Some are called via a burning bush. Some are called via a gentle breeze. Still others are called by allowing Jesus to commandeer their boat. In an attempt to give myself something constructive to do during the somewhat boring summers of campus ministry, it seems that boats and ships have commandeered me. And so, something that began as an escape has resulted in 30 years of service to the Navy and the Marine Corps.
While I didn’t know fully what I was getting myself into, the fact of the matter is that I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into when I first entered the seminary (or was first ordained), either. Having long hair and a beard, I had a plan: assistant pastor, assistant pastor, assistant pastor, pastor, pastor, pastor emeritus, St. John Vianney Manor, the Vincentian Home, St. Mary’s Cemetery. But as they say, “If you want to give God a good laugh — or in my case, a belly laugh — tell him your plans.”
Embarking on a Journey
My journey into becoming a Navy chaplain began by asking then-Bishop Anthony J. Bevilacqua if I could become a reserve Navy chaplain. He gave me permission. The physical, interviews, forms and recommendations were all completed, and the beard and long hair were shorn. I was commissioned a lieutenant junior grade in the United States Navy. And so, a new and different exoduslike journey began for me. The first step was to get into the car and drive to the Navy Chaplaincy School in Newport, Rhode Island.
The class included men and women from all over the country, different ways of life, different ethnic and racial makeups. My roommate was a fundamentalist chaplain from rural Georgia. He had never met, seen or known a Catholic in his life. This was the first of many ways that the Navy and the Chaplain Corps would immerse me into the world of inclusivity and diversity. Many, many more would follow.
This eight-week school immersed me and my fellow chaplains into the unknown world of the Navy, the Marine Corps, the officer ranks and military chaplaincy. Some things sunk in, some did not. Enough sunk in that I graduated and became an official chaplain in the Navy Reserves, with enough experience and knowledge to serve — and to get into trouble. A few months later, I reported to the reserve center to begin my career as a weekend warrior/pray-er. I didn’t have a clue how long this would last.
Patience and Prayer
The following year brought about the next event in my exodus. I had the opportunity to serve 30 days at Quantico, Virginia, where college students and graduates go in the summer to become Marine officers. I was there to minister as a chaplain to the large influx of people. It was also there that I had the opportunity to work with and alongside active duty chaplains, two of whom were fellow Catholic priests. And while I always have taken great comfort in and benefited from the priestly fraternity of my own diocese, I was introduced to the priestly fraternity of my fellow Navy chaplains. This opened another new world to me, the world of active-duty ministry to active-duty service members and their families. A spark was ignited.
When I was young, a priest asked me if I ever thought of being a priest. Perhaps this was the spark that led to my vocation and ordination. Similarly, one of these Navy priests asked if I ever considered coming on active duty, as a Navy chaplain. “We need priests like you, and you’d be good at it,” I was told.
No, the thought had not occurred to me. But, after some prayer and consideration — and promptings of the Holy Spirit — I decided that perhaps this was the ministry to which I was being called.
But as with every exodus, there are bumps in the road. Sometimes God and bishops say “no.” Disappointed, I continued to serve as a reservist: my one weekend a month, my two weeks in the summer and a few other summer assignments. All of these passionately continued to fan the flames. Twice a year I would write the bishop asking to be released to active duty, and twice a year the answer came back “no,” or “we’ll see,” which we all know from childhood also means no.
Lately though, I’ve come to the conclusion that “we’ll see” doesn’t always mean no. Sometimes it is a determination of the persistence of the request and the requester. Eventually, my persistence paid off. In February 1993, then-Bishop Donald W. Wuerl (now a cardinal and the archbishop of Washington) granted permission for me to become an active-duty Navy chaplain.
Responsibilities of a Chaplain
Be careful what you ask for, though, as you just might get it. July 1, 1993, six years after I began chaplain school, I found myself on a plane for Okinawa, Japan, for what would be my first of 10 Navy assignments. During my year in Okinawa, I was immersed in the world of active-duty ministry. I served active-duty Marines and sailors, officers and enlisted, their families, retirees and contractors. I also served my battalion and was the Catholic priest for the base on which I was assigned. As Navy chaplains, we have three responsibilities: to provide for our own, to facilitate for others and to care for all.
In providing for my own, I was responsible for the Catholics in my battalion and on the base. I celebrated Mass, heard confessions and anointed the sick and dying. I was responsible for baptisms and RCIA classes, Bible studies and catechism classes. I learned that some in the military are extremely devout and, like the 99, are looking for a shepherd to lead them in the Faith. There are also lost sheep. Some are lax, some fallen away, some young adults questioning and challenging the faith of their parents as they search for their own .
My second responsibility was to facilitate for others. My fundamentalist Georgia roommate and my Mormon sponsor were just the start. Many different denominations make up the U.S. military — some known to me, some not. The same Constitution that gives me the right to practice my religion gives them the right to practice theirs. And so I was called to serve them, too, to ensure that they had the opportunity, if they so desired, to practice their faith.
Another important responsibility is the care for all. While much of my experience has been to minister to people of great devotion and faith and great patriotism, there are also those of no faith. There are those who are going through rough times. There are those facing the many difficulties that life throws our way on a regular basis — people who no longer wish to fulfill their military commitment, people in the brig, people who don’t quite get the fact that they are in the military, people who are being processed out, people experiencing a death, a divorce, a breakup. In a way, these were the 5 percent who would often take up 95 percent of my time. These I was called to shepherd and love, too.
A Blessed Life
I had more assignments like this: five ships, three overseas assignments, four Marine tours. I have served with some of the best priests, ministers, rabbis and imams one could ask for. I have had the privilege of serving with some of the most dedicated individuals this country has to offer. In the end, it enabled me to be a part of, and to experience, both the Catholic Church and the catholic church in ways I never could have imagined.
One other responsibility that chaplains have is to pray. Prayer seems to be built into many of the rites and rituals of military life — retirement prayers, commissioning prayers, change of command prayers, birthday celebrations and many other events in the life of the military. Often, at each of these events, the chaplain is invited to offer a prayer. Navy ships at sea even have a night prayer at 2155 hours (9:55 p.m.) to mark the end of another day at sea. One prayer that was introduced to me, and that I use as a benediction often, is called “The Prayer of the Unknown Confederate Soldier.” It goes as follows:
I asked God for strength, that I might achieve; I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do greater things; I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy; I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power, that I might be praised; I was given weakness, that I might feel the need for God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life; I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for, but everything I hoped for. Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am among all people, most richly blessed. Amen.
I sure do hope that this particular confederate soldier was someone from Georgia who had never met a Catholic, because it could not sum up any better my 30 years of service to the Navy and Marine Corps as a priest, God’s belly laugh, the some who gave all or the all who gave some.
FATHER JON BRZEK is a priest of the Diocese of Pittsburgh who for 24 years has served the Navy and Marine Corps as an active-duty chaplain. He retires in July.