The challenges of the archbishop of Military Services

The Archdiocese for the Military Serices is the most far-flung jurisdiction of the U.S. Catholic Church. It ministers to 1.2 million Catholics in uniform and their families, Reserve and National Guard members, residents in Veterans Administration hospitals, and those in government service overseas. Archbishop Edwin O'Brien, a former Army chaplain, has headed the archdiocese since 1997. He recently spoke to the Register's Washington Bureau Chief, Joseph Esposito.

Esposito: Please explain: What is the Archdiocese of Military Services?

Archbishop O'Brien: Another name for it is the military ordinariate. As the result of a 1986 papal document, Spirituali Militum Curae, the Holy See gave the status of a diocese to 3,500 military vicariates all over the world.

In this document, we find the Church has special solicitude for those who are serving their nation in uniform. Because of their particular situation—mainly their distance from home and their presence in foreign cultures—they should identify with their own mission.

Our primary responsibility is to make sure that pastoral care is given to our men and women in the armed forces, to their families, and to those in Veterans Administration hospitals, as well as to anyone in our foreign embassies. In each case, we find individuals and families who aren't connected to the normal services of a territorial diocese or parish. The Church wants to make sure their specific needs are met.

You celebrated your first anniversary as archbishop for the military services last August. At that time, I saw an interview in which you characterized that year

I said “yes” to everything. I found myself all over the world—several times in Europe, six weeks in the Pacific, and all over the United States.

I'm not sorry I did because it gave me a very good impression of the vitality of this diocese and its people, who are active in their local communities and their parishes.

Wherever they are, there's a commonality between the military family and the military Catholic. It's impressive. There are priests in uniform and in VA hospitals who uniquely identify with their people and their needs.

These priests are happy in the work they're doing. It's just amazing to see the burdens they're bearing because of the shortage of priests. They're answerable to the Church and to the military, and that sometimes creates tension. But morale is high and they do their work very well.

What are the special problems facing Catholics in the military today? Is it more challenging than when you were a chaplain at Fort Bragg and in Vietnam in the early 1970s?

I think there are parallels. In the 1970s Vietnam was still very much occupying our concerns. It meant the breakup of families, it meant people whose lives were in jeopardy. Toward the end of the war, there were great casualties. That was certainly a very trying time for our nation, especially for anyone connected with the military.

Thank goodness we don't have the same stresses today. But there are stresses. This is not very well appreciated, I think, by the rest of our country, by the civilian side.

Our military is shrinking in numbers and resources. That's a political decision that has been made. I believe there's a misconception that any money given to the military budget goes into bombs.

From my understanding, the vast percentage of whatever goes toward the military, goes towards personnel who take care of our people in uniform and their families. We cover their medical, physical, and spiritual needs.

When that money is cut, we find much insecurity for the military. Promises that were made to them some years ago about medical care or retirement, for example, are now being withdrawn or readjusted.

The drawback in military personnel—understandably, to save money—has not been accompanied by a drawback in military commitments. We are more committed now than ever before to more places around the world. This creates special difficulties for military families.

It's been understood, for instance, that an individual in a “hardship tour,” where he leaves his family for a year in Korea or Okinawa, will follow with three years with his family in a more relaxed atmosphere. This could perhaps be Fort Bragg or Fort Hood, where there are weeks in the field, but still the spouse has a home base.

Now, what is happening is that they do the hardship tour, come back to the United States or perhaps go to Germany with their family, and they find themselves six months out of the year away from home under deployment in Bosnia. Sometimes, this is for a six-month period every three years.

So as we're reducing our numbers, we maintain our installations and responsibilities. That's taking a toll on our people in uniform, especially those with families. It's creating family tensions; we have marriage problems and children very insecure about what's the next step in their lives.

You mentioned resources. I understand that the central government funds military dioceses in European countries, but you have noted that in this archdiocese you're raising every penny of funds. That must be a big challenge.

One foreign military ordinariate has between 50 and 60 priests. They receive all their funding from their government, and after a recent cutback they still get $12 million a year, excluding salaries.

We have 450 priests in uniform and another 100 or more serving in our VA hospitals; our budget is a little over $1 million a year. We do raise it all. It means that we can't give some services that we should.

One of our real concerns is evangelization. We have children and teen-agers in families who deserve more religious formation than they're getting.

The Protestants in many of our installations are pro-active in offering religious programs that are very attractive to young people. They are funded very heavily by churches around the country.

They also are getting some government money because they claim to be ecumenical. But, in fact, these are programs that are heavily centered upon scripture sharing, making decisions for Christ on a traditional Protestant basis.

