Category Archives: Military Chaplain

Some thoughts on calling priests “Father”

Recently a well respected (definitely by me) Presbyterian Elder wrote an article entitled “Maybe it’s time to reconsider calling priests ‘Father’” for the NCR (National Catholic Reporter). He had some good thoughts and insights. His article attracted the usual comments, many of them snarky and devoid of charity and respect. Needless to say, I share neither their attitudes nor their often dated and closed/limited theology. I do, however, have a few thoughts on this.

When I was ordained 50+ years ago I enjoyed being called “Father” and always wearing the collar, not to mention cassock and biretta. A few years later I went on active duty as an Army Chaplain, rarely wore the collar, learned to be called “Chaplain” and often being addressed just by my first name. While it took some getting used to, I liked it, and I still do. I spent most of my years as a priest on active duty or connected to the Army. For many of those years as well as after retirement, I have also been called by my street name and call sign, “Frog”, and I enjoy this a lot. It cuts through a lot of protocol. In the Army I had a responsibility just like everyone else in uniform, and “Chaplain” recognized that. I don’t have to be called by a special title to help folks however I can. Crawling through mud and being afraid is a great equalizer. I am on the same journey as everybody else, we are all equal, and we help each other. I have been Jim longer that I have been “Father”, and I have earned “Frog”. I like this. In other words, I agree with Bill.

I don’t think I will ever forget my first week on active duty in a basic training camp in Louisiana. My first night involved having a rifle pointed at me by a guard, being told to drop into the front leaning rest position, and ordered to produce an ID card which I didn’t have. The Thursday of that week I spent the day going through the gas chamber with the trainees. It was not an enjoyable experience. The purpose of the exercise was to show them how to use their gas mask and to trust their equipment and training.

That evening the trainees went through the live fire infiltration course in the dark. Again, not an enjoyable experience. All of us were terrified. Once I had crawled through the course, dodging real explosions and live ammo fired just over my head, I felt very relieved and very scared. One of the soldiers in charge of the training said, “Chaplain, were you afraid? There are some young soldiers out there terrified, and your place is with them, so go out and do your job”. I did for several hours. Being ontologically changed and called “Father” didn’t mean a lot, and obviously I was not wearing a collar (cleric clothes are hard to keep clean in this kind of environment). I did the same things every Thursday for the next six months.

I did everything my soldiers did, to include their training. Gradually I learned that my place was with my soldiers whatever they were doing. Years later in Viet Nam, the best Commanding Officer I ever had told me after I had chosen not to get involved and so had gotten several soldiers killed, “Chaplain, whatever affects your people in any way is your concern, and don’t forget it, get involved and do something to help”.

A number of the comments to the NCR article referred to the ontological change ordination effects in a priest. I don’t see it that way. IMHO the only change is the role a priest plays in the church system. It is an important role for the church, but does not involve a change on the level of being. A priest is a man before ordination, and a man after ordination – nothing changes but his mission. Hopefully in the not too distant future we will be saying the same thing about women.

Several comments talked about the power the priest has to change bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood. IMHO the priest has no power, only the mission to lead folks in prayer, and it is the the assembled praying believing community that makes Christ present in his Body and Blood. This is not magic, and the priest is not Harry Potter. It is an act of prayer and faith by a community gathered together for that purpose.

I agree with the Elder that using titles like we have for priests, bishops, etc, continues to reinforce the male only model of the church institution. There is always room for questioning and wondering. With the people doing the questioning these days, it is clear the Spirit is alive and well.

I have found that many good folks want to keep calling priests “Father” to reinforce their notion that priests are removed from real life, to keep priests on a pedestal, in other words to keep clericalism alive. Quite often there is a lot of baggage attached to this.

A few weeks ago I wore a suit and tie to a wedding. Somebody there said to me, “You look just like a real person”. Gee, I’d like to think I am a real person. As a retired priest I help out at nearby hospitals and hospices. I am available when needed, but I will come as I am, e.g. if I am doing cardiac rehab when the ER calls, I will come in my gym clothes. I hear a lot “you look just like a real person”. I have learned that not wearing black does open conversations with folks who for whatever reason do not want to talk with someone in clericals. Its not good or bad, it just is. IMHO I do not have to wear clericals or have a “title” to help people. There is a time and place for them, and it is not every time and every place.

