"There are no atheists in foxholes," the saying goes, implying that those who face imminent danger while in the armed forces tend to turn to prayer and faith for the strength they need to fulfill their duty.
For the Archdiocese for the Military Services USA, there exist such special challenges in ministry that it might be well to ask, "Will there be any Catholics in those foxholes?"
Catholic men and women comprise 27 percent of the U.S. military, according to Archbishop Edwin O'Brien, yet only 7 percent of military chaplains are Catholics. While these figures are an extension of a widespread deficit in priestly vocations in the Church, they also bear witness to the grave difficulty the archdiocese faces in providing sacraments, education and ministry to Catholic soldiers spread around the globe - and the vulnerability of many Catholic military men and women to the proselytizing of evangelical chaplains and soldiers.
Although the military brass has stepped in on several recent occasions to address concerns about proselytism - including charges raised by a fellow Christian chaplain last year at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. - the practice continues among many rank-and-file evangelicals who see Catholic soldiers as prime targets. Lacking a solid formation in their faith or an available Catholic priest to visit for counsel, some Catholic soldiers find themselves too poorly equipped to effectively defend Church teaching and practices against the evangelicals' charges. They may come away from such encounters confused or disillusioned about the Church and be drawn away from the Catholic faith into evangelicalism or fundamentalism.
The problem is not only one of recruiting more Catholic chaplains, but also of building up the Catholic faith community in the military. So, even as the military archdiocese steps up its efforts to encourage new priestly vocations and temporary "loans" of clergy from other dioceses, Archbishop O'Brien has also launched Catholics Seeking Christ, an ambitious peer-to-peer ministry that educates Catholic soldiers in their faith with the help of well-trained lay military volunteers (see story, Page 3).
The example of Catholics in the military, however, reflects only an acute microcosm of the challenge the Catholic Church faces in the world generally - and that's a challenge that requires our personal attention.
We Catholics pay lip service to the need to foster vocations, but how many of us have personally invited a young man - perhaps even one of our own children - to consider the priesthood? How many of us fervently pray for vocations? How well do we support, in prayer and direct encouragement, the dedicated clergy that serve us today?
What about formation programs for adult Catholics: Do we support these in our parishes and in our home dioceses? Do we assist in adult education and small-group discussions to help build up others in the faith? Do we develop our own faith through a devout spiritual life, thoughtful study of the Catechism and by reading solid Catholic periodicals?
Particularly in this time of conflict, let us encourage vocations to the military chaplain corps so that our Catholic troops overseas may not be abandoned. Let us also support the archdiocese's Catholics Seeking Christ program as well as Our Sunday Visitor's military outreach (www.osv.com), for the spiritual edification of all Catholic soldiers - both in and out of those foxholes.