We should be providing some programs which are clearly Catholic for our people. We're not there yet. I think that's our main responsibility: do a much more efficient job in providing religious formation opportunities for those in our archdiocese.

Working with both the military and the Catholic Church, do chaplains sometimes feel they are caught in the middle between conflicting values?

I don't think so. I haven't seen any signs of divided loyalties—a sense that they have to compromise—among our chaplains. There was an issue a few years ago with partial-birth abortion. But it was resolved when it was made clear that chaplains have a right to preach from the pulpit both in civil and military life. They don't forfeit anything because they wear a uniform.

I think the biggest difficulty among our priests, on the military side, is where they see so much that needs to be done on behalf of Catholics. But the military commander wants them to be chaplains to everybody in the unit. They just can't be every place at once.

The primary reason we have a priest go into the military is to take care of our Catholic people. The Jewish chaplains have a special understanding that their chief aim is Jewish coverage. I think the same thing has to happen to us.

There's been an increased debate on the issue of private vs. public morality, obviously intensified by the travails of President Clinton. But there also have been a number of highly publicized military scandals over the last few years. What kind of conduct should we expect of our military leaders and our public officials?

Our country has usually held the military to the highest standards. I think that, up until now, we also have held all our public officials to a higher standard. I hope that continues although I think there's some doubt about that right now.

Some of the goings-on in the military with sexual abuse, the Tailhook scandal, and the Flynn case, required the kind of action that was taken. It's a very healthy thing that there's a code of ethics—a sense of morality—that we don't find in the rest of the country.

It's too bad we don't find it elsewhere, but I think the military is preserving an important set of values. There was a hint sometime ago that there might be a loosening of the military code, but it was rejected by the Department of Defense. They realized the public won't go for that.

I think the question now is, what's going to happen as a result of President Clinton? He's apologized and so forth, but the damage that has been done is monumental. This leads to a downgrading of an already confused and degraded sense of morality that we see in Hollywood and with some of our young people. I think this tragedy is going to take a long time to reverse.

You were secretary to two prominent New York cardinals, Terrence Cardinal Cooke and John Cardinal O'Connor. Have they had an important influence on you?

Certainly. I worked very closely with Cardinal Cooke. I was in the chancery office and in communications before becoming his secretary during the last months of his life.

None of us realized at the time—when I became his secretary—that he was so close to death. But working that closely with him and seeing his style, experiencing his own pastoral insights as I worked with him, that made a lasting impression.

I admire Cardinal O'Connor. He came with a very different style and I think he's the man for the time as well. It's amazing how [Francis] Cardinal Spellman, Cardinal Cooke, and Cardinal O'Connor have each met the needs of the Church as they had to be met, I think, for that day.

Cardinal O'Connor raised the issue of the value and sacredness of human life when many in our country thought it was a dead issue. On this, and on other fronts, he has played the role of the prophet. Such a prophet will have to take some criticism and suffering.

He has been willing to do that and, because of it, has been a great example for the rest of the hierarchy and the nation. He is not afraid to stand up and speak. He isn't willing to be forced into a defensive position because of being Catholic.

Cardinal O'Connor has given much encouragement to Catholics all over the country. He has encouraged them to be proud of their tradition and realize the importance of that tradition for the survival of our country.

Of course, Cardinal O'Connor had a long history of military…

His influence is still felt in the military. Navy personnel, retired and active, still speak of the impact he had in putting the chaplaincy in a much more visible and respected tradition during his days as chief naval chaplain [1975-79; he retired as a rear admiral. Cardinal O'Connor also was military apostolic administrator, 1984-85].

Can you tell us about others who have influenced you as a Catholic, a priest, and a bishop?

I spoke to someone recently who said that Archbishop [Fulton] Sheen, when he was in Rochester [1966-69], said the laity will save the Church. Wherever I've been—including my childhood parish in the Bronx, Our Lady of Solace, and my high school in northern Westchester County—my faith has been nourished by Catholics who love the Church and the priesthood.

So, in addition to my family, the laity has been a source of motivation to me. But so have the parish priests I grew up with. Then, everything revolved around parish life. Anybody from the “big city” of my generation would say the same thing. It really made a tremendous impression.

I think one of the difficulties we have with vocations right now is that our priests don't stay in a parish long enough for people to get to know them and for good, healthy associations to be made. There is no identification with the work and concern of the priest.

Fortunately, I did have priests who were in the parish for a good number of years. They became part of our family. Whether it was the religious side, the social side, the educational side, sports, it was all tied in with our parish. This is something that gave me my earliest respect for the priest-hood and awe for what a priest is. I never lost that.

