In the 40 years I’ve been a priest, a pilot program we’re just launching among young men and women in the U.S. armed forces is, I believe, as important an initiative as any I’ve ever undertaken.
The program, called Catholics Seeking Christ, is aimed at giving deeper religious meaning to the lives of the quarter-million young Catholics who are in uniform and at a critical juncture in their lives.
Some of these 18-to-29-year-olds have experienced the horrors of war. Others are far from home for the first time and subjected to the temptations that abound in the wider world.
Many are believers but not belongers. That is, they have a spiritual hunger and might even identify with their religion, but for one reason or another they are reluctant to affiliate with the Church. They are often filled with doubts and questions that leave them rudderless on the sea of life.
The Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, has started a young-adult peer ministry designed to provide guidance and answers to Catholics in the armed forces who, too often, are taken in by aggressive non-Catholic evangelistic outreaches.
The program is patterned after the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (Focus), which, since 1996, has been sending bright, articulate, specially-trained recent college graduates back onto campuses to help provide guidance and answers to their peers at an increasing number of America’s colleges and universities.
The core idea is that young people feel more comfortable and communicate more easily with those of similar ages and experiences.
As peer leaders, these young evangelizers don’t pretend to have all the answers. Nor do they pretend to be religious teachers or theologians. They are seeking answers, too, even though they are deeply committed to the Church and the teachings of Jesus Christ.
We want to awaken in young adults in the military an excitement about faith, more of a connection to their Catholic identity and a deeper appreciation of the riches of Catholic tradition.
Through interviews on various military installations, we have already identified 50 dedicated, well-spoken young Catholics on active duty to serve as leaders. We provided them with several days of specialized training and they have returned to their installations to pilot our outreach.
Participating installations as we begin are Fort Hood (Texas), Fort Belvoir (Virginia), Norfolk Naval Base (Virginia), Langley Air Force Base (Virginia), Marine Corps Air Station (South Carolina) and the Navy Training Base (Michigan).
Their efforts begin on their installations with two widely advertised gatherings for Catholics (and any others interested) to include music, refreshments, DVDs and personal witness by the leaders. These approximately 90-minute sessions are designed to be relaxed, but focused and carefully planned. A discussion session might typically start with an icebreaker such as: “If you became Pope, what would you say in your acceptance speech?”
The objective of these receptions would be to identify groups of eight to 10 willing to participate in a series of six subsequent one-hour discussion groups. Each discussion focuses on a specific theme: Can a Catholic have a relationship with Jesus? How do Catholics read the Bible? How do I choose right over wrong? Why should I go to church? So, it’s not all about me? Or Do Catholics really pray to saints?
More than two dozen additional themes are in production, each replete with Scriptural backgrounds, references to the Catechism of the Catholic Church and a wide variety of other resources aimed at helping participants delve into the depths of our Catholic tradition.
If all goes well, not only will faith be strengthened on the part of those who have enough interest to take part in these discussions, but some will also volunteer to become lay leaders themselves — and propagate a ripple effect throughout the armed forces.
All resources are professionally produced with the collaboration of our own Office of Youth and Young Adults, Paulist Media, Paulist Young Adult Ministry, the Catholic Leadership Institute of Malvern, Pa., and New Group Media of South Bend, Ind. A unique feature is that all discussion units, with full references and resources, are deployable on one DVD.
Many of our leaders will soon find themselves in the Sinai, Kosovo, Afghanistan or Iraq — and will have the whole program at their disposal on a single DVD.
I am convinced that this outreach also holds great potential for vocations to the priesthood and religious life from within the military.
Repeatedly, we hear from our deployed priests of the desire of so many young — and older — troops to learn more of their faith, to find the Lord in the desert in which they find themselves. Of the many experiences our chaplains have shared, I would offer you brief excerpts from three letters recently sent to me.
The first is from an airman on a military airlift flight assigned to fly 57 Army troops from Mosul. His tours in Iraq had just been completed. While there were no mortar attacks on the airfield as they loaded, shortly after takeoff the plane took a shot through one of its jet engines.
“The projectile …didn’t explode on impact,” the airman wrote. “The large fire in the wing didn’t spread even though it melted much of the paint. … There was a large hole in the engine that prevented our fire extinguisher from being effective, and yet the fire went out.”
He concluded: “We believe that the Lord was looking down on us that day and intervened to protect the 63 souls on board.”
Another comes from an Air Force reservist piloting an aerial refueling tanker. The plane’s mission was suddenly changed after it had refueled some F-16s in mid-air. It was diverted to Kuwait to pick up 22 coffins of Marines who had died in the battle for Fallujah and fly the remains to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where their families awaited.
A Marine colonel boarded the cargo hold and said: “These are my Marines and I am giving them to you. Please take great care of them as I know you will.” He then asked me to pass along to their families that these men were extremely brave and had made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. At Dover, he wrote, he did everything he could to console the families, adding: “It was the most difficult thing that I have ever done in my life.”
The third letter is from a Marine gunnery sergeant. He relates that his men had asked the folks back home to send toys for the Marines to distribute to Iraqi children wherever they went. One day their patrol vehicles were halted by a little girl in the middle of the road clutching a toy bear. She would not budge. It is perilous to halt a patrol on a dusty street where it could come under fire from rooftops or alleyways, but the sergeant did so to make sure she was all right.
“The little girl looked scared and concerned,” he wrote, “but there was a warmth in her eyes toward me. I knelt down to talk to her. She moved over and pointed to a mine in the road.”
He concluded: “It was the heart of an American that sent that toy. It was the heart of an American that gave that toy to that little girl.”
And that generous gesture probably saved several American lives that day.
Such stories are legion. And so many reflect a renewed and deepened awareness of the treasures of our faith.
You can well imagine why we want to reach out to these courageous young Americans and strengthen their belief in God and the Church.
Edwin O’Brien is archbishop for the Military Services, USA.