From Battlefield to Altar

A surprising number of vocations to the priesthood are appearing among those who have served in the military. And the Archdiocese for the Military Services is finding great interest among young men willing to serve as chaplains.

WASHINGTON — In 1981, Stuart Swetland graduated with top honors from the U.S. Naval Academy, earning a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University. His long-term dream to serve his country was realized when he was commissioned as a Navy officer. He went on to serve on frigates and destroyers.

Today, he’s Msgr. Stuart Swetland, a Catholic priest and the Flynn Professor of Christian Ethics at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md.

Though Msgr. Swetland’s trajectory from military warrior to spiritual warrior might raise some eyebrows, it’s a well-worn path to the priesthood. Annually, about 10% of priestly vocations are men drawn from the ranks of active-duty military, with another sizable portion of recruits raised in military families.

Now that number is getting a boost as the Archdiocese for the Military Services completes the first three years of its new vocations initiative specifically designed to encourage and foster priestly vocations in all the services.

The AMS not only aspires to increase the shockingly low number of military chaplains, but also to draw these recruits into dioceses throughout the United States. The brainchild of Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of Baltimore, who previously led the Archdiocese for the Military Services, the program received seed money from members of the Order of Malta and has gradually gained traction under the leadership of Archbishop Timothy Broglio, who succeeded Archbishop O’Brien in 2008.

Since the AMS’ first vocations director, Father John McLaughlin — a late vocation on loan from the Archdiocese of Boston — hit the road in the summer of 2008, about 40 young men have signed up. Some participate in the “co-sponsorship” program, in which the AMS and the recruit’s home diocese share seminary formation and educational expenses and then establish a period of service at home and as a military chaplain. Others enter religious orders or apply to a regular diocesan vocations program.

“The Diocese of Arlington [Va.] has the most co-sponsored seminarians, and others include Baltimore, Monterey [Calif.], Peoria [Ill.], Austin [Texas] and several other dioceses in Texas,” reported Father McLaughlin, who will finish his three-year appointment in June and will be replaced by Conventual Franciscan Father Kerry Abbott.

Father McLaughlin did not serve in the military, though his father was a Marine. A graduate of Boston College and a top wrestler, he worked in real estate and coached high-school wrestling on the side, winning state championships. Over time, he began to reassess his own career plans and entered the seminary.

Over the past three years, Father McLaughlin has signed up recruits from every military service but the Coast Guard and landed graduates from West Point, the U.S. Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy. He has met young men whose faith was ignited or solidified as they fought on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan and grappled with the enduring questions of human existence: Why am I here? What is my mission on earth? Why was I saved when others were taken?

The Missile Didn’t Explode

One of Father McLaughlin’s recruits tells the story of flying a helicopter mission in Iraq, and surviving a hit from a missile. After landing, he saw that the missile was embedded in his aircraft and never exploded. Throughout that period, he had been discerning his vocation to the priesthood and looked for some guidepost. Perhaps the missile that never exploded was a sign from God.

“These kids fascinate me with their stories and desire to know and love God. I’m surprised that some of these young men didn’t even come from Catholic families. They were searching for God and went to a conversion program on their own,” said Father McLaughlin.

Father Brett Brannen, who is author of To Save a Thousand Souls: A Guide for Discerning a Vocation to Diocesan Priesthood and is serving his sixth year as vice rector of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary — where a number of seminarians in the AMS co-sponsorship program are enrolled — recalls a similar story from his own seminary days.

“Men see and experience terrible things in war, and one fellow seminarian told me he was in a foxhole between two friends,” he said. “They were killed, and he survived. For a long time he wondered why he had been saved.”

Thomas Gallagher, who will complete his second year at Mount St. Mary’s, is a co-sponsored seminarian: His expenses are shared by the AMS and the Diocese of Arlington, Va. He has not served in the military, but came from a military family and participated in the Marines’ Platoon Leader Class program, which allows college-student participants to be eligible to apply for a commission as an officer and a flight school slot after graduation.

While studying at George Mason University in Virginia, his involvement with Focus (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) led him to reconsider his plans with the Marines. “During a Focus conference, I realized I was living my faith with a divided heart,” he recalled.

He went on a discernment retreat with the Diocese of Arlington and “realized that I wanted the flight contract in the Marines too much. I was praying about going to seminary, and for the first time, I was excited about that path.”

Father Brannen underscored the point that young men who grow up in military families are prepared to accept the sacrifices that come with a priestly vocation.

“A military family has to pick up and move where they are assigned and where they are needed. That’s the priesthood: It requires a willingness to lay down your life,” said Father Brannen, who noted that the student body of the U.S. Naval Academy is more than 50% Catholic.

“It’s an ordered life,” he observed. “Many priests do not obey their bishop, and then they wonder why they aren’t flourishing. Military families understand this. They realize that the whole is more important than the parts, and that’s the priesthood. When I say, ‘I have plans,’ Jesus has his plans and I have to change mine.”

A Sense of Service

None of this surprises Msgr. Swetland, who expresses some frustration that many bishops resist giving up a single priest to serve as a military chaplain.

According to the AMS, at one time “the rule of thumb ... was that every diocese endeavor to give 1% of their priests to serve as military chaplains,” he said. “Some dioceses have been able to do more in this regard than others.”

Msgr. Swetland contends that the Church will reap a great harvest by increasing support for the military chaplain program and notes that his own vocation was fostered by gifted chaplains who nurtured the mutually compatible values that inspire both military service and a priestly vocation.

“There’s an old adage in Thomistic philosophy: that ‘grace builds on nature.’ Many people who serve in the military have the natural virtues necessary for success in religious life or the priesthood. They must be self-disciplined, courageous, willing to work as a member of a unit,” said Msgr. Swetland, who has served as the vice president for Catholic Identity and mission at Mount St. Mary’s University and director of homiletics and pre-theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary.

“Men who enter the military do so out of a sense of service — a willingness to lay down their life for others and to give the gift of self,” he said, “and that’s what you need for the priesthood.”

Joan Frawley Desmond, a member of the Order of Malta, has been a supporter of the AMS vocations program.