When Police Need Backup, St. Michael Sends Priests
Many Catholics don a blue uniform and wear a badge every day to serve society at the risk of their lives — but they risk their souls without the Church’s active help and presence.
MILWAUKEE — When Catholic police officer Sharif Said goes out on his beat patrolling the suburbs of Milwaukee, he brings his faith with him. On the front of his police vest, he pins a medal of St. Michael, the patron saint of police officers, and on the back, he pins St. Jude, the patron of hope and impossible cases.
More than anything, it is Said’s faith that keeps him going in serving his community at its dangerous peripheries. The Milwaukee-area Catholic told the Register that the violence he sees on the job — domestic abuse, drug deals, gang activity and kids who take their own lives with guns, to name a few — is enough to “mess with your head.”
“I’ve seen a lot of heroin deaths in the last few years,” he said. “With heroin deaths, a lot of times, people don’t want you to find the body.”
And on more than one occasion, he has been reminded about how much his life rests in the providence of God. In one such incident, he had to subdue a 300-pound man who had escaped a mental ward and was wandering about the community. His taser had no effect on the man, who just ripped the nodes out of his chest.
“I had to go hands-on with him and got a pretty good hit to my face,” Said added. “You realize how quickly that stuff can go south.”
But Said added that, as a Catholic, being a police officer is a vocation of service to the community, where officers “put on that uniform and stand for something.”
“A lot of what we do are corporal and spiritual works of mercy,” he said, whether it is giving counsel to those in broken homes, comforting those afflicted by crime or burying the dead.
Police Need Sacraments and Support
Capt. Rhett Brotherton, a Catholic convert who serves in the Oklahoma City Police Department’s homicide unit, told the Register that police officers need the support, sacraments and ministry of the Catholic Church.
His department has witnessed the largest number of homicides in a 20-year period — the largest since the 1993 terror bombing of the city’s federal building. It is a violence trend not seen “since the late ’60s and ’70s.”
“What would correlate most closely is the absence of family life,” Brotherton said, adding that society is calling on “the best our community has to offer” to help such broken situations.
Officers who practice their faith and rely on the Church’s help, Brotherton noted, in general make better officers with better judgment; they also have more compassion and overall better family lives: Living the faith gives them strength against temptations to cynicism and nihilism that can seep into their personal lives and relationships or alienate them from their children.
“I’ve found that frequent confession and adoration are anchoring points for me, so that I don’t become the evil in which I’m immersed,” he said. “I definitely don’t want to be in a state of mortal sin.”
He has seen “spiritual death” and “many conversions” on the force.
He has also seen some Catholic officers keep “their brokenness, their pain” to themselves, rather than seek the comfort of the Church, which, to him, has been “like a mother.”
“I pray for them every day,” he said of his fellow officers, both for their physical and spiritual well-being.
Brotherton added that, besides prayer, one simple thing Catholics can do to support their officers is to thank them.
“It has happened five times to me in 28 years,” he said. “But they are little rays of sunlight in a very dark world.”
A vital role to keep officers anchored in faith is the chaplaincy.
According to Father John Harth, spokesman for the International Conference of Police Chaplains and editor of the ICPC Journal, there is a growing demand for police chaplains.
“The opportunity for chaplaincies has grown, and many more departments are creating chaplaincies,” he said.
Above all, it is a “ministry of presence” — the protocols for chaplains preclude proselytization — that requires chaplains to be creative in finding opportunities to build relationships with officers. This kind of ministry, the priest quipped, often takes the shape of the old joke, “Don’t just say something — stand there!”
“The best opportunity is the ride-along,” said the priest, explaining that police officers generally are very quiet about what is going on in their lives. Accompanying an officer patrolling his beat can help build trust and open doors. Father Harth explained that he ministers to police officers, emergency personnel and firefighters within the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo.
The challenge the Church faces, however, is that while the demand for Catholic chaplains has increased, the aging and declining number of priests in the U.S. makes it difficult to fill those roles. Many Catholic priest-chaplains are part time and have other duties. Bishops also may not be too keen to have priests take on chaplaincy roles, as they are often stretched thin with other assignments.
“Almost all chaplains are volunteers; there are very few full-time chaplains,” Father Harth said. Although not every priest is called to chaplain service, he suggested that the local Church could show its support for police officers by holding “Blue Masses” for police and their families.
“It’s not very widespread,” he remarked.
Looking to Deacons
The Church also could look to permanent deacons, especially from well-formed Catholics on the force, Father Harth noted, saying they can provide many ministry functions and counseling, even if they cannot hear confessions or offer Mass.
Officer Charlie Carroll — who has spent 10 years with the New York Police Department (NYPD), starting with patrolling some of the city’s roughest neighborhoods — told the Register that he is studying for the diaconate at the invitation of the Archdiocese of New York.
The NYPD is one of the few police departments in the country that maintains its own chaplains unit, where Carroll is currently assigned. Oftentimes, he fields calls from officers seeking chaplains or accompanies the chaplains, particularly if an officer is wounded.
“A lot of times a cop will have something personal going on that no one will know about,” he said. The NYPD has a new program called “R U OK?”: Chaplains have been going to all of the precincts letting officers know that the chaplains have them on their rolls and are available to address any issues they may have on or off the job. “So far, it’s been received very well.”
Carroll said he has seen a lot of crime that is “hard to imagine,” but he has also seen a lot of good, too. In trying to live out his vocation as a police officer, Carroll also tries to care for the homeless, whether on and off duty. Some of the people he has helped came to his precinct after being abandoned by a spouse or partner: He helped connect them with “Project Hospitality” to get housing and food, and they sent him a kind letter in return.
“Being a Catholic, I just treat them as Jesus would do,” he said. “That’s what’s got me through my career.”
Healing Before God in Silence
The Church needs to provide more spiritual care for police officers, according to Deacon Mark Byington, a former police officer, with almost two decades of experience, and a criminology professor at Jefferson College in Hillsboro, Mo. The Church also needs a stronger ministry to officers’ families, he said, saying that divorce and separation rates among officers mirror those found among military personnel. There is growing recognition that many police are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the job, too.
To combat that, Deacon Byington has organized the first St. Michael’s retreat for first responders at the Jesuit-run White House retreat center in St. Louis, a midpoint for officers on the West and East Coasts. The retreat is being held Nov. 2-4 and includes conferences, break-out discussions and built-in silence and prayer. The retreat can count toward an officer’s continuing-education requirements.
“Throughout that period of time, at the end of each conference, they will be reminded that there are chaplains available, who they are and where they are located, and they can talk with them at any given time,” Deacon Byington said.
Shepherding the Sheepdogs
Another important aspect of the retreat is to help officers see how living their faith helps them fulfill their duty as public servants and see their job as a way to live out their baptism-given faith.
“Jesus is the shepherd,” the deacon said. “But we’re not the sheep. We’re the sheepdogs. What we’re called to is service in protecting his sheep.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.