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   .   .   .

2 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Military Chaplains These Days

  1. Paul W. Dodd

    Thank you, Chaplain Phrogge, for one of the most inspiring, insightful and convicting pieces I have read from any chaplain regarding this present crisis among ecclesiastical endorsers. Your words should be published far and wide, and your voice heard by everyone who cherishes the real moral values and collegial relationships of military chaplaincy. I also appreciate your link to Fr. George Zabelka’s 1984 interview. The entire Christian world, pacifist or not, should hear the confessions of this good and repentant soul who went to his grave with the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki embedded in his heart and mind.

    Paul W. Dodd, Chaplain (Colonel), U.S. Army (Ret.)
    Co-Chair, Forum on the Military Chaplaincy

    Fr. George Zabelka Quote: “It is about time for the Church and its leadership in all denominations to get down on its knees and repent of this misrepresentation of Christ’s words.”
    http://www.centerforchristiannonviolence.org/data/Media/Fr.{9e61ac4632015d8c9c24fb4bfd2ec078081fa0bb2b0def4afb71f2c7af3817d9}20George{9e61ac4632015d8c9c24fb4bfd2ec078081fa0bb2b0def4afb71f2c7af3817d9}20Zabekla{9e61ac4632015d8c9c24fb4bfd2ec078081fa0bb2b0def4afb71f2c7af3817d9}20Interview{9e61ac4632015d8c9c24fb4bfd2ec078081fa0bb2b0def4afb71f2c7af3817d9}20{9e61ac4632015d8c9c24fb4bfd2ec078081fa0bb2b0def4afb71f2c7af3817d9}5B02{9e61ac4632015d8c9c24fb4bfd2ec078081fa0bb2b0def4afb71f2c7af3817d9}5D.pdf

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