Jesus called ordinary men and women to be his disciples. He did not ordain anybody, he formed a community of his friends who were willing to spend time with him and learn from him, and then he sent them out to live and learn the kingdom of God. The system/institution we know as church came later.

While we will always need folks to lead communities in prayer, I’m not sure we will always need a patriarchal clerical caste. Intentional Eucharistic Communities are doing well with this. IMHO the questions are being asked, and the situation is evolving. The Spirit is at work calling us forward, often kicking and screaming.

The Elder knows what he is talking about.

Just saying . . .

Thoughts on Holy Week Liturgies

 

During the liturgies of Holy Week with their appropriate emphasis on ceremonies, and hearing the arguments about liturgical purity, the Tridentine Mass, whether women’s feet should be washed on Holy Thursday, etc,  I can’t help thinking back to the most memorable liturgies I have celebrated, all of them in Viet Nam. Among the most memorable was one of many Masses on Thanksgiving Day 1970 somewhere in the Americal Division’s 11 LIB AO.

It was a rainy day and I was flown out to the hillside in a Primo 11 BDE Aviation LOH. It was not a nice neighborhood, and the locals were not friendly. First, I held a non-denominational service with whomever wanted to take part. The soldiers who did not take part provided security. After this service the catholics came together and the other soldiers pulled guard. About ten of us were huddled together in a very small tent made of shelter-halfs. We all sat crossed legged (I could do that back then). The altar was the soldier sitting across from me, his hands on his knees: one hand held the paten, the other held the chalice. For communion we passed the paten and chalice around. It was a brief Mass, but an emotional experience for each of us. Considering what came later, it was worth while.

No doubt some folks will be upset with this. Everything I needed for masses I carried in my pockets as the chaplain’s kit was too big for some operations. I did not wear vestments, since doing so would not be a good idea in a semi-tactical situation when the idea is to blend in and not make oneself a target. We did not have an Entrance Procession or an Offertory Procession. We did not kneel for the Canon, as it was called back then. Also, I did not use latin or celebrate “ad orientem”. I did not ask where the soldiers stood on optional celibacy, ordination of women, contraception, abortion, marriage equality, if their marriage was valid by church law, who was catholic, etc, since it just didn’t matter. All of us on that hill were living our own ministry of “selfless service”. A common thread back then, and in all of my military service, was taking care of each other.

That experience, along with many other similar masses, leads me to see the current hot-button arguments about liturgical things as so much fluff having more to do with egos than anything else. I have learned to adapt liturgies to the circumstances and exigencies of the given situation. There are times and places for liturgical extravaganzas and for simple celebrations. Whatever it takes to serve the folks – do it.

I think I learned to hear confessions on a hillside in Viet Nam. As we were waiting for the helicopters to come and take us  out to a bad place, a soldier asked me to hear his confession. He was in the kind of situation that meant he could not receive the sacraments. When I told him this, he cried, literally washing my boots with his tears. Then it was as Jesus himself was standing there with us asking me who was I to decide who he would forgive. Wow! So, I asked the soldier to forgive my pride and stupidity, and went on to hear his confession and a plot of others. It was a life changing event for me. I owe that young soldier a lot. The rest of the afternoon was bad.

I have known many folks whose marriages were/are “irregular”. So what does that have to do with approaching Jesus? As that young soldier on the hillside taught me, nobody has the right to to tell anyone not to come to Jesus. There is enough suffering in life, and we need not add to it while claiming to act in Jesus’ name and doing something he never did.

Just sayin  .  .  .

25 October, Some Thoughts on Bishops

Recently Pope Francis said bishops are to serve, not dominate, their people. These words have generated a lot of commotion. I think, though, if I really believe that Jesus is with the Church always even to the end of time, and that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church, there are certain consequences and responsibilities.

Let me begin by saying up front that I have made several complaints and registered my concerns about our local bishop to the Nuncio and to the Vatican, and I will do so again if I think it is appropriate. None of these have been acknowledge, which shows that common courtesy does not apply to the church bureaucracy which claims to act, as some documents begin, “in the name of God”. So I am writing these words primarily for myself. If I think there are problems with what a given bishop is doing or not doing, I believe I have a responsibility to speak up somehow, I have and I will.

