Valor of priests ministering in the military
June 21 marked the ninth anniversary of Father Timothy Vakoc’s death. He is the only priest severely wounded by a road-side bomb in Iraq who later died as a result of his service. I will never forget my visit to him a year before he died. Even though speech was a challenge, he communicated his passion for the ministry which ultimately ended his earthly pilgrimage.
Historically, several Catholic military chaplains are well-known for their heroic deeds in times of war. All of the chaplains who received the Medal of Honor in the 20th century were Catholic priests. Their names might easily spring to mind. They gave so much of themselves for those they served.
However, what about the priest in his “ordinary” daily ministry? How does he give life as he meets the spiritual and human needs of the men and women in uniform? The role is challenging in today’s culture and the demands on his time are many.
Most Catholic priests who serve the military today fall into two categories. Either they are military chaplains (active duty, reserve, or National Guard) or they are civilians who meet the demands of a contracted or GS position. In either case, they are expected to meet all of the needs of the Catholics at their installation or on their ship. In that sense, you might liken them to your parish priest: attentive to sacramental needs, available to offer counsel, an asset to the religious education program, and ever ready to respond to those key moments in our lives –birth, sickness, sacraments, and death.
In the military the priests are also the “subject experts” for any question related to the Catholic faith. They are assisted in this role by the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA (AMS), the personal archdiocese at the service of men and women in uniform, of patients in the medical centers of the Department of Veterans Affairs, of any Catholic who works for the federal government outside of the U.S. borders, and of the families of these populations. The AMS assures the minimum expectations for ministry to Catholics, publishes a priests’ handbook, and responds to questions, problems, and opportunities that arise.
Those priests in uniform, however, are also officers in their respective branches of service. In that role they also provide for the needs of all those who seek their assistance. While they do not lead worship for non-Catholics, they might have to assure that spiritual needs are met, i.e., find someone who can fulfill the role required, order the items needed for the celebration of Passover, secure space for the Muslim community to pray, and so forth.
Most Catholic priests in the Armed Forces are not married (there are a few former Anglican and Episcopalian priests and Lutheran ministers who have families). There is a tendency to give them duty on holidays, so that the other chaplains can spend those days with their families. Catholic priests in the military often struggle to have a day off. They sacrifice to serve those who serve our country.
The U.S. has been at war now for almost two decades. However, military service involves less than 1 percent of the population. We might not often think of those demands which are the daily tasks of the priests who serve the military. You and I enjoy the freedoms that the military protects. They are vigilant so that we can be tranquil. These priests minister to those who make sacrifices for us. They offer the life-giving sacraments to those who put their lives on the line for our freedoms. In the case of a Father Vakoc they even sacrifice life itself so as to give life.
THE MOST REVEREND TIMOTHY P. BROGLIO has served as Archbishop for the Military Services, USA, since 2008. He is a veteran of the Holy See’s diplomatic corps and holds a doctorate in canon law. As a member of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Broglio is currently chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace.