MENLO PARK, Calif. — Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services is brutally candid about the extreme shortage of military chaplains.
“We are a country at war, and the need for military chaplains is very grave,” Archbishop Broglio told the Register.
“Approximately one-fourth of men and women wearing uniforms are Catholic, and we have nowhere near enough chaplains for that number of people. Many don’t have a priest to meet their needs.”
In the wake of 9/11, the number of active-duty Catholic chaplains has dropped from 400 to fewer than 260. These men are responsible for an estimated 1.8 million Catholics serving in the five branches of the U.S. military and military service academies or are patients or staff of veterans’ hospitals or Catholics serving the U.S. outside the borders of the country, such as diplomats and contractors.
But one bright spot on the horizon is the growing number of young men, 34 at last count, in the “co-sponsorship” vocations program that allows the AMS to join forces with a territorial diocese to educate and form future priests who will become military chaplains.
The men spend their first three years after ordination working at a U.S. diocese in the States, and then they serve as chaplains for a set length of time — some will sign on for 20 years.
Last month, a fresh group of 26 men from every service branch of the U.S. armed forces and civilian life met at St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park, Calif., in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, for a discernment retreat to help them consider whether they are cut out to be military chaplains.
Indeed, the most striking element of the AMS vocations program is that most recruits come from the military itself — as do fully 10% of all priestly vocations in this country.
“The greatest single source of vocations in the U.S. is the military. Close to one out of every 10 ordinations are men who had prior service,” the archbishop noted.
His predecessor, Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, was the first AMS leader to act on vocations data identifying military personnel and their families as a fruitful seedbed for future priests and women religious.
“Recognizing the great need for priests, we decided to tap this resource,” Archbishop Broglio said. “My predecessor, Cardinal O’Brien, arranged to hire a vocations director, and that increased the number of co-sponsored seminarians from seven to 34.”
Archbishop Broglio noted that some seminarians recruited from the military become diocesan priests, but those who participate in the co-sponsorship program “all plan to serve for at least an initial commitment.”
An Inspiring Example
Ryan Mahar, a seminarian from the Diocese of Sacramento, Calif., completed a five-year stint in the military well before signing up for the co-sponsorship program. He enlisted after high school and was based at Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert, where he trained soldiers preparing for deployment in Afghanistan and Iraq in the art of desert warfare.
After his military service, Mahar embarked on a spiritual pilgrimage, inspired by Scott Hahn’s conversion story, which led him to Franciscan University of Steubenville. There, he participated in the priestly discernment program while completing his bachelor’s degree.
During his spiritual quest, which included missionary work with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and the Missionaries of Charity, Mahar sought counsel from a military chaplain serving at an Air Force base near his family’s home.
“He is 6-foot-5 — the only priest I ever looked up to,” recalled Mahar, who stands 6-foot-2. “He had a voice of thunder. But his words told me that ‘God is mercy; Jesus loves you.’ He inspired me to become a military chaplain.”
Mahar will complete a total of five years at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park before his ordination as a diocesan priest, and then three years back in a Sacramento parish “before I am shipped out.”
But a deep sense of purpose will sustain him during the long road ahead.
“So many women and men in the military don’t have someone to talk to who understands them. I want to be there for them,” he said.
Reflecting on the reasons for the large number of vocations from active and former military personnel and their families, Archbishop Broglio noted the “high ideals” of men and women in uniform, as well as the striking similarities between military and ecclesial culture.
“They are tremendously generous people, motivated by high ideals and service to our country — honor. That motivation comes through in what they do, and it makes serving them a great privilege.”
As the AMS co-sponsorship program gains steam, it is also drawing recruits who have not previously served in the military.
Adam Woodward is enrolled with Ryan Mahar at St. Patrick’s Seminary, and he is among a growing number of such men.
Raised in an evangelical family in a small town in western Massachusetts, Woodward became a Catholic about the same time that he began to consider a priestly vocation.
“I was always interested in learning more about Christ, and this led me to many different personal Christian mentors, books and different churches, where I eventually grew into leadership positions,” Woodward told the Register.
“Reading the mystics drew me to the Catholic Church, and I immediately began discerning a call to military chaplaincy. A social-work job offer brought me into the Diocese of Monterey, Calif., where I contacted the vocations director.”
While enrolled in RCIA, he listened to Father Tom DiLorenzo’s radio program, In Season and Out of Season, broadcast from Boston.
One day, Father DiLorenzo asked young men who were “listening and felt a strong call from God on their life to contact him,” Woodward said. “I felt like he was answering my prayer for direction in ministry, so I called in after the program was over.”
He attended a conference and spiritual retreat organized by the priest, where he had an opportunity to “meet other priests, so I had many conversations with them that provided a better understanding of the life of a priest.”
In hindsight, Woodward believes that his “experience in social work and the mental-health field combined with my experience in ministry leadership to form a desire to bring Christ to desperate people in difficult situations.”
“The military suffers from a shortage of Catholic chaplains, and it is a ‘call within a call,’” he said.
Though his case is somewhat unique, in that he has no prior military experience, Woodward’s father served in Vietnam, and both of his grandfathers served in the Navy during World War II. In fact, his paternal grandfather “actually witnessed the bombing of Pearl Harbor,” he noted.
Woodward said he was inspired by “the privilege of bringing Christ’s peace to those who are serving in the military, while far away from those they love and their support systems.”
“The peace of Christ shines the brightest in the most stressful environments,” he observed.
Serving Bigger Things
Archbishop Broglio suggested that, amid a culture of intense individualism and self-assertion, men and women who choose religious life — like those who enlist in the military — are eager to serve “something bigger” and display a “willingness to understand and obey orders.”
Since his installation as the archbishop of the AMS in 2008, he has discovered that “the many values of military life, like ‘Leave no comrade behind,’ sacrifice for the other and the ‘higher good,’ are firmly rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition on which our country was built.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.