200 Catholic chaplains.
“For God and Country” was a retreat sponsored by the archdiocese, the endorsing agency for Catholic chaplains. Military chaplains provide pastoral, spiritual and emotional support for service personnel, including the conduct of religious services at sea, on bases or in the field.
Deacon Mike Yakir, chancellor for the Archdiocese of the Military Services, said there are some sacraments that only a priest can provide.
“If you’re a Marine … going out on a patrol the next morning, and you think you might not come back and you want make confession, only a priest can do that,” Yakir said. No other church official and no chaplain of another faith can offer a Catholic that sacrament.
Constant change is part of the every day life and work of Catholic chaplains in the military. Unlike a priest in a civilian parish, chaplains in the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard must work with a constantly changing group of people.
In 2006, training materials obtained by U.S. intelligence showed that insurgent snipers fighting in Iraq were urged to single out and attack medics and chaplains, on the theory that those casualties would demoralize entire enemy units.
A Defense Department Inspector General report last year said that Catholic found the demands of meeting the needs of their units and performing services for their own faith group at large made for a difficult workload. But it is a personal ministry of presence, caring for the needs of Catholic military personnel and their families.
If you talk to most any of the priest-chaplains in the military, they will tell you they would not trade this ministry for any other. The rewards are great. And those they minister to are open to spiritual growth. As those in our military do the difficult work of protecting our freedom, Catholic chaplains walk beside them, providing the spiritual and emotional strength they need.