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Ministry in the Military: Serving Those Who Serve
By Susan Hines-Brigger
On any given day, there are 1.4 million Catholics serving in the U.S. military around the world. The Archdiocese for the Military Services, U.S.A., strives to meet their spiritual needs.


Ministering Around the Globe
Leadership Born Out of Experience
A Chaplain's Duties
Facing Challenges
Constantly Recruiting
A Noble Profession
Fulfilling an Unmet Need

Photo from Archdiocese for the Military Services, U.S.A.

This month at the annual U.S. bishops’ meeting in Washington, D.C., Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien will be on the lookout for a few good men. As head of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, U.S.A., it’s part of his job.

“Some of [the bishops] run when they see me because they know what I’m going to ask them,” he says jokingly.

And in these days of fewer and fewer priests, he understands it’s a tough sell to ask bishops to loan their priests to serve as military chaplains. But Archbishop O’Brien also knows how important it is to have priests available to our service men and women, their families, veterans and government workers in foreign countries.

Archbishop O’Brien spoke with St. Anthony Messenger at last November’s bishops’ meeting about the joys and challenges of leading the largest archdiocese—geographically—in the entire Church.

Today, according to its 2003 annual report, the Archdiocese for the Military Services, U.S.A., ministers to 375,000 Catholic men and women in uniform, 737,500 family members, 204,000 Catholics in the Reserves and National Guard, 29,000 Catholic residents in 172 Veterans’ Administration Medical Centers and 66,000 Catholics in government service in 134 countries overseas. This includes ministry to cadets at the five U.S. military service academies. The focus of the archdiocese is to provide pastoral and spiritual services to those people.

The archdiocese receives no funding from either the Church or the government. Instead, it relies on contributions from individual donors and organizations in order to pay for its operations.

“We support ourselves,” Archbishop O’Brien says. “We raised two and a half million dollars last year.”

He adds, “We are not engaged in politics; we’re not engaged in international affairs. We try to leave that to the professionals.”

What the archdiocese is, however, is “an extension of [the service men’s and women’s] own dioceses and their own parish priests,” the archbishop says. “We’re seeking to do the same thing for them that they receive in their own parishes. They have a right to the sacraments, they have a right to a healthy spiritual life, they have a right for moral guidance—what is right and wrong. They would get that if they knocked on their rectory door, and they should not have to forfeit that because they put on a uniform in service of their country.”

Archbishop O’Brien has headed the archdiocese since 1997 and calls it “a glorious experience.” But it is not his first encounter with the military. That relationship began shortly after he was ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of New York in 1965. His first assignment was the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, where he served for five years. Thousands of miles away, the Vietnam War was raging.

“I found myself in the late ’60s marrying cadets in June and burying them within a year,” Archbishop O’Brien recalls.

Feeling the need for a deeper connection with the soldiers, he requested permission from Cardinal Spellman to become a chaplain in the Army. After Cardinal Spellman passed away, Cardinal Terrence Cooke agreed and, in 1970, O’Brien joined the Army and entered airborne school at Fort Benning, Georgia. He then went on to serve at Fort Bragg with the 82nd Airborne Division.

O’Brien spent a year in Vietnam, an experience which, he says, “really enriched my priesthood and showed me the unique need for vocations and for the vocation of a priest in the middle of the people.”

In 1973 he left the military to pursue doctoral studies in Rome, never thinking he would be back. He was wrong. After almost 25 years of service to the Archdiocese of New York and the North American College in Rome, in April 1997 Pope John Paul II named him coadjutor archbishop for the military archdiocese. Four months later, his predecessor Archbishop Joseph Dimino retired and Archbishop O’Brien took over.

In terms of numbers, there are currently about 375 priests serving on active duty as full-time chaplains with the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard. Another 480 priests serve part-time with the Reserve forces and the National Guard. At V.A. Medical Centers, there are 91 full-time and 41 part-time chaplains.

Those chaplains come to the military on loan from their local bishop, or superior in the case of religious orders. The chaplains currently serving are from 142 U.S. dioceses and 44 religious communities.

