Priest First and Soldier Second: ‘God Gave Me the Gift of Serving Those Who Serve in the Army’
Military chaplain Father Peter Pomposello is a man on a mission to ‘feed soldiers with the Bread of Life.’
BALTIMORE — “Becoming an Army chaplain was my first thought when I first considered being a priest,” says Father Peter Pomposello. “I had been in the Army through the Reserve Officer Training Corps; and when I first started thinking about being a priest, I said to myself, ‘Well, they need priests in the Army so I should be a priest for the Army!’”
However, it was not as simple as that, as he explains: “I needed the permission of my bishop; and, after lots of twists and turns, seven years of study, 10 years in parish work, and by the grace of God and the generosity of my archbishop, I now serve as an active-duty military chaplain.”
Today, he is a Catholic priest with the Archdiocese for the Military Services. In addition, he serves in the U.S. Army as a priest recruiter. His mission is to bring more Catholic priests and seminarians to serve as chaplains in the Army and Army Reserves.
As a priest in the army, Father Pomposello has had what he describes as “the joy of celebrating many Masses, weddings and baptisms for the soldiers and families of the U.S. Army.” In addition, he has also been deployed to the Middle East during times of conflict and found himself jumping out of planes with paratroopers in Alaska.
No Average Day
“I’ve been in the Army for nine years as a chaplain. Each assignment has its own workflow, culture and expectations,” he says. “My life is very different now as a recruiter than it was when I was in an aviation unit.” He has served in two infantry units, one in Alaska and one in Kentucky; on account of these different deployments, he suggests, he is able to give a realistic snapshot of what it is like to be an infantry unit chaplain: “You are up very early to be with the troops, to see what’s going on for the day, and to work out and do physical training with them. After that, since I lived on post, I would go home and then go get cleaned up, change out of my physical fitness uniform and come back to work at my desk in my uniform, where I would start my day with meetings and appointments.”
So far, his day is similar to that of his brother officers; but then, for the man who is priest first and soldier second, things move in a different direction. “At 11:30, I head to the chapel for the 11:45 Mass for the troops. This is the highlight of my day,” he says, his “favorite part,” when he sees soldiers who have chosen “to sacrifice part of their lunch hour for the Lord and come to Mass.”
After Mass, he has lunch. Then it is back to his office for more meetings. After that, he tries to “circulate around the Army post to try and see the troops” wherever they are, whether “in their offices, in the field or at the range.” His work day draws to a close around 5 p.m. It is then that Father Pomposello heads to the chapel again to pray. Evenings are taken up with various meetings specifically for the Catholics on the base. “I’m very much parish priest on the weekends, but I work for a commander, and I’m a soldier’s chaplain during the week,” he says.
In the Field
“Fieldwork” is something altogether different: “Your schedule is very simple: no phone, no commute; just you and the troops in the woods. I could be in places like Fort Polk, Louisiana, or maybe Camp Atterbury, Indiana, when we do all the ‘Army things’ that people think of when they think of the Army: sleeping on the ground, waking up early, running around the woods and accomplishing Army things in Army training.” Paradoxically, these are some of his “favorite times in the Army.” As he observes, “Everybody wants to be home in a comfortable bed with an easy routine, but when we endure the hardship together, those are the times for the best conversations, the best camaraderie and bringing people closer to Jesus. [While on fieldwork] I would say Mass and hear confessions every day.”
The Hardest Parts
“The hardest part of my current work is convincing priests and seminarians to embrace an additional level of sacrifice in the priesthood as an Army chaplain,” he says. “Yes, you’re going to be away from home. Yes, you’re gonna be away from family and friends. Yes, there’s going to be hardship, and it’s gonna be a challenge, but it’s so necessary for our men and women who serve in uniform.” He tells of how brother priests thank him for his service to his country. His reply to them is straightforward: “Do you want to thank a soldier for his service? The best thing you can do is join the Army, be a chaplain and offer Mass for them.’” He then adds, “Of course, it’s not that simple. But once I have a priest who’s motivated to respond to this call, the hardest parts are over. We just let the Holy Spirit do his work with his bishop; and we pray that he will get into the Army.”
His greatest joy while serving in the military as a chaplain is in coming to know the families of serving soldiers. “I was a parish priest for 10 years. I had wonderful relationships with families, made friendships that still endure to this day, but serving Army families, and being a priest to them, is another level of joy.” He goes on to suggest why that is: “The hardship and spiritual intimacy can’t be duplicated in a civilian parish. Army families suffer hardships that civilian families know nothing about: long separation from loved ones; the threat of violence; the threat of their soldier having to make the ultimate sacrifice — being there and sharing these hardships, it’s really a joy. It’s a joy to know that the families can look at their priest and know their priest gets it. We call the Army a family; and, by the grace of God, I get to be a father of that family.”
Peter Pomposello grew up in Staten Island, New York. “I’m the son of a New York City police officer,” he says. “My dad retired as a captain, after 32 years of service. My mother stayed home to raise me and my two older sisters.” It was his parents who taught him initially about vocation. “I am so proud of my parents’ vocation; they have been married for almost 65 years.”
It was in Catholic high school that he began discerning a vocation to priesthood. “It was also in high school that I learned about the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, a moment of conviction that’s never left me,” he recalls. It was during a religion class that he asked the priest who was teaching: “‘So it’s really Him?’ I must’ve asked about three times during the class, and he was very patient with me; and, by the gift of the Holy Spirit, I really came to understand and to know with deep conviction that the Eucharist was not just bread or wine, or a sign or symbol — it is truly Jesus. To serve the Lord in the Eucharist has always been my primary motivation and reason to be a priest.”
The young Pomposello was not so enamoured of pursuing this calling, however. Instead, he became a school teacher and went on to teach for five years.
But the call persisted. “As a schoolteacher, I started going to Mass at Our Lady, Queen of Peace on Staten Island; and my vocation came to me as a question, ‘Why don’t you become a priest?’ I wrestled with that question, and then I acted on it.” He broke with his girlfriend, quit his job and entered seminary at 28 years old.
A quarter of a century later, he has no regrets. “I love being a priest. It’s not what I do; it’s my identity. It’s who I am. Second to my priestly identity is that of a soldier. I’ve always loved the idea of becoming a soldier, since I was a little boy, and now I get to live my vocation as a priest and as a soldier at the same time.” He adds, “I mean: I get to be a priest and a paratrooper!”
He has also spent time deployed in war zones. “I have been deployed to combat zones in Iraq and Syria. I think the most impressive memory of those times is the extreme poverty that war brings to a country.” There was, however, an even more lasting memory. “I had this dreadfully sad duty to say prayers for soldiers who died in combat, blessing their bodies before they made their ‘angel flight’ home to their family and loved ones for their funerals. And yet, in such a heavy and sad moment I had the honor, as a priest, to comfort the spouses and parents and let them know that I was there to bless their soldier’s body.”
Today, Father Pomposello remains on a mission to foster more vocations to the military chaplaincy. The need and importance of chaplains remains simple: Service personnel are far from family and friends and some are far from the Sacraments. “We need priests to come and feed the soldiers with the Bread of Life. What better sacrifice can you make for them than to put on the uniform, be one of them and, also, a priest for them?”
Yet he recognizes that his time in the military is finite. “There will come a day when I’m too old or too sick to be in the Army. But, at the end of it all, God gave me the gift of serving as a priest for those who serve in the Army.”
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