U.S. Army Spc. Regina Tetreault arrived in Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne Division just a few days before Christmas in 2008. 

Tetreault, 21, a lifelong Catholic, attended Mass on Christmas morning. For the next 11 months of her deployment, Tetreault, a transportation specialist, said her demanding work schedule made it difficult to attend Mass, but added that it was also not easy because only one Catholic military chaplain was stationed in her region. 

“I felt like there wasn’t the opportunity to receive the Eucharist or to have a priest hear my confession,” Tetreault said. “That was hard, but you have to be flexible. Since we didn’t have many priests, you do what you can.”

Invaluable moral support 

“The shortage makes it very difficult for us to serve the needs of the Catholic community,” said Father Gregory Caiazzo, an active-duty Navy captain assigned to the Office of the Chief of Navy Chaplains. 

Catholic military chaplains are needed to administer the sacraments and to celebrate Mass aboard Navy destroyers and in far-flung base camps. On Christmas, many of them will drive long distances and board helicopters to celebrate several Masses for troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. They will also provide invaluable moral support for those troops, many of whom will be conducting nonstop combat operations. 

“The chaplains kept people focused and helped them give an understanding and acceptance of the things they saw,” said Matt Chandler, 33, of Dartmouth, Mass. Chandler, a Marine Corps veteran who served two tours in Iraq as an infantryman, recalled a Catholic chaplain who celebrated a memorial Mass for three Marines in his platoon who were killed when their Humvee struck an anti-tank mine in April 2006. 

“I learned to accept God’s will from our chaplain,” said Chandler, who is Catholic. 

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, the head of the Diocese of Providence, R.I., told Our Sunday Visitor that the presentation that Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services gave last month to his fellow bishops on the need for more Catholic chaplains (see sidebar) was a well-received “eye-opener.” 

“It’s something we always haven’t talked about in a group before,” said Bishop Tobin, whose diocese has two priests on active duty in the military. He said that bishops, especially those in smaller dioceses, have to balance the pastoral needs of their local parish communities with those of their flock in the military. 

“It’s a very worthwhile ministry,” Bishop Tobin said. “With our men and women serving in the armed forces, they’re often very young, away from home, sometimes for the very first time. They can be placed in difficult situations, especially if they are in a combat zone. I think they need, and they deserve, all the spiritual and pastoral support we can give to them.” 

But Judy L. McCloskey, director of CatholicMil.org, an online resource for Catholic service members, told OSV that “too many bishops” fail to understand the need that exists beyond their dioceses. 

“If perhaps they did the math to see just what percent of their own serves in the military, in communities far beyond their diocesan borders, they would ‘tithe,’ if you will, a few of their priests to serve as chaplains,” said McCloskey, who also works on the canonization cause of Father Vincent Capodanno, a U.S. Navy chaplain killed in 1967 by enemy fire in Vietnam. 

Lack of access 

Father Michael R. Duesterhaus, a priest in the Diocese of Richmond, Va., completed three tours in Iraq as a chaplain in the Navy Reserve. His second deployment was extended by three months because of the shortage of priests in the country. Around that time, he said the 82nd Airborne Division arrived in Iraq for a 10-month tour expecting that their Catholic troops would not have access to a priest. 

“They were shocked when I greeted them,” Father Duesterhaus said. “But you know what, if you do that long enough, your marginal Catholics just drop off entirely. The Church becomes irrelevant. Those who are serious become distant from their faith because if you get so used to not having a chaplain, you stop asking for one.” 

Father David Daigle, a Navy lieutenant who serves as a chaplain aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier, says bishops need to be more open to their priests serving in the military. 

“You look at the universal Church and you see military members going through hardships. You’re seeing the lay faithful going six to nine months without any connection to a Catholic priest,” said Father Daigle, who will lead an Advent penance service and a Christmas Mass for sailors and marines. 

Father Richard Erikson, the vicar general for the Archdiocese of Boston and himself a colonel in the Air Force Reserve, was one of two Catholic chaplains in 2004 assigned to Balad Air Base, a military installation in Northern Iraq manned by 30,000 troops. 

“We were under attack constantly. The questions of death, and life after death, were very present and permeable to each individual. The Mass you celebrated, the confession you heard, could literally be the last one an individual received,” said Father Erikson, now mobilization assistant to the Air Force deputy chief of chaplains.  

“Every diocese in the United States has hundreds of troops in the military. By providing priests for the military, you are caring for the people in your diocese,” said Father Erikson, adding that the Boston archdiocese has 10 priest-chaplains on active duty, one reservist recently called up to active duty and an additional 10 to 15 reservists. 

“I can’t think of a greater need for chaplains than in a war setting,” he said. “The sacraments we have become that much more important.” 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.

Underserved (sidebar)

A U.S. Army soldier prays during a Christmas Eve service at FOB Clark in Khowst province, Afghanistan, Dec. 24, 2009. Reuters photo by Zohra Bensemra

Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, the head of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, underscored the Catholic chaplain shortage when he addressed the U.S. bishops’ fall general assembly on Nov. 15. 

He noted that the U.S. Armed Forces combined have 275 priest-chaplains on active duty — there are supposed to be 1,000 — to serve an estimated 400,000 Catholic military service members and their immediate families. He said the numbers of priest-chaplains are expected to decline, increasing the risk that Catholic soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen will be alienated from the faith. 

“I would like to be able return them to you as Catholics,” said Archbishop Broglio, who requested each bishop consider sending one additional priest to the military. The shortage is such that several military bases contract civilian priests while chaplains in war zones are stretched thin in covering large geographic areas by themselves.