Father Robert Bruno, O.F.M., a colonel and command chaplain for the United States Air Force at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, reports that 91 percent of the Catholic chaplains in the Air Force function as pastors.

“That’s where a lot of the priest’s ministry and time and talent will be directed—running the parish as pastor and all the programs associated with it, such as weekend Masses, daily Mass, sacramental formation, a CCD program, parish council—all the events that go with being a pastor,” says Father Bruno.

Air Force chaplains are also, however, subject to three-month deployments, which are repeated about every 18 to 24 months. And while their primary concern is ministering to Catholics, chaplains will also at times be called upon to serve the broader Air Force community.

The other nine percent of chaplains, he says, are either going to school or in staff ministry, such as himself.

During his 24 years of active duty, Father Bruno has spent 14 years at the parish (wing) level as a pastor, two as a student and eight in staff ministry as either a deputy command chaplain or command chaplain. He has been in his current position as command chaplain for the Air Mobility Command for the past 14 months. Before that, he served for 19 months as the command chaplain for Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field, Florida.

In his current position, Father Bruno and his staff “are responsible for 13 chaplain service teams throughout the United States, in what’s called Air Mobility Command”: working personnel, training and support issues. He compares his position with being on the staff of a bishop or the council of a provincial.

The most rewarding part of the job, he says, “is touching people’s lives. Right now there’s an enormous pressure on our Air Force and their families because of the war and other things that are going on. We’re all stretched fairly thin, being there as a support to those who are still here and those who are overseas, and taking care of their families when they’re not with them. It is enormously rewarding to be a part of that support network to get them through those tough times.”

One particular incident really brought that point home for him. In 1996, he was part of the rescue mission for a plane that crashed in Dubrovnik, Croatia. (U.S. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown was killed on the flight.) The site of this disaster, he recalls, was “a traumatic experience for those people who are the rescuers and responders.”

A number of times throughout the mission, as members of the rescue team found out he was a chaplain, “They just said, ‘Thank God you’re here, Father,’” he recalls. “Even Protestants would say, ‘Father, thank you. I’m not Catholic, but your being here just is reassurance for all of us who have to take care of this.’”

He says that is just one of millions of similar stories that sustain him in the work he does.

According to Archbishop O’Brien, one of the biggest challenges facing the archdiocese is communication: “keeping up with our priests primarily. We do it by the modern means of communication—Internet and e-mail. But the best thing is seeing them face-to-face and letting them know of our concern in person.”

But the archdiocese is also struggling with a decreasing number of chaplains. The fact of the matter is, if there aren’t enough priests back home, the bishops aren’t going to loan them to the military.

The archdiocese currently has well below half the number of chaplains it should have. Because of that, there are times when chaplains just aren’t available when needed.

Archbishop O’Brien recalls one such instance. “I heard the month after 9/11 of two companies of Special Forces that were in Pakistan. They were jumping that night into Afghanistan. They looked all day for priests and they couldn’t find one priest to hear their confessions.

“That kind of thing wrenches my heart. And I think that should wrench the heart of our Catholic people and our bishops as well. And you hear that all the time.

“I go to places—and I’m the archbishop—and they’ll say, ‘You’re the first priest we’ve seen in three months,’” he says. “We’re just spread so far all over the world, all of the deployments where, everywhere you can think of, we have Catholic people and we just don’t have the priests, the number of priests to cover that territory.”

Father Bruno echoes that sentiment. “We’re getting very close in the Air Force where we don’t have enough. I would say within the next 12 months, we’re going to have to start going to some wing commanders at individual bases and saying, ‘Sir, when Father so-and-so transfers out, we don’t have a replacement for him.’

“We’re probably going to drop below 100 priests this year, and we’ve never been below 100 in the 24 years I’ve been on active duty.”

The dwindling number of chaplains is not for lack of effort on the part of Archbishop O’Brien and the archdiocese, though.