You just mentioned vocations. In your varied career, you have been rector of the North American College in Rome and St. Joseph's Seminary in Dunwoodie, New York. What has your work in directing seminaries taught you?

The Church faces many scandals, many trials from within. You look at the culture around us and realize there are too few incentives for someone to make a lifelong commitment. There are few encourgements for someone not to get into the race for more physical and material things.

Yet, the fact that men are turning to seminaries is really a sign of God's grace. I've been impressed by the caliber of the seminarians who are entering today. And I'm convinced that if we focus a little more on finding priests, more will be there.

Both at the North American College and Dunwoodie, I saw very fine candidates who would measure up to any generation. They didn't come out of nowhere. They came out of the same ground, the same roots that many others find themselves in.

If they could come from that soil, what's preventing others from doing so? Perhaps we're not offering a strong enough message. We're not presenting the possibilities and realities of priestly life as we should. We're still searching for ways to do that.

We've touched bottom. I think we just have to get some momentum going in this field. I believe we'll do better in the days ahead.

I know the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has come up with some fine ideas. I was at a conference on vocations in Pittsburgh a few months ago; tremendous programs are being developed at the grass-roots level.

I think there's been confusion as to the identity of the priesthood. I always say that a person will give himself to an intellectual mystery, but not to a question mark. Where will the priesthood be 10 years from now? No one is going to give himself to a life that is surrounded by questions.

I think with this papacy and with so many fine bishops who are involved with vocation programs at the diocesan level, it is beginning to straighten out. I think we'll get additional people giving themselves to a Church that is more predictable, to a life that is more predictable.

What about vocations in the military?

I'm convinced that among those in uniform and others within our military families, there are vocations. Many young people come into the military somewhat confused and dis-oriented. They gain a sense of identity, confidence, and pride in who they are and what they can do.

They're looking for something to do when they get out of the military. Their experience and exposure to chaplains serves them very well, but they don't think of themselves as becoming priests.

It's our job to remind them of the possibility and to set up programs to allow them to pursue the priesthood after their military service. Fortunately, we are beginning some efforts in that regard.

We're working with the Theological College of the Catholic University of America [run by the Sulpician Fathers in Washington, D.C.] and will work with other seminaries to offer days of reflection. We had 20 men in uniform come last February just to look at the Theological College and the priest-hood; we had only expected three or four. One of those is now permanently in what we call a co-sponsorship program, where we share the formation with a home diocese. After ordination, he will spend three years in his home diocese, spend the rest of his 20 years in the military as a chaplain, and then return to his diocese.

So there are two levels to encourage vocations in the priesthood: from those in uniform and from our military families. All of this reflects the enthusiasm of our chaplains in encouraging vocations.

Vocation Director, Western Province P.O. Box 3420 . San Jose, CA 95156 . (408) 251-1361

One of the many other things you are involved with is being episcopal adviser to the Catholic Medical Association. The organization has been very much involved with pro-life issues. Can you share with us your thoughts on where you think the country is going on life issues such as abortion and the emerging issue of assisted suicide?

There's confusion on the part of the public as to what is involved in some of these life issues. I think this was present in the Hugh Finn case. I don't think the confusion is helped by the very heavy legal involvement; the law seems to be taking the primary role as ethical educator in our country.

I wish more time would be given to allow ethicists and other thinkers to debate issues before a Roe v. Wade decision, for example, takes everyone by surprise. Since then [the 1973 Supreme Court decision], everyone immediately turns to the courts to settle these things.

It's important that the medical profession—relying on their age-old Hippocratic oath, their idealism, and their high standards—be heard. The Catholic Medical Association has been trying to do that.

We have a strong, moral, ethical body of values preserved in the Catholic Church. We need to find a more effective way in educating the public and giving advice to those making life decisions. Here, too, the Catholic Medical Association is active.

In addition, the bishops are trying to have greater involvement. There was the public statement, for example, on children with encephalitis. I hope we don't place too much reliance on politicians to resolve these problems. We have so much solid Catholic guidance that can be helpful.

Finally, our readers will be interested in knowing if you are reading any books which you can recommend.

My reading is largely tied to particular things that I'm doing. In September, for example, I held four talks up in Syracuse, N.Y., on “The Priest and Preacher,” and I was absorbed in preparing for that. I got into books on the Eucharist in preparation for retreats for priests that I gave.

Although most of the books I have been reading have been in these fields, I also have been reading Maurice & TherËse: The Story of a Love [see Register review, “Great Lovers Who Never Met,” Dec. 6-12]. It's the story of letters between St. ThÈrËse of Lisieux and Maurice Belliere, a semi-niarian. It was written by Auxiliary Bishop Patrick Ahern of New York.

—Joseph Esposito