The head of America’s Catholic military chaplains, Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, recently recalled meeting a group of 10 Protestant chaplains. What was striking, he said, was that all had been baptized Catholic, but, because in their early days of military service Protestant chaplains had been more available to them than Catholic chaplains, they had become Protestant (with such a high level of faith commitment that they eventually studied to become chaplains themselves).
Catholics in the U.S. Armed Forces are notoriously underserved (see story, Page 4). Though they number in the hundreds of thousands, and are spread all over the globe, there are currently only 275 priests caring for their spiritual and sacramental needs. (The military has openings for 1,000 Catholic chaplains — more than three times the number actually serving.)
And that number looks likely only to shrink, prompting Archbishop Broglio to make an urgent appeal to his brother bishops in the United States to consider releasing more of their priests to military chaplaincy.
An exacerbating factor, recently decried by Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien of Baltimore, the former head of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, is a decision by the Navy’s Chief of Chaplains — an evangelical minister — to enforce the military’s statutory retirement age of 62 for chaplains. That act immediately forced a handful of Catholic Navy chaplains into retirement, despite the fact, as Archbishop O’Brien said, they “are healthy, energetic and ever so dedicated in their priestly ministry to our personnel.”
Part of the problem, he said, is that the military tends to view chaplains as pretty much interchangeable. “The new mantra of the Chaplain Corps is said to be: A chaplain is a chaplain, is a chaplain, is a chaplain. In other words, it makes no difference what religious needs you have as long as there is a chaplain of any denomination nearby. For Catholics, this is unacceptable!” Archbishop O’Brien said.
While chaplains are called to minister to those of all faiths and denominations, and have done so courageously and admirably throughout the corps’ history, Catholics need the sacraments — particularly the Eucharist and reconciliation — and those can only come from a Catholic priest.
The Navy’s new policy further reduces the number of Catholic chaplains and is, Archbishop O’Brien wrote in the Catholic Review, “unnecessary, arbitrary and clearly unjust.”
He called the situation “grave” and an affront to the “once-valued ecumenical spirit” of the Navy’s chaplaincy. “Is this simply a question of lack of sensitivity or, indeed, of discrimination? I hope it is not the latter,” he said.
The archbishop is pressing Congress to take action to overturn the Navy’s new policy. We join that effort, and encourage Catholics to petition their lawmakers so that Catholics in military service get the sacramental nourishment they need.
And though we sympathize with the enormous demands on bishops to staff their parishes with priests — we all know of the trend toward parish closings and consolidations — we urge them to be generous with their priests to military chaplaincy.
It is worth noting that it is a smart investment, too. Every year about 10 percent of our country’s new priests report having some military service in their background. More chaplains means more encouragement for priestly vocations.
But it is also simply the right thing to do. As we gather for the Eucharist this season, let’s not forget to offer a prayer for the many fellow Catholics in uniform around the world who won’t have access to a Christmas Mass.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.