For the men and women in our armed forces overseas, life-and-death discussions are a simple fact of life. While their friends back home may be pondering what movie to see or where to take a date for dinner, these young people - many of them fresh out of high school - are confronting the possibility that they may not make it home alive.
Faced with that new and treacherous reality, many of these men and women are, for the first time, thinking about their religious beliefs, returning to their faith or, in some cases, seeking out a faith. For Catholics in the military, that has always meant talking to a chaplain and attending Mass. But now, in an era when so many other denominations are sending increasing numbers of their own chaplains and we are sending so few, Catholics may be at a disadvantage.
"Twenty-seven percent of the military is Catholic, but 7 percent of the chaplain corps is Catholic. Those slots that we cannot fill are filled by other denominations, mainly Protestant," said Archbishop Edwin O'Brien, head of the Archdiocese for the Military Services USA.
Because many other mainline Protestant groups such as Lutherans and Episcopals don't fill their quotas either, the slack is picked up by evangelicals -Pentecostals, Southern Baptists, Assembly of God - and they are more often aggressive in seeking to convert people, especially wavering Catholics.
"In my view, there is a disproportionate number of fundamentalist, evangelical-type chaplains throughout the military than there are traditional mainline Protestant or Catholic,"Archbishop O'Brien told Our Sunday Visitor, adding that the fundamentalist chaplains also tend to be younger since they are not required to go through the rigorous studies that Catholic priest chaplains must complete.
The typical Catholic chaplain is in his late 30s or early 40s, as opposed to evangelical chaplains, who are often in their 20s or early 30s, giving them an advantage because they are promoted at earlier ages. "Rank means an awful lot in the military," Archbishop O'Brien said.
The other area where Catholics are at a disadvantage is among what he called "foot soldiers," the tried and true evangelicals who want to win others over to their faiths. Catholics, by comparison, do not typically knock on doors or question others on their beliefs and practices. What happens is that many Catholics, especially those who might not be well educated in their faith, are confronted with questions they cannot answer and begin to wonder why they believe - or if they believe.
"They pursue Catholics in a particular way because traditionally we are a visible, historical presence, which is a challenge to them," Archbishop O'Brien said. "They attack Catholic doctrine - the pope, confession, the Blessed Mother, the Mass, the Bible - all of which, obviously, the well-informed Catholic would find easy to address, but most of the 18- to 20-year-olds, if they have had a high school education, they have not had nearly that much education in terms of their faith."
That's not to say, however, that the problems all stem from fundamentalist chaplains. The problems, in large part, come from a Catholic population that is not well educated in the faith and is, therefore, open to the persuasive arguments of others. And so the military archdiocese has taken it upon itself to pump a lot of money and manpower into the one thing that can make a difference quickly and effectively with or without more chaplains: training young members of the armed forces in the basics of their faith.
Modeled on a college program known as FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), the military program is called Catholics Seeking Christ. With an emphasis on Scripture and the sacraments, it trains 18- to 28-year-old single, active duty military men and women to minister to their peers.
"This is not a response to a lack of chaplains. This is not a response to other faith groups. This is about doing what we ought to have been always been doing for young-adult Catholics,"said Pavel Reid, director of Catholics Seeking Christ.
The program, he said, is not only about giving young people a place where they can bring up doubts and ask questions but also about teaching them how to put that faith into action. "It's all about faith deployed in life," Reed said, noting that the program often uses lingo and acronyms that parallel the military's style.
Making active Christians
So far, 100 peer ministers have been trained through programs based in the United States and soon to be expanded to Germany. These men and women, who have been in the field for 18 months, head what are known as SQ groups -Spiritual Question groups - that are meant to be "safe zones" where participants can bring up any spiritual questions and discuss them with other people who are in the same place in life.
"The SQs are meant to do two things. One is to make it more likely that people will bring up the questions that they really have because people are more likely to ask their peers their real questions than a chaplain or religious educator. Also, we're trying to get people not only to have a place where they can ask questions but where they can actually learn to seek their own answers," Reid told Our Sunday Visitor. "We don't want them to be passive Christians but to be active Christians."
Those who go through the three-day intensive ministry training typically are recommended to the program by chaplains or directors of religious education. They are usually -but not always - active Catholics. More important are their leadership abilities and their sincere interest in learning more about their own faith and exploring spiritual questions.
In a generation known as "believers but not belongers,"there are many who have spiritual questions and yearnings but who do not go to the chapel or seek out a chaplain. The SQ groups meet in barracks or pubs, places that are not going to make people uncomfortable, Reid said.
So far the program is working well, particularly in Iraq, where the combination of combat and desert conditions is conducive to spiritual searching. "We haven't had an opportunity yet to do any training over there," Reid said. "People who have been trained over here have taken it with them and gotten it started on their own initiative. That's what we want to see happening. Among the good news, that's the best news."
Mary DeTurris Poust is a contributing editor for OSV.