In addition to the archbishop’s pleas to his fellow bishops, the archdiocese also has a number of other tools for recruiting, such as a quarterly newsletter, discernment days, weekends for vocations and the video Never Far From Home, which provides a look at the lives of military chaplains.

In addition, Archbishop O’Brien thinks there is a largely untapped market for vocations within the military itself.

“I’m not sure up to now we have been challenging our [military] families. I think we have young kids in military families who could become priests and religious. And I think the greatest pool in the country for possible vocations is the age group we’re dealing with in the military,” he says.

Archbishop O’Brien calls the work of those in the military a “noble profession,” akin to police officers. Their duty, he says, “is to defend the weak and the poor and the defenseless. I think it is not only a noble profession but also a lofty vocation.

“Christ defined himself as one who came to serve and not be served. We have young people giving their lives to total strangers for the cause of peace. They wouldn’t be doing what they are doing unless they’re peacemakers.”

But he points out that even St. Augustine recognized “that at times we must take actions that otherwise would be unpalatable because there’s evil in the world and we have to confront evil by putting an end to it somehow.” He described just war as “benevolent severity,” but only as a truly last resort. St. Thomas Aquinas treats the military profession under the category of charity, he says.

And what about the Good Samaritan?

“What would have happened a half hour before if that Good Samaritan came down and found the man about to be attacked or in the middle of the attack?” Archbishop O’Brien asks.

“Did he have a right to step back and say, ‘I’ll become a Good Samaritan when the thing’s over,’ or did he have an obligation to step in and do what he had to do and only what he had to do to put an end to that aggression? That is what our people are sworn to do.”

Father Bruno is even more direct: “Whether anyone likes it or not, the Church is in the military. So what would they have us do, just withdraw and leave them alone? Let them fend for themselves?

“I would say on the average probably 25 percent—anywhere from 23 to 28 percent—of the active-duty personnel in the Department of Defense at any one time are Roman Catholic. That’s a huge number of people. So what do we do? Leave them alone? Let them go it alone, not be there to provide for them? We can’t really do that as a Church. Like it or not, they are a part of the Church and the Church needs to be there for them.”         


From Old Testament times to the Civil War to the recent war in Iraq, military chaplains have been meeting the spiritual needs of those involved in the armed forces.

Chapter 20 of the Book of Deuteronomy references such service when it says, “When you are about to go into battle, the priest shall come forward and say to the soldiers: ‘Hear, O Israel! Today you are going into battle against your enemies. Be not weakhearted or afraid; be neither alarmed nor frightened by them. For it is the Lord, your God, who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies and give you victory’” (20:2-4).

From that time on, religious leaders continued to play an important role in ministering to those defending the country, though, for the most part, not in an organized effort. It was not until the late 19th century that some semblance of order began to emerge.

On July 4, 1888, the Apostolic See in Rome sent a letter granting the archbishop of New York exclusive competency in deciding who could serve as a Navy chaplain. It also granted the archbishop special faculties which he could delegate to the new chaplains.

With the outbreak of World War I, the demand for chaplains increased greatly. The newly formed National War Council (which would eventually become the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) asked dioceses and religious orders to answer the call. In fact, about 30 percent of World War I chaplains were priests. Seventeen were killed in service.

But because of the distance of the fighting, previous regulations set up for chaplains proved inadequate. To provide chaplains with someplace to turn to for support and resources, the Holy See appointed a bishop from each country to serve as bishop for the military.

In the United States, that responsibility was given to Bishop Patrick Hayes, auxiliary of New York. The United States government recognized him as the definitive authority for endorsing priests for service in the military.

Bishop Hayes established offices for the military ordinariate in New York with five regional vicariates.

In 1939, Pope Pius XII appointed New York’s Archbishop Francis Spellman as his military vicar for the United States. The military archdiocese functioned as part of the Archdiocese of New York until 1985, when Rome established a separate Archdiocese for the Military Services, U.S.A., headquartered in Washington, D.C., whose territory transcends the space limitations of individual dioceses.


Susan Hines-Brigger is an assistant editor of this magazine and the proud daughter of a Korean War veteran.

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