Profiles in Courage: Military Chaplains

Catholic chaplains have served the spiritual needs of the men and women in uniform since 1917.

A chaplain assists a soldier in Afghanistan.
A chaplain assists a soldier in Afghanistan. (photo: Courtesy of the Archdiocese for Military Services)

WASHINGTON — The Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA reported a sharp jump this year in the number of seminarians interested in serving as military chaplains. As the 2011-2012 academic year begins, there are 31 military-affiliated seminarians nationwide, up from three just three years ago.

The seminarians are participating in the Chaplain Candidacy Program for one of the branches of the armed forces and must be co-sponsored by a diocesan bishop. Once ordained, the priest must serve three years in a civilian parish and return to his diocese of sponsorship when he retires from active military service.

Conventual Father Kerry Abbott, director of vocations for the archdiocese, remarked, “This is one of the untold stories of the blessings of the Holy Spirit upon the Church and those faithful fervently seeking to respond to the voice of God.”

He added that seminaries were struggling to find room for all the new seminarians and the funding to pay their expenses.

The need for new chaplains for the service is critical, as the number has fallen from 400 10 years ago to 274 today. Pope Benedict XVI himself has noted the important work military chaplains do in promoting holiness in the midst of modern challenges.

In 2010, he said he hoped military chaplains will bring about a “renewed adhesion to Christ,” setting the bar of “holiness as the high measure of Christian life in response to the new pastoral challenges.”

Four military chaplains spoke about their service.

Father Karl-Albert Lindblad, 52, is an active-duty chaplain currently serving at the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center in Yorktown, Va. He is a native of New York City and remembers watching Navy ships come and go from the harbor as a child. After entering the seminary, he contacted the Navy and asked if they had chaplains.

He recalled (laughing), “They said, ‘Don’t move! We’re coming for you now!’”

The military has long had a shortage of chaplains, he added: “We’re lucky to have the priests that we do.”

Compounding the problem is that the military seeks younger, fit men who can meet the challenges of military life, the same kind of new priests bishops seek for their own parishes.

Father Lindblad was ordained for the Archdiocese of New York in 1987. After spending several years in a parish — as regulations require — he became a Navy chaplain. He has since risen to the rank of lieutenant commander.

While the duties of a military priest are often similar to a civilian priest, Father Lindblad said, there are some important differences: “We travel a lot, we can get shot at, and we’re asked to live in small spaces.”

Unlike a civilian priest, a military priest lives with his congregation: “It can be both exhilarating and challenging. While you’re trying to be a role model and witness Christ to them, some days they see your worst side.”

Soldiers and emergency service personnel typically have “very immediate concerns,” he noted, whether they’re going into combat or daily working with military equipment that can be dangerous. Being away from home six months or more at a time can be a burden, too. Those who are forced to kill others in battle approach him with moral concerns about their actions.

Father Lindblad has been assigned to military bases throughout the world and was even part of a mission to capture Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. But the assignment that was most profoundly memorable to him was in 2001, when he was working at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy on Long Island, just outside New York City. The academy was just 20 miles from the World Trade Center, and he witnessed the 9/11 attacks in progress.

Father Lindblad was the first Navy chaplain on the scene and played a key role in securing the services of a Navy hospital ship, the USNS Comfort. As a teenager, he had worked as a messenger in the World Trade Center and knew its buildings well. He recalled, “I looked at the pile of steel ruins, and thought, We’re going to need more help.

One of his most vivid memories was of the many shoes of the victims strewn about Ground Zero. The pressure of the collapse of the buildings had vaporized the bodies of most of the 2,600 victims, he said, leaving behind only their shoes: “I came to realize just how many had died.”

‘Fell in Love’

Franciscan Father Robert Bruno, a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, has served as a military chaplain for 31 of his 34 years as a priest. Originally from Ohio, he was attracted to military service because he wanted to work with young adults and their families. He has spent much of his career in the United States and Europe and is currently stationed at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Colo.

Father Bruno was initially planning to serve several years and then return to civilian life, but he changed his mind. He said, “I fell in love with the ministry.”

The lifestyle continues to appeal to him, Father Bruno explained, because it is both “dynamic and global” and has left him with a lifetime of memorable experiences.

