Chaplains, soldiers share hardships

The Archdiocese of Military Services USA serves some 1.4 million Catholic men and women -- including 375,000 in uniform, 900,000 military family members and 300,000 members of the Reserve and Coast Guard -- in an archdiocese without geographic boundaries.

Its ordinary, Archbishop Edwin O'Brien, spends 60 percent of his time on the road visiting with soldiers, their families and other chaplains. He spoke with OSV recently about the military today, the needs of troops and the Church's role in their lives.

Our Sunday Visitor: Why is it so important for you to be out among the military and their families?

Archbishop Edwin O'Brien: The hallmark of any priest, any diocesan priest especially, is to be in the midst of his people. That's especially true in the military where our chaplains share fully in the life of those they serve. I don't think in the civilian world there is as close a bond between priests and people as exists in the military because our priests experience all the hardships, all the ups and downs in the life of a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine. They are side by side with them wherever they go. That is very reassuring to the families who are very often worried and obviously wondering.

Secondly, our diocese is so scattered; it's worldwide. Sometimes as a unique archdiocese we don't have a clear identity in the minds of some of our people, and so to the extent that we can support our chaplains and our people by a personal presence, so to speak, our three other bishops and myself take every opportunity to put a face on the archdiocese and on the Church and on the importance of the military's connection and unity with the worldwide Catholic Church.

OSV: What is the hardest thing a soldier has to deal with -- the separation from home, the ever-present possibility of danger?

Archbishop O'Brien: With cell phones and e-mails, there are regular communications. That's good, but it also poses problems because sometimes there are difficulties at home, which, if they didn't know about, would not add to their tension and the pressure on them. ... There's obviously physical but also psychological hardship even when they return home. I think there is a change, an effect, in the lives of these young people who serve in Afghanistan and Iraq that hopefully they will be able to handle when they come back, but when you are living in the midst of violence like that it's a serious immediate threat, but it's got to have a long-term impact as well.

OSV: What do people here need to know to better understand our soldiers and to support them when they return home?

Archbishop O'Brien: While they are over there, I would hope that the folks back home show support for the families who often are very isolated, especially when reservists are called up and have no military installation nearby to call upon for support. It falls, I think, to their local communities and certainly the parishes and the schools to be aware of military personnel who have been deployed and have families needing a support system back home.

I think on every level a parish during deployment serves a very important role. It doesn't make any difference how they feel about why we went into Afghanistan and Iraq. The fact is these people are over there with very good intentions and at great cost, and their family is paying that price as well.

I know most parishes in our country are praying for a just end to our presence in Afghanistan and Iraq and for the safe return of our people there. It is a comfort to them and their families when photos of our deployed troops are posted in their home parishes to remind their fellow Catholics of the need for prayers.

On their return from deployment, a similar system has to kick in, especially for those who have seen violence and been part of violence. The military tries to take care of that as best they can, but it has got to have an effect on marriages and on relationships with families. There are many changes that take place for every member of the family when there is a considerable length of time in deployment, and there is a big adjustment for the family then when the spouse or parent returns.

Very often, regardless of what the law says, people come back and don't have the jobs they left. I think it's unconscionable for some of these companies, in effect, to skirt the law through loopholes and not have the job or give a lesser job.

OSV: What is the role of faith in the lives of the soldiers when they're overseas?

Archbishop O'Brien: Our chaplains tell stories that convince you that there's a revival of grace, of faith. Individuals realize they are facing the finalities of life very often, and they start to question the meaning of life and the inevitability of death sooner or later, and for them it might come sooner.

We have many, many young people seeking the sacrament of confirmation, seeking a priest to talk to for confession, looking for Mass. Our priests are doing a great job. The Army and the Marines especially since they're on the ground and traveling with their units, make it their business to have Mass available at least once every two weeks for anybody that's over there. That entails a great effort on the part of our priests and it's an indication that the military does everything they can to support their people spiritually.

OSV: I read your statement on "soft pacifism." Can you talk about that and the notion that it's difficult to reconcile the Catholic faith and a military profession?

Archbishop O'Brien: The analogy has been used before of the Good Samaritan, who comes down from Jerusalem to Jericho and sees a man lying on the roadside. He's a Samaritan and he's not part of their community, but he stops anyway and takes care of him.

What would have happened 15 minutes before if that Good Samaritan was coming down the road and saw the man being pummeled half to death? He had a right to step back and say I'll become a Good Samaritan when the fight is over, or did he have a right and even an obligation to step in and do what had to be done and only what had to be done to put an end to that unjust aggression?

St. Thomas considers the vocation of a soldier to be one of charity. St. Augustine used the term "benevolent severity" when it came to the necessity sometimes of defending those who had to be defended. While the Catechism of the Catholic Church and other Church documents decry war and plead peace, they also allow that at times armed force might be necessary as a last resort.

My remarks about soft pacifism are in reference to some that see the military profession to be in conflict with Catholic teaching and tradition. That is far from the truth.

Visit www.milarch.org for more information on the archdiocese.