The Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, is vital to the spiritual well-being of U.S. troops and their families

by Paul Braun | New Earth

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Catholic News Agency

As Veteran’s Day approaches, I am reminded of a Sunday in my past. An otherwise normal activity that took place on that February day in 1984 turned into an extraordinary event that changed my life.

I had just arrived two days prior at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas to begin six weeks of Basic Training after being sworn into the United States Air Force. That Sunday morning all of us trainees were given the opportunity to either clean the barracks or go to church. Mind you, I had just dropped out of college and was not much of a churchgoer at that time in my life. However, the idea of cleaning the dayroom offered no appeal to me, so I decided to march off to Mass with some others in my flight. Needless to say, my heart just wasn’t in the right place for Mass.

Sitting in that base chapel, something wonderful happened. I felt a warmth and comfort come over me like I had never felt before. It was as if God was whispering to me “Where have you been, my son?” I cried throughout Mass, and went to meet with an Air Force Catholic Chaplain afterwards, who listened to my story, heard my confession, and welcomed me back to the faith…which I have tried to uphold to the best of my ability ever since.

Had it not been for the United States Military’s commitment to the spiritual well-being of service members, I never would have had the opportunity to attend Mass. And, if not for the presence of a Catholic priest serving as a chaplain when I needed him the most, I don’t know where I’d be faith-wise to this day.

That priest was there for me and others thanks in large part to what is known as the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA (AMS). Most parishioners across the Fargo Diocese have only heard about the AMS when a special collection at Mass is taken up every three years. But what is the AMS, and what is its role in spreading and nurturing the Catholic faith?

The Archdiocese for the Military Services, established by Pope St. John Paul II in 1985 and based in Washington D.C., spans the globe and serves approximately 1.8 million people. They are Catholic men and women on active duty in all five branches of the U.S. Armed Forces and their families, patients in any of the 153 Veterans’ Administration Medical Centers across the country, or Catholics serving the Federal Government outside of our national boundaries. The Archbishop charged with overseeing this vast diocesan mission is Archbishop Timothy Broglio, who was appointed in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI.

“The AMS's mission is specifically to ‘serve those who serve’ wherever they are based or deployed, so it is truly a global archdiocese,” said Archbishop Broglio. “Pope Francis reminds us that the role of military chaplains is to ‘accompany and support’ those engaged in military service, ‘to be a comforting and brotherly presence for them all,’ to dedicate themselves, even at the risk of their own lives, and ‘to ensure that the faithful serving to defend your country might not be deprived of the spiritual food they need to survive.’ That's what the AMS tries to do for the faithful in the U.S. Military.”

AMS Archbishop Timothy Broglio with Rev. James Cheney, Pastor of St. Paul’s Newman Center in Fargo (submitted photo).

The Fargo Diocese has contributed to the Archdiocese over the years, both financially and in providing the opportunity for diocesan priests to serve in the military reserves as chaplains. Among those who are serving, or who have served recently, are Father James Cheney, pastor of St. Paul’s Newman Center in Fargo, and Monsignor Brian Donahue, pastor of Holy Family in Grand Forks. Father Cheney currently serves with the 119th Wing of the North Dakota National Guard, and was recently stationed for a few months in Alaska.

“The opportunity to serve my country, and a tremendous need for priests in the military, helped form a desire in me to join the military chaplaincy as a Catholic priest,” said Father Cheney. “I remember as a child my dad telling stories about being on board a ship. Even though he only spent a little more than three years in the Navy, he kept telling those stories over and over again. Growing up I realized that his service in the military helped him transition into adulthood and into what it meant to be a man. Those stories created a desire in my own heart to serve.”

According to Father Cheney, the Chaplain is the one-person service members can go to and not have to worry about repercussions because of absolute confidentiality. It doesn’t matter what the issue is, the chaplain can never say or tell because the conversations are always confidential. Father Cheney says that’s a critical role.