Once, for example, in 2000, while stationed in Germany, he led a delegation of 700 airmen for a Jubilee Year gathering at the Vatican. During an evening prayer service to a multi-national crowd of more than 100,000 in St. Peter’s Square, he was unexpectedly asked to read the English translation of intercessory prayers. Pope John Paul II was in the papal apartment above looking down on him.
He remarked, “I have a whole lifetime of experiences like that that I never would have had in civilian ministry.”

Like the other branches of the service, the Air Force needs priests. Of the minimum 120 required, there are currently only 65.

The chaplains serve airmen who suffer from increasingly lengthy separations from home. Hence, there is a disturbing rise in the incidence of suicide among service personnel. Father Bruno is frequently called upon to help people contemplating suicide: “My focus is not on the newest and latest military aircraft, but on the human dimension of being in the service.”

Less Reluctant

Msgr. Jerome Sommer, 96, is one of just a handful of surviving retired U.S. Army chaplains who served during World War II. In fact, until the death Sept. 29 of retired New Orleans Archbishop Philip Hannan, 98, who was a paratroop chaplain, he was the second oldest.

Msgr. Sommer was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of St. Louis in 1940. In 1945, his bishop approved his transfer into the military. After six weeks of basic training, he was sent to the Pacific.

He spent a total of 29 years in the Army, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel, and serving at bases all over the world. Today, despite his advanced age, Msgr. Sommer’s mind is sharp and he celebrates Mass daily in the retirement community where he lives in St. Louis.

He also still attends military-related events. He was recently pleased to attend a memorial Mass in Washington, D.C., for Father Vincent Capodanno, a military chaplain killed on a battlefield in Vietnam while assisting wounded and dying U.S. Marines. Father Capodanno is one of four military chaplains — all Catholic — who received the Medal of Honor for his service. Catholic chaplains may have less reluctance to minister in a combat situation, Msgr. Sommer opined, because of the urgency of administering the sacraments to the dying and the fact that they are unmarried and don’t have to worry about dependents back home.

‘Father Lucky

Heavy combat is something Father Clement Davenport, 87, saw many times in his years serving as an Army chaplain in the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

Father Davenport was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 1948. He volunteered to join the Army after the outbreak of the Korean War. The infantry units in which he served, both in Korea and Vietnam, often found themselves in the thick of the fighting. He was repeatedly advised to return to the safer rear areas, but he wanted to be on the front lines with the troops.

He explained, “That’s how we serve as priests. It’s part of our nature. We have to go where the suffering and dying is.”

The strains of war can be tremendous, Father Davenport said, but God’s grace can help you endure. He recalled one time while serving with soldiers who were protecting a water plant in Saigon. He was suffering from food poisoning, but since his unit was expecting an artillery attack that night, he opted to stay rather than go to the hospital.

At 3am, the North Vietnamese barrage hit (“All hell broke loose,” he said). Casualties were high, and Father Davenport went about ministering to the wounded and dying, pausing from time to time to vomit because of his illness. The next day, he celebrated nine Masses. His only “food” for the day was a can of Coke, which it took him eight hours to get down. He reflected, “I don’t know how I did it, but God takes care of you.”

Despite his many times in combat, Father Davenport made it through unscathed. Once on the battlefield, an artillery shell exploded nearby, sending a piece of shrapnel tearing through his fatigues. But he was left uninjured. The experience helped earn him the title of “Father Lucky.”

Another incident he recalled was when his driver, who had not yet experienced combat, took him to the front lines. While speaking to some tank crews, some artillery rounds came in. Father asked his driver, “Are you scared?” He replied, “Not when I’m with Father Lucky.” Father responded, “Well, I am. Let’s get the hell out of here!”

Father Davenport believes in the saying “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Soldiers fighting and dying were often receptive to his ministry; some wore rosaries he had given them around their necks into battle.

The Catholic chaplain shortage was always a problem; seven Protestant chaplains ministered to the same number of men he did. He had spent enough time in combat to earn a ticket home but opted to stay with the troops until the end of both wars because “there was no one to replace me.”

Father Davenport, who is pastor emeritus of the Church of the Nativity in Menlo Park, Calif., has fond memories of his time in the service. He says that while war is “terrible and stupid,” the work of a military chaplain is “beautiful.”

“You hold wounded and dying kids in your arms, 18 or 19 years old, some calling out for their mothers,” he explained. “I told them not to be afraid and talked to them about Jesus and Mary. My time in the military was the most important part of my priesthood.”

Register correspondent Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.