In the Spirit of docility to the Holy Spirit, I think I have to posit good will with our bishops. They love the Church in their own way, which may not be my way, or the way I think a given bishop should. Just because I do not like the way a given bishop is doing things I cannot say he is not a good bishop, or that he is a bad bishop. I have been misjudged and misinterpreted many times myself, and I know it is not an enjoyable experience. This does not mean that I must agree with everything a given bishop does. If I feel I have solid grounds for registering a complain or a concern, it is my responsibility to do so. I believe I can posit good will to myself, too.

Like all priests I made a promise of obedience to my ordaining bishop and to his successors. I do not consider that promise to be one of blind, unquestioning obedience or subservience. After just shy of fifty years serving as a priest I think I am qualified to have my own thoughts and opinions, and to choose my own courses of action, to say what I think needs to be said. I am thankful to be “independent” in that I take no support from the diocese or any places I help out. I feel both a freedom and a responsibility to say and do what many other priests might be hesitant about. There is a big difference between what priests say among ourselves and what is said publicly. This is understandable in the light of the perceived power the bishops have over their priests.

There are bishops, though, whose mindsets seem to be in another historical era, who really think they are princes. Without attributing to them any malice, they just don’t know that they don’t know.They have no contact with their folks’ lives. They really think they know better than everybody else. Some even seem to practice medicine. Their idea of following Jesus seems to be one of limiting  access to him to those who follow their own crippling ideas. They seem to be more interested in protecting their own power and prerogatives at the expense of folks having access to Eucharist. Many of them choose to protect and value the image of the church above ministering to folks, especially children, who have been hurt by their malfeasance or nonfeasance. They really seem to like their bling and finery, so Francis’ mode of simplicity might be generating some angst in them.

There are some bishops who seem to believe that people are made to serve the law, and so are less important than the law. The law is paramount regardless of the suffering it causes, and real live people seem secondary. They forget, if they have ever known, that the folks they are abusing (and I don’t think this is too strong a word) are the “consequence of a thought in the mind of God, are important and necessary, and none of them is an accident”. Perhaps some bishops might think about trying to learn from their folks and stop dictating and threatening.

One of the very common remarks I heard over and over gain in the Army was, when a person came in with some sort of difficulty, “We’re going to help you with this, but I don’t know exactly how right now; can you come back in an hour or so?”. This reflects a military attitude of helping folks. Too often the attitude of the church system seems to be, especially with couple in second marriages, “we’re not going to help you; you did this to yourself”. To me the military attitude is much closer to the Gospel. Good leaders want to help their people move forward, not keep them down. I have known some very caring and creative military leaders. There are probably some in the church, too, but they are keeping their heads down and caring for their people quietly under the radar. Then, some folks and couples are making their own decisions and caring for themselves. I believe the Holy Spirit is at work in all this.

While a given bishop may be personally caring and pastoral, he might not be able to translate this into pastoral leadership. Perhaps folks are expecting him to do something he just cannot do. Some bishops just do not know how to listen to the folks. They go through the motions of listening, but it is obvious that they have already made up their minds on whatever issue is at hand. Something has to be done. In some dioceses it will take a very long time to recover from the damage and harm certain bishops have inflicted on their people, and especially on the priests. In some places the deteriorating morale of the priests is manifesting in varying degrees of physical and emotional sickness.

Just saying   .   .   .

 

Some Thoughts on Military Chaplains These Days

Let me begin by saying I am a retired Active Duty Army Catholic Chaplain, having served for 27 years, and I have never felt my religious freedom to be threatened. A core value of the Army Chaplaincy is to “perform or provide”, something we are justly proud of. We help the soldier and family member who is in front of us, and if we cannot do what they ask, we find someone who can. We do not judge. We serve constantly with other chaplains who do not share our beliefs, and we support each other in taking care of our folks. We might disagree, but we do not condemn each other. I have, and if I were still on active duty would continue to d so, helped any soldier or family member, any commander, any unit, in any way I could. Also, I strongly resent anyone saying that soldiers I have served honorably and enjoyably with are “intrinsically disordered”.

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Recent statements from religious “leaders” concerning how their chaplains must conduct themselves in regards to soldiers in same sex marriages disturbs me. Some of the writers of these statements have served as military chaplains, others have not. Those with military service write from their own experience, which may have been different from mine. They are certainly entitled to their opinion. I am concerned with those who have had no military service experience at all. Undoubtedly they form their opinions based on what others tell them. I wonder, though, if they have any solid frame of reference to provide context for what others tell them.

As I see it, perhaps due to my own prejudice and narrowmindedness, there is precious little in the guidelines of some writers reflective of either Jesus or Pope Francis. Francis is turning away from many issues that cause folks to wonder or even leave. He has spoken out against things like careerism, authoritarianism, clericalism, . He has indicated he is against rigid dogmatism and an excessive focus on morality that closes the door to meaningful dialogue. He says the church’s first proclamation is Jesus and his mercy, not a code of conduct: “The proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious iperatives”.  He does not want the church to be a small chapel for a few, but a large church for many. He tells us to go to people where they are, let our prayerful relationship with Jesus guide us in living his mercy.

I don’t see anything remotely resembling this in the guidelines issued by some church agencies. They are more along the lines of, “I love you, but first I’ll tell you what is wrong with you and what to have to do to earn my time; only I and those who think as I do are the way to God, and we will tell you how to get there, and we’ll decide whether you are worthy of us letting you in; we’ll try to be nice to you until you come around to our way of thinking”. Some of these guidelines claim to have been written to avoid scandal, but Pope Francis says, “sanctity is greater than scandal”.

Life is messy. We can’t avoid this. Rarely is it neat and orderly. The role of any who would be followers of Jesus is to have a prayerful relationship with him that lets us follow him where he calls us. When we took the Oath we asked to help us in our ministry to the men and women in the military. Because of our Oath this is where we found God – in our soldiers and famiies. We tried to live Jesus’ mercy wherever we were. For Francis the priority is the person. In the words of Benedict, “Every one of us is the consequence of a thought in the mind of God; every one of us is important, every one of us is necessary, none of us is an accident”. When we know Jesus in our own prayer life, we come to recognize him in others, and we  learn to walk with him in whomever he brings into our life. We try to let uur relationship with him lead us to love and care about whoever is with us at any given time. In spite of guidelines, we do not have the answers for how everybody else has to live or what they have to believe. We do not know their story.The only Story we do know, and hopefully try to imitate, is Jesus and our Father’s love and mercy. This is what we proclaim.

Our mission as chaplains is to nurture the living, care for the wounded, and honor the fallen, all of which is supremely honorable, and compatible with following Jesus in any tradition. Francis says, “I see the church as a field hospital afer battle . . . heal the wounds, heal the wounds”. Don’t cause them. He tells us to heal the wounds first, then we can talk about everything else. Many folks already feel hurt and rejected for any number of reasons. They don’t need to feel rejected by their chaplain. He also says, “In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany the,starting fromtheir situation; it is necessary to accompany them with mercy; when that happens, the Holy Spirit inspiries the priest to say the right thing”.

Many traditions claim to follow Jesus. For some. however, while this is a nice sounding stated value, it certainly is not an operational value. It could very well be that a chaplain who is acting in given situations in accord with what he or she feels to be the call of Jesus, moves in a direction that does not please managers of a given tradition. Nasty things begin to happen, always in the name of Jesus, and as Jesus would act if he had all the facts. Precepts are written (evidently this is a big thing for some traditions).

It is a humbling privilege to be asked by a soldier or family member for help, to be asked by a Commander to provide input on anything, or to take part in a service or ceremony. At these time we can follow Francis as he calls priests “to bring the healing power of God’s grace to everyone in need, to stay close to the marginalized and to be ‘shepherds living with the smell of the sheep’”. He also said, “God anointed his servants so they would be there for others, serving the poor, prisoners, the sick, for those who are sorrowing and alone”.  Military chaplains certainly do this. Not sure about some guidlines writers. We do not bring Jesus’ healing power to folks by saying, “Let me tell you what is wrong with you first”.

The message of the Gospel is, “My Father loves you”. No conditions, in spite of the guidelines. Jesus might be in trouble with some folks.

Just sayin   .   .   .