“Military wisdom has carved out this department to give people a place to confide and to resolve conflict,” said Father Cheney. “Much of my time on deployment in the Navy Reserves was spent resolving conflicts between enlisted persons or between enlisted personnel and the officer corps. The chaplain, medical, and legal components empower the command to help formulate military readiness. Sometimes that means standing by a sailor who needed to know the love of Jesus, but also needed to take responsibility before the Skipper at Captain’s Mast.” Captain’s Mast is a hearing to determine punishment when a sailor is in violation of military rules and law.

One can imagine the logistical challenges involved in serving the needs of Catholic service men and women, their families, and diplomats across the globe, especially in wartime. The Military Archdiocese is set up to function as any other archdiocese, providing sacramental records for new baptisms, first communions and other sacraments. The AMS has a Marriage Tribunal that makes use of judges from various places across the country. In addition, it is responsible for the endorsement of priests who will serve in the military, at the VA, or as civilian contractors where no uniformed military priest is available. The priests come from archdioceses and dioceses all over the United States as well as from religious orders. The Bishops, priests, and staff of the AMS also try to contribute to the work of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

“We administer confirmation and celebrate Mass with the community,” said Archbishop Broglio. “Where and when possible, we visit with those in command. Distances, the challenges of the longest-running war in our history, a severe shortage of priests to serve as military chaplains, and costs pose a challenge to many pastoral projects.”

Monsignor Donahue no longer serves as a military chaplain, but his experiences took him to Germany during the Gulf War, then to Iraq during Operation Enduring Freedom.

“I started thinking of becoming a military chaplain my first year of major seminary,” said Monsignor Donahue. “My focus was on becoming an active duty Air Force chaplain. However, I had a dream that I was an Army chaplain on active duty during a time of war. I was in the desert and war was all around me. I saw some terrible things in that dream. What surprised me was that I was an Army chaplain and not Air Force. Little did I know that 26 years later I would be an Army chaplain in the desert during a time of war.”

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Rev. James Cheney says Mass on board a US Navy vessel while serving in the US Naval Reserves (submitted photo)

Even though priests serving as military chaplains have similar duties to a parish priest, Monsignor Donahue says there are some major differences.

“The whole philosophy of life is different,” said Monsignor Donahue. “It’s much more structured, with daily interaction and ministry to and with people of all different faith groups. The level of accountability is higher than in parish life. For example, my immediate boss can be a military commander, and my immediate chaplain supervisor can be from any faith group.”

Thousands of men and women from the Fargo Diocese have served in war and peacetime. Many are currently serving either stateside or overseas. While the Military Archdiocese is working hard to meet their spiritual needs, families can be of assistance as well. Staying in touch, whether by mail, telephone, or by contemporary forms of communication, is vital to their well-being and morale. It’s also important for families, especially parents and spouses, to remind service members that their faith can see them through tough times.

“Encourage your children or spouses to commit to memory a couple of good prayers like the Our Father and the Hail Mary,” said Monsignor Donahue. “Especially have them learn and pray the rosary. As a Catholic soldier in combat, they will be grateful that they learned to pray the rosary. Also, if serving on a military base or post, they should get involved in the Catholic Community. It will save and strengthen their faith.”

“Deployments are hard on families,” said Father Cheney. “Military families need special grace and strength to endure long periods of separation. In some ways this is a hidden sacrifice of the military that many willingly embrace for the security of our nation. That sacrifice, and most especially the supreme sacrifice of those who have given their lives for our country, will always have my undying respect. As we read in scripture: ‘there is no greater love than this to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’”

Like other dioceses all across the world, the need for priests is great in the AMS as well. Archbishop Broglio asks that when the faithful pray for vocations, they also pray for some of those vocations to turn into a call to military service as well. Archbishop Broglio also has a message for the Fargo Diocese:

“I am grateful to the faithful of Fargo who serve our country selflessly, and to the Diocese which has generously loaned priests to minister to them and to those of other dioceses. Secondly, I beg you to pray for a lasting and just peace, as well as for the safety of those who serve far from home. No one wants war—especially those who pay for it with their lives.”

This Veterans Day, take the time to remember and pray for those who have served and continue to serve. Pray especially for those priests who put themselves in harm’s way, so that God’s mercy and grace may be spread to all corners of the globe, wherever our best and bravest serve. God bless our troops.