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June 23 - July 6, 2013

They serve those who serve Military chaplains minister in war zones, everyday situations

Yvette and Melissa Ilic and Ydaliz Hernandez visit with Father Pawel Zemczak as St. Pascal's parish carnival winds down on June 16. Earlier in the day, Zemczak said goodbye to parishioners during several receptions given in his honor before he leaves for the Army. A native of Poland, Zemczak says he always had a desire to serve in the military. Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

Father Mark Greschel beads a rosary while serving in Baghdad in Sept. 2006. (photo provided)

By Michelle Martin


Their “parishes” might include thousands of square miles and tens of thousands of people, nearly all young and under high stress.

But for priests who have volunteered to serve the nation’s military men and women as chaplains, the satisfaction speaks for itself.

Father Matthew Foley was pastor of St. Agnes of Bohemia Parish in Little Village when he enlisted as an Army chaplain five years ago. In that time, he has spent about 27 months in four deployments to Afghanistan, the last one ending only weeks ago. Now stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., with the 101st Airborne Division, he will be discharged and take up new duties as pastor of St. James Parish in Arlington Heights in August.

“When I enlisted, I had an agreement with the cardinal — five years — and he’s holding me to it,” said Foley.

The military continues to have a great need for priests, said Taylor Henry, a spokesman for the Archdiocese for Military Services. The archdiocese does not have its own priests, but provides faculties and endorsements for priests from other dioceses and religious orders who volunteer to serve. Because of the nature of military service, those chaplains actually are employed by the Department of Defense, not the military archdiocese.

There are some 260 priests currently serving as active-duty chaplains in the U.S. military, Henry said, ministering to about 275,000 Catholics in uniform, not counting their families and other overseas government personnel, to whom military chaplains also minister, Henry said.

In addition, another 250 chaplains are assigned to the nation’s Veterans Affairs Medical Centers. All told, the Archdiocese for the Military Services oversees approximately 500 Catholic chaplains ministering to 1.8 million Catholics throughout the United States and beyond U.S. borders, he said. The 2012 Directory for the Archdiocese of Chicago lists 12 priest serving the armed forces, but not all serve full time.

To become military chaplains, priests must have the blessing of their own bishops.

“We have five priests on active duty, and that’s probably the most of any diocese,” Foley said, noting that three of them are former pastors. “Cardinal George is being very generous.”

Indeed, he allowed Father John Hannigan to continue serving with the Archdiocese for Military Services even after he retired from active duty, following 23 years as a Navy chaplain, serving in both Navy and Marine Corps units. He now is a chaplain at a VA hospital in Phoenix.

During his military career, he’s deployed to many hot spots in the world, including Iraq and Djibouti, served on Navy ships and been stationed at Marine and Navy bases from Quantico, Va., to Twenty-Nine Palms, Calif., and even Naval Station Great Lakes here in the archdiocese.

From the time he was in the seminary, Hannigan said, he was attracted to the idea of being a military chaplain, but first his father became ill, then his mother, and he did not feel he could leave. But after 14 years as a priest, mostly in the south suburbs, he decided it was time.

What attracted him?

“The adventure and being in combat, being with Marines and sailors and soldiers when the bullets were flying around us and death was a common occurrence,” he said. “The opportunity to be with people at strategic moments in their lives.”

He remembers being in Fallujah, Iraq, when “there was a mess of Marines that got hit in the attack there, and I was at the battalion aid station and I met the CO. He was Catholic, and he came to me and just said, ‘Father, please pray.’”

At another battalion aid station, he was called to the bedside of another young Marine — not one from his unit, but who had asked for a Catholic priest before he went into surgery. Hannigan anointed the young man, heard his confession and gave him a tiny fragment of the Eucharist.

Afterwards, medical staff told him how much his visit meant to the young man, how he became calm and his fear and anxiety seemed to recede.

“I even see that now working with veterans,” Hannigan said. “I’m still doing that for guys from Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan.”

Hannigan, who retired with the rank of commander, said he originally signed up for eight years in the service, and decided to stay on with the blessings of the archbishops of Chicago during those years.

“I talk it up among young priests,” he said. “I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to do that. You’re with your parishioners all the time. At a parish, you’re with them on Sundays and maybe at meetings during the week.”

Another priest who expects to be a military chaplain for life is Father Mark Greschel, now the senior priest at Fort Bliss, Texas. Greschel took a winding road to priesthood — when he was in college, he intended to be a Lutheran pastor; after converting, he joined the Jesuits but left before ordination and ended up being ordained for the archdiocese in 2001.

In 2004, he signed up as a Catholic chaplain, and was in Iraq by 2005.

While the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have given military chaplains ample opportunity to learn what it is to be present to young soldiers in the midst of combat, Greschel said he learned as much about grief when he was assigned to the obstetrics and gynecology section of the hospital at Fort Bragg, N.C. While there was much joy — the hospital delivered 200-300 babies a month — Greschel also came face-to-face with the impact that miscarriages have on couples.

The chaplains agreed that being deployed in combat zones brings some experiences the average parish priest will never face, but it also means shedding some of the administrative responsibilities that come with running a parish, including building maintenance and stewardship, he said.

Now at Fort Bliss, Greschel relies on the help of the other priests who are stationed there with their units, but the fact is that all of them could be there one day and gone the next, as they deploy with their soldiers. He also relies on the wider chaplain community, he said.

“This is a very ecumenical kind of work,” he said, noting that chaplains minister to military people of all faiths, and no faith.

It’s also very rewarding work, he said, and he intends to continue “as long as my body holds out.”

Foley, who was 45 when he enlisted in 2008, agreed that priests who are considering chaplaincy must think about the physical demands.

Foley said that it wasn’t so hard to transition back to life on U.S. soil after his most recent deployment because “things in Afghanistan are winding down,” and he didn’t spend as much time travelling within Afghanistan as he did on earlier deployments.

While he would recommend service as a military chaplain to other priests, Foley said there are some caveats.

“You have to be physically fit,” he noted. “You move a lot more often.”

But in many ways, serving in the military is much the same as serving the church.

“I tell people I go where they send me,” he said. “I’m sent to fill the needs of the military. In the church, you’re sent to fill the needs of the church.”

On a practical level, Foley appreciates the understanding he has gotten of the generations coming up behind him, and the knowledge of other ways of life, including the people of Afghanistan.

“You’re always a priest first,” Foley said. “Whether you put on the black uniform or the multi-tan uniform, you’re a priest.”