KUWAIT — Two days into the war, Father Timothy Hogan, the only Catholic chaplain in Kuwait, considers himself a freedom fighter. But he isn't freeing people from Saddam Hussein. He's freeing people from sin.
The Detroit priest is pastor of a flock that waits near the front lines.
“The greatest event is the opportunity for confession,” Father Hogan told the Register from his deployment near the Iraq border. “Many of our folks are returning to this wonderful sacrament after being away for many years. They are most appreciative of the gift of forgiveness and freedom.”
Many of his troops go to daily Mass and pray the rosary after Mass when possible, he said. Many go to confession frequently. It's Lent for fighting men and women, too. They do the Stations of the Cross on Fridays.
“It is a great joy for me to see the peace on their faces after our time of prayer,” Father Hogan said. “It is a real privilege for me to serve as the instrument of freedom.”
From his office at Fort Hood, Texas, the world's largest Army base, chaplain Lt. Col. Father Robert Kincl said in the opening hours of Operation Iraqi Freedom that he has seen troops returning to the sacraments in droves.
He said he has seen “multitudes of invalidly married Catholics come back and say ‘Father, I want to get married in the Church.’”
Most Catholics in the service are dedicated, Father Kincl said, and for those who are not, “this [war] has helped them to get back to the Church.”
“It is the mystery of God at work,” he said.
The war and deployments have also speeded up the process of baptism and confirmation for some soldiers, Father Kincl said.
“Two officers in RCIA were called up,” Father Kincl said, so Military Archdiocese Archbishop Edwin O's Brien allowed him to baptize and confirm them and any soldiers who were deployed.
Some soldiers have also stepped forward to try to do more for their fellow troops on a spiritual level.
“Just this morning, I had a first lieutenant who had gone to Catholic school and said he wanted to help as much as possible,” Father Kincl said. The lieutenant wanted to become be a eucharistic minister should be given the Eucharist to distribute to Catholics in the military.
With some civilian parishes in countries such as Bahrain and with Catholic military chaplains like Father Hogan already in Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, soldiers will not be totally without priests. Two chaplains from Fort Hood are being deployed to the Persian Gulf with the troops, Father Kincl said.
One priest already in the Middle East is Father Marvin Borger, a Navy chaplain lieutenant based at the naval base in Bahrain, where he runs Holy Trinity Parish.
“Here, we have a fully functioning Catholic parish on the base. ... We have Mass just about every day,” he said. “We have a parish council, choir, CCD, etc. Now that we are in Lent, we have Stations of the Cross and a special catechism study on Saturday mornings.”
“Bahrain is an Islamic nation, but other religious faiths are permitted,” Father Borger said, adding that there is also a civilian parish in Bahrain — Sacred Heart — which he said has more than 20,000 parishioners.
U.S. Marine Major Brad Bartelt, a Catholic and spokesman for Central Command Forward, the hub of the planning and command operations for the campaign, said Qatar, too, has been “very gracious” in accommodating the spiritual needs of the American troops. “We have Bibles and we can go to Mass,” he said.
In some Islamic countries, however, Christians have experienced severe restrictions on the practice of their faith.
Father Borger also said because of the generosity of his former parishioners at St. Rose Church in Perrysburg, Ohio, “I have lots of rosaries to give out. I also have some Bibles.”
Still, he said, he wishes he had more to give, especially paperback catechisms.
Both Father Kincl and Father Borger said the number of confessions has increased.
“It is common for sailors or Marines to stop by the chaplains’ office to talk. Sometimes they want to go to confession. They are always sincere and conscientious,” Father Borger said.
Bartelt agreed that everyone hopes for peace, but the troops understand they have a job to do.
Father Kincl said he believes God will bring good out of the current situation.
“The Lord is using this event to give freedom to the Iraqi people,” he said, “and to motivate the servicemen to have hearts dedicated to Jesus.”
Andrew Walther writes from Los Angeles.