Archdiocese for the Military Services

Imagine a diocese without borders, a diocese without its own cathedral, a diocese that has no priest in its own right. Imagine the Archdiocese for the Military Services (AMS). 

Archdiocese for Military
Father Zenon A. Bochnak holds a memorial service in Iraq in 2005. Photo courtesy of the Archdiocese for the Military services

The AMS was created as an independent archdiocese by Pope John Paul II in 1985 to provide the Catholic Church’s full range of pastoral ministries and spiritual services to Catholics serving in the U.S. armed forces, enrolled in U.S. military academies, undergoing treatment in Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Centers, and for Catholics (and their families) working outside the country for the U.S. Government in civilian jobs. 

As the nation’s only archdiocese without geographical boundaries, the AMS endorses and grants faculties to priests for on-site ministry at more than 220 U.S. military installations in 29 countries, 153 VA Medical Centers in the U.S., and 134 countries where civilian workers serve the federal government. Worldwide, an estimated 1.8 million Catholics depend on the AMS to serve their spiritual and sacramental needs. There are 275,000 Catholics in active duty in the armed forces. There are some “stateside” dioceses that do not have half that number of Catholics. 

Now imagine all those Catholics scattered around the globe and not just on the land portion of the globe but on the water part of the globe on aircraft carriers and ships. My own diocese of Baltimore has 476 priests serving in the diocese for 510,000 Catholics. The Baltimore ratio of priest to Catholic is 1:1,071 with the Military Archdiocese just slightly better with one priest for 996 active duty Catholics. Like those in all other U.S. dioceses, Baltimore’s Catholics are confined to a particular place. The AMS’s 996 Catholics per chaplain are all over the globe. 

It is a daunting task when your parishioners are scattered throughout the world. 

Each week as we pray the creed and name the four marks of the Church (one, holy, catholic and apostolic), the AMS and its clergy live that “catholicity” every day as the priests and military Catholics are scattered throughout the world. It used to be said that the sun never set on the British Empire as it stretched around the world; the same can be said for the AMS. It spans the globe — 24 time zones; it is always yesterday and tomorrow somewhere at each moment of every day. 

Archdiocese for Military
Archdiocese for the Military Services Auxiliary Bishop F. Richard Spencer celebrates Easter Mass for U.S. troops in Iraq in 2011. Photo courtesy of the Archdiocese for the Military services

Just as much as it is catholic in its universality of ministry, the AMS carries the apostolic mark as well. Not only because a bishop leads the archdiocese, therefore keeping the lineage from the apostles, but because he and the over 240 priests who serve on active duty in the U.S. military are sent to the ends of the world, truly living the meaning of the word “apostle” (one sent on a mission). 

This aspect of mission is probably the singular dimension that attracts a priest to express his priestly vocation as a military chaplain. There is a “vocation within a vocation,” as many chaplains with whom I spoke so poignantly stated. It is this extra vocation which clearly defines some differences from other priests. 

While most parish priests live in the same locale as their parishioners, parish priests are not living, eating, sleeping and working 24/7 with their parishioners. The military chaplain and the people he serves are unified on so many different levels that a parish priest and his parishioners would not be. 

The chaplain and his parishioners are dressed nearly the same in military uniform or in fatigues. They are eating the same food from the same kitchen, pitching their tents with one another. The military personnel are stationed in places far away from home. The men and women are missing their parents, siblings, spouses and children. They are missing favorite pastimes that they once shared with friends. They are missing home, missing the States. 

The AMS chaplain is sharing in the same day-to-day trials and joys as the people he serves. He is also experiencing the same emotions as the people he serves. The chaplain in active duty overseas in the trenches is missing the same things: family, favorite food, favorite pastimes. When young enlisted men or women share their deep pain of homesickness, the chaplain has been there too — he might even be there at that very moment. 

These unifiers of chaplain with his people are most likely more intense than those between a parish priest and his parishioners. This intensity must truly be felt when the chaplain is consoling his troops at the death of a comrade. Most parish priests celebrate funerals of people they have never met or never seen until viewed in a casket. The emotional tie is not there. The chaplain is consoling his people at the death of one their own, while he needs consolation too. He is both mourner and minister. The phrase ‘vocation within a vocation’ is so apt. The vocation to military chaplaincy is a call to which every priest cannot say, “Yes.” 

Obviously the Archdiocese for the Military Services is seeking more priests to say “Yes” to the vocation of serving Catholics in the military. The critical shortage of Catholic chaplains comes as more and more priests reach the military’s mandatory retirement age of 62 faster than they can be replaced. The number of active-duty chaplains has fallen from more than 400 in 2001 to 243 today. In this respect, the AMS is more like a diocese in that it is experiencing a shortage of priests. 

While Catholics make up about 25% of the U.S. armed forces, Catholic priests currently account for only 8% of military chaplains. Unlike all dioceses, the AMS cannot call anyone to Orders. All military chaplains are incardinated into a diocese or inclaustrated in a religious order; priests are released from their diocese or religious community to serve in the AMS. 

To begin to close the gap between the present number of chaplains and the number needed, the AMS has begun a Co-Sponsorship Program for men studying to be priests. Co-sponsorship is the arrangement when a diocesan bishop or religious superior agrees to accept a prospective military chaplain in his diocese or religious community as a seminarian who will join the other seminarians for the same diocese in formation. That same seminarian is also participating and being formed in the chaplain candidacy program of one of the three branches of the armed force. The AMS and the seminarian’s diocese or religious community share the cost of his formation throughout the years. 

Once the seminarian is ordained a priest, the bishop or religious superior typically agrees to release him for military service after a few years of pastoral experience in the diocese or community. The priest then serves in the military for an indefinite period of time. Once he leaves the military, he returns to the diocese or community for further pastoral work. So both the AMS and the priest’s diocese or religious community benefit from his ministry. Presently 42 current or soon-to-be seminarians, transitional deacons and newly ordained priests are now committed to become chaplains under the Co-Sponsorship Program. This program has seen a steady rise in numbers in the last several years. This past spring, six men who participated in the Co-Sponsorship Program were ordained priests. 

It is important to remember that the chaplain is more priest than military officer. The chaplain candidacy program is still more about the priesthood than it is about the military. The chaplain does not carry a gun, not even for self-defense in military zones. A trained and armed military man is typically assigned to the chaplain, and this person is responsible for the security of the chaplain, serving almost like a bodyguard. It is he who cares for administrative details when a chaplain is traveling from base to base to minister to troops. For more information visit www.milarch.org. (Part II next month.) TP 

Father Carrion is pastor of Holy Cross, Our Lady of Good Counsel, Mt. Mary, Star of the Sea in Baltimore, Md., and is director of the Deacon Formation Program for the Archdiocese. pcarrion@archbalt.org