SOUTHERN IRAQ — Marines moving north toward Baghdad have a priest beside them and an extra weapon: prayer.
Father Timothy Hogan, a lieutenant commander in the Navy assigned to the Marines in Iraq, said as convoys move north they spend time being briefed on the safety and operational issues involved. Then the battalion commander, Col. John Wissler, a devout Catholic, speaks to the troops. After he talks, he asks Father Hogan to pray for the convoy. After the prayer for the entire convoy, Father Hogan calls all the Catholics together for confession and Communion.
Father Hogan, who corresponded with the Register by e-mail, could not reveal his location in Iraq for security reasons. A Marine Corps spokesman would say only that Father Hogan had been “moved forward” from Kuwait.
Both on the front line and on the home front, prayer is increasingly becoming the glue that holds people together as they deal with the stresses of combat, according to chaplain, soldiers and family members.
And while some protest the war at home, the troops say they are too busy to notice.
From inside Iraq, Father Hogan, who said his battalion has already been involved in a couple of “skirmishes” that he characterized as “nothing serious,” added that he has had a great deal of counseling to do now that the battle has started.
“Counseling now is dealing with the aftershock of witnessing dead bodies on the side of the road and children and adults begging for food,” he said.
Father Hogan, a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit, said the troops continue to have Mass once a week followed by the rosary and, when possible, the Stations of the Cross each Friday. He added that he and the other Catholic chaplains in Iraq also minister to battalions that do not have priests to make sure soldiers have access to the sacraments.
Because they move so much, Father Hogan said, there is also a good deal of “private” prayer time for the troops.
Those troops not at the front are praying, too. Major Brad Bartelt, a Catholic and a spokesman for Central Command Forward in Doha, Qatar, said with war under way he has many reasons to pray.
“[War] makes you think more and more,” he said. “You have friends that are out there and you pray for them constantly.”
Though not on the front line, Bartelt said private prayer is the norm for him while working 18- to 20-hour days in Qatar.
“When I get back to my rack to get some sleep, that's my time [for prayer and reflection],” he said. He also said the military does its best to accommodate the spiritual needs of soldiers by letting them attend religious services despite their hectic schedules.
As for the effect protests are having on morale, Bartelt said it is minimal. “Honestly, they don't see the protests on the front line,” where TV news is not available, he said.
Troops don't have time to worry about such things, he added, because they are too focused on the mission and on surviving.
With loved ones in danger, family members back home face long days of waiting — and praying.
That's especially true for the family of Shoshana Johnson, one of several American POWs whose face was splashed across Iraqi television as she and the others were held in captivity.
Their Army maintenance unit had been ambushed by Iraqi soldiers March 22. Johnson's mother, Eunice, had given her a rosary before she deployed, and the Catholic family from El Paso, Texas, is hoping Shoshana will soon be reunited with her 2-year-old daughter, Janelle.
Walter Carew, who lives in Massachusetts, said he and his wife pray constantly for their stepson, Sgt. Christopher Culbert, a father of four who is in the 101st Airborne Division.
“We're proud of him and we're worried,” Carew said, echoing the sentiments of many parents.
Carew said he and his wife constantly pray from a small prayer book, which his father, a captain who survived the Battle of the Bulge despite being wounded, used during World War II.
“I fight over [that book] with my wife,” Carew said.
He also said the Eucharist has been the most important thing to him in his praying for the troops and his stepson.
“The Eucharist is the greatest gift to us Catholics,” he said, adding that he would encourage others to pray before the Eucharist for the troops as well.
Another proud but worried parent, Mary Grace Sundy, the mother of Lt. Patrick Sundy, a Marine Corps officer in Iraq, said she also turns to prayer. Even everyday tasks remind her to pray for her son.
“I pour myself a glass of water,” she said, and then prays, “please don't let him get dehydrated, Lord.”
When Sundy breathes, she prays for her son's lungs in an atmosphere that has pollutants from dust and burning oil wells; when she awakens, she prays for his sleep, and so on.
One thing that comforts her, she said, is that “Patrick went to confession before he deployed.”
Sundy said she has been pleasantly surprised by how many people — including those in her parish, Sts. John and Paul in Sewickley, Pa. — have been “incredibly supportive” of her and those in the military.
“At our parish,” she said, “a display went up today with an American flag and the names, addresses and photos of military members and a book in which parishioners can write notes to them.”
Support From Bishops
Some bishops in the United States have begun offering the Votive Mass in Time of War.
Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington, Va., a diocese where the Pentagon and several military installations are located, has begun saying the Mass to pray for peace, the troops and their families.
The bishop hopes to offer the Mass once a week until the war ends, said Linda Shovlain, communications director for the Diocese of Arlington.
Shovlain said the intention of the Mass is “for the true and lasting peace” in the world, especially Iraq and the Middle East; the protection of coalition military personnel and the comfort of their families; innocent Iraqi civilians; and “wisdom and farsightedness for our national leaders and world leaders to build a world in which true peace can take root and war abolished forever.”
Also offering the votive Mass is Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Ill., who asked Catholics to pray the rosary for the troops and for civilians.
“In this Year of the Rosary, it seems especially appropriate that we ask Our Lady, the queen of peace, to pray with us and for us,” he said.
Supported by prayers at home, chaplains such as Father Hogan look forward to the day when they can help Catholic Iraqis as well as the troops.
“I am hoping that, when this is over and when we are in the reconstruction stage,” Father Hogan said, “I will have an opportunity to meet with some clergy in Iraq and set up an opportunity to celebrate Mass with them and assist them in rebuilding.”
Andrew Walther writes from Los Angeles.