Fighting the Good Fight
BY Joseph Pronechen
November 8-14, 2009 Issue | Posted 11/2/09 at 2:09 AM
Father Peter Uhde has a unique mission.
As U.S. Army Capt. Uhde, he is not only a priest chaplain — he also works as a recruiter trying to convince priests and seminarians to become military chaplains.
Ordained in 1981 for the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., Father Uhde was sent to the University of Lisbon to learn Portuguese, then assigned to Newark’s “Ironbound” neighborhood, which is populated mostly by Portuguese immigrants.
While in seminary he signed up as a chaplain candidate for the Air Force and remained in the Reserves from 1979-91, when he left to devote all his time to both of his parishes in Ironbound. In 2001, with the blessing of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, he entered the Army full time as a priest chaplain, serving in the United States, Germany and Iraq. Medevaced from Iraq due to a medical condition, he spent 18 months in Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. (See related article on page B1.)
From his base in Fort Meade, Md., and soon to report for an Advanced Officers Course, he spoke with Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen about his military chaplaincy and the needs and challenges of recruiting chaplains for the Army.
When you entered the Army full time, where were you assigned?
I was sent to Fort Drum [N.Y.], the most deployed base in the world. I didn’t move from base to base; I moved from brigade to brigade, to whichever was about to go to war. There are 4,000 families on that post. To have no Catholic priest there is worse than no priest in Iraq.
Are the needs and challenges that great all over?
There are 3,000 Protestant chaplains but only 80 Catholic priests in the entire U.S. Army. In the active-duty Army, 35% is Catholic, that being over 130,000 Catholics spread throughout the world. When you include the Reserves and National Guard, 51% is Catholic.
If you’re a Catholic, you have to go to Mass. No other denomination is sacramental. A Catholic couldn’t go to a Baptist service and feel he’s doing the right thing.
In Iraq, with about 120,000 soldiers, most of the time there are nine Catholic American priests. They fly all over by helicopter, stay overnight at a base, hear confessions, say Masses, talk to guys with marital problems, then fly to another base. Iraq is now longer than World War I and World War II combined. In light of that fact, it means more Catholics have gone through this experience than ever before. And, this is the first war occurring for this amount of time with only this amount of priests.
Very often a guy wouldn’t be able to talk to a priest or go to Mass for one and a half or two months. A) The guy gradually loses his faith, and B) his friends are going to Methodist or Baptist services, and this guy feels this isn’t so bad. The practicing Catholics very often come back to their (home) dioceses not the same people because of no priest.
Meanwhile, nearly half of the U.S. Army — 40% — is married. Those families live on posts or are attached to a base. Those are a lot of families missing a priest. But an Army base is simply a parish. In Germany we had 75 confirmations yearly. In Fort Drum, any given year had 60 to 80 confirmations. Same thing with first Communions and adult ed. On a base all those are exactly the same as in any town. The only difference: There is no priest.
With such needs, why is it difficult to recruit chaplains?
It’s a multicentered problem with no easy answer. In terms of recruiting, to get seminarians and priests to say Yes as a chaplain or chaplain candidate is very doable. But then you’ve got to get the bishop to say Yes for priests and the seminarian’s rector and bishop to say Yes. That’s much more challenging.
We’re asking bishops to give up a priest for the military, but they have a shortage of priests in their own dioceses. Almost any diocese is in desperate need of priests. Many dioceses are consolidating parishes and trying to best use the little clergy they’ve got. On top of that, very often the priest winds up staying in for 20 years and never coming back. That makes it a bigger decision for the bishop.
It’s almost like trying to get money out of people who don’t have money.
Are you finding ways to meet the challenge?
One of the programs I thought up is to ask bishops to give us an older priest serving eight to 12 years who is thinking about going on sabbatical. Give us that priest for four years. He would save up $60,000 in GI Bill money to go for a doctorate on his sabbatical. He also would get $3,000 per month to live on while going to college. The priest comes back to the diocese and he has got a doctorate.
We’re trying to get the experience seminarians receive in the chaplain-candidate program to be accepted as credit hours by their seminary. And the Army has a new Religious Professional Scholarship Program for which the Army pays for all his tuition while in the seminary.
I’m hoping these various modifications might help bishops and rectors be more open to letting these guys come in. The Army is not looking for more soldiers, but for priests. That’s what commanders and the families at the bases are looking for.
In 2005 with the 171st Cavalry Brigade in Iraq, you were medevaced to Germany with kidney stones, then to Walter Reed, where a doctor discovered an inoperable cancerous tumor crushing your carotid artery and said you had six months to live. What happened?
I was walking down the hall talking about it with some friends who had come from Newark. An officer came out asking, “Who’s talking Portuguese?”
“I am,” I said, and told him the whole story.
“Why don’t we let God decide that,” he answered. “I just read an experimental idea in a journal to dissolve the tumor.” He had been a missionary in Brazil who became a doctor and joined the Army.
It was the hand of God who needed me to get to Walter Reed to get into that hallway so that guy, who knew this experimental procedure that could save my life, heard me.
I was in Walter Reed for a year and a half. While recovering, in the dormitory, I became the chaplain by the hand of God. You’re assigned a battle buddy. Mine was a Marine sergeant who was more mobile and went around meeting the different guys, then say, “You got to see this kid in the other room. He has no legs and his wife’s going to leave him.” I’d go down in my robe and try to patch things up.
My unit in Iraq would get word back to me to see a guy coming to Walter Reed. I was battling from a different battlefront. I was fighting with the guys whose battle was against death. It’s the difference your presence makes and how God needs you in a certain spot at a certain time.
Would you share a victory or two you won to show us why dioceses should try to help with a military chaplain?
At Fort Drum, near Canada, the base head chaplain got me a house on the street where all the high-ranking officers lived. As it turns out, for a year one other man and I were the only men on the street. The others were in Iraq. In the winter he would plow one side of the street and I would plow the other. In summer I cut all the lawns on one side of the street; he did the same on the other. While doing that, people from those houses asked, “Are you a Catholic priest? I haven’t been to church in so long. What do I need to do to come back?” Others, Baptists, Methodists, asked, “What do you have to do to become a Catholic?”
By the time the guys got back from Iraq, I had the entire street Catholic. I completed a handful of annulments; others married in the Church; the kids went to CCD. It all started with blowing snow and cutting lawns.
And one day my battle buddy, the Marine sergeant, wanted to go to Mass — the first time in 15 years. He said, “I want you to know you’re the cause of all this: getting me back to church.” I was at Walter Reed being one of the only Catholic priests with all those soldiers, and that’s where God needed a priest. At Fort Drum, I cut grass but had to be there to do it. God needs people in place.
So my approach to seminarians is this: You’re already a soldier for Christ. Now be a soldier for Christ in the U.S. Army.
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.
Contact Father Uhde’s recruiting partner: Father Paul Halladay at (888) 216-1011 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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