CATHOLIC SEMINARIANS across the United States are being asked to “be all that they can be” by Armed Forces chaplains recruiters who are as likely to be wearing Roman collars as Major's leaves. In an effort to meet serious shortages in the military chaplain's core, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps are sending priests in their service to encourage seminarians to consider serving God and country as chaplains.

The vocation crisis affecting nearly every diocese in the United States is taking a toll on the number of priests who serve the military as well. According to Msgr. Aloysius Callaghan, moderator of the curia and chancellor of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, the Armed Forces are short nearly 200 fulltime priests. Currently, 492 priests serve more than 1.1 million Catholic men and women in uniform, their spouses and children on military bases as well as personnel on ships, air craft carriers and submarines all over the world. They also work in veteran's hospitals and in the ranks of the National Guard and Reserve forces.

The shortage of priests is most pronounced in the Army, where only 9 percent (117) of active duty chaplains are Catholic priests, while 25 percent of Army personnel and their dependents are Catholic. Chaplain Major David Kenehan, one of two Catholic recruiters for the Army chief of chaplains office, said that while ideally at least one priest is assigned to every installation, that is simply not possible any longer. “If we are in the continental United States, and if there are civilian priests available to help us out, the senior chaplain, regardless of denomination, puts out information about local parishes,” Father Kenehan said. “We try to make sure that people have access to the sacraments.”

The Army has made it a priority to assign priests to bases outside the United States, making sure that each has at least one Catholic chaplain, civilian English-speaking priests in Europe and Asia who can speak English aren't always available. In addition to recruiting in seminaries, the Army has started a new program to foster vocations from within the ranks. “We are starting to get priestly vocations from other active duty personnel,” Father Kenehan said. “So far, we have about a dozen from various dioceses and religious communities studying for the priesthood.”

That list includes West Point graduates, as well as other former officers and enlisted men with experience in artillery, infantry, and military intelligence. “Because they know what it is to be a soldier, they will really know how to serve the needs of soldiers,” Father Kenehan said.

The difficulty of keeping up the chaplain corps numbers isn't surprising considering the nature of the job: a vocation to the life of a military chaplain is really a call within a call. Chaplains must meet the same physical requirements of others serving in the military. They spend time with combat units, sleeping in tents and eating rations or they endure long months at sea or duty abroad in hot spots like Bosnia. Even when a seminarian believes that that unique calling is his, he still needs the permission of the bishop of his home diocese (or the superior of his religious community) before he can enlist.

The military archdiocese has put together a “co-sponsorship program,” in which it shares the costs of educating a seminarian with their home or “civilian” diocese. Upon ordination, the new priest spends his first three years serving in his civilian diocese, then serves on active duty as a military chaplain for the duration of his career. “When they finish their career in the military,” Msgr. Callaghan explained, “they go back to their home diocese to serve their bishops there. They return so enriched … it adds a new dimension to their pastoral ministries.”

While in the military, Catholic chaplains serve the ordinary of the Archdiocese for Military Services, currently Archbishop Joseph Dimino. However, though it rarely happens, canon law stipulates that the bishop of a chaplain's home diocese retains the right to call a priest back into his service at any time, regardless of the chaplain's remaining military commitment.

Archbishop Dimino and his four auxiliary bishops frequently travel throughout the United States and abroad, visiting the faithful and the chaplains who serve them at their various military installations and veterans' hospitals. The prelates offer spiritual support and celebrate the sacrament of Confirmation. They cover so much territory that Msgr. Callaghan speaks of “the largest missionary diocese in the country.”

Since 1985, the Archdiocese for Military Services has been an independent See with headquarters in the Washington, D.C., area. (Before that, it was part of the Archdiocese of New York.) It is almost completely supported by the tithes of the military personnel it serves. Its work includes keeping records of all sacraments administered by the chaplains; operating a marriage tribunal for all cases involving military personnel; granting sacramental faculties to deacons in the military—and actively fostering vocations and screening chaplain candidates.

Military training in all branches of service begins with “Basic Chaplain's School” where chaplains of all faiths are trained together. “At chaplain school, we talk about peace-time, war-time, crisis, hostility, how to wear the uniform, dealing with commanders, dealing with shipboard living and how to deal with the military system,” said Marine Corps chaplain Capt. George Puccarelli.

Military chaplains of all faiths have a reputation for a strong spirit of cooperation with each other. They often share office space and even chapels. All the chaplains counsel people dealing with similar kinds of problems—separation from loved ones and very stressful jobs in difficult environments.

“We call it ‘cooperation without compromise,’” Father Puccarelli said. “Each chaplain, regardless of denomination, deals with Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, and Catholic personnel.

We cater to our own, but [even] more, [we] minister to all. We represent God not in a finite level, but at an infinite level for all peoples.”

Adds Msgr. Callaghan: “This (the military) is a great area for evangelization. People serving in the military are ambassadors of peace and guardians of life, and for Catholics, that's what the Gospel of Life is all about.”

Molly Mulqueen is based in Colorado Springs, Colo.