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The Catholic New World

A regular feature of The Catholic New World, The InterVIEW is an in-depth conversation with a person whose words, actions or ideas affect today’s Catholic. It may be affirming of faith or confrontational. But it will always be stimulating.


Marine chaplain looks for Christ in Iraq conflict

Father John T. Hannigan was ordained in 1976 as a priest for the Archdiocese of Chicago and served at parishes including St. Mary in Riverdale, St. James in Sauk Village and St. Jude in South Holland, but he has not had a parish here for several years. Hannigan spent last year ministering to a 33,000-square-mile parish, ministering to U.S. soldiers, sailors and Marines serving in Iraq as a Marine chaplain. But he hasn't forgotten the faithful of the diocese where he grew up; Hannigan asked Chicagoans to help by sending religious goods last year, a request that drew a phenomenal response. Now stationed at Twenty-Nine Palms, Calif., Hannigan was back in the Chicago area on leave in February, and took time to talk to staff writer Michelle Martin.

The Catholic New World: How did you come to be a Marine chaplain?
Father John T. Hannigan: I always wanted to be a Marine-my dad had been in the Navy-but I wanted to be a priest more than I wanted to be a Marine. Once I became a priest, I decided, I'd like to be a priest with the Marines.

TCNW: Have you always been on active duty?
FJTH: I became a reserve chaplain in 1990 and then I went on active duty in 2003. First I was assigned to Parris Island, to the boot camp, then to Okinawa, and then from there to join in this effort Operation Iraqi Freedom. I was with 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp LeJeune then to Djibouti, Africa to CENTCOM (Central Command), then to Iraq to Fallujah. Then I went from 2nd Marines to 7th Marines in Twenty-Nine Palms, Calif., where I am the regimental chaplain. We were deployed for Iraq in January 2006, and we just got back the last week of January 2007. So overseas, I've spent nine months in Djibouti, and 19 months in Iraq.

TCNW: How do you minister to such a large area?
FJTH: I was the only Catholic priest that had as a parish a coverage of 33,000 square miles. I would travel to 52 camps once every 4 to 5 weeks. I would fly to seven main camps, then travel to the remaining camps in vehicles-convoys of 7-ton trucks or tanks or light-armored reconnaissance vehicles, whether they were FOBs-forward operating bases-BPs- battle positions-COPs-Command Outposts- or POE-points of entry. My travels would take me from the Euphrates River all the way west to the Iraqi border with Syria and Jordan, wherever we had Catholic Marines, soldiers or sailors-the sailor being Navy (medical) corpsmen. In that area we had 20,000 troops, and usually 35 percent are Catholic.

TCNW: What did you do?
FJTH: I would go around-I would take time to celebrate Mass, to listen to confessions, if there were any Marines, soldiers or sailors who wanted religious instruction- either for the purpose of adult education, or to prepare for confirmation or First Holy Communion. Then there were people who were interested in becoming Catholic.

TCNW: Do you think the service people you saw there think more about religious topics than their peers at home? Why?
FJTH: For an 18-year-old, this is the first time in his life when he's really thought about death. He's seen his buddies get killed, he's seen his buddies get wounded- burned severely and getting arms and legs amputated. I was assigned to boot camp and I saw-they're run through the mill, but they come out feeling watertight, airtight, invincible. Then they get out in the combat zones and see how vulnerable they really are. We're living in bombed out buildings and we're in danger.

TCNW: How is it different to be a priest in a combat zone?
FJTH: I can remember one Catholic Marine saying to me he had started with an original crew of six on his vehicle. He ended up going back to the U.S., he being the only one alive. Four got killed when the the insurgents drove into their traffic control point. They killed themselves in the process when they killed these buddies of his with this vehicle-borne IED (improvised explosive device). He and his lance corporal came and talked to me. We talked about faith and we talked about lots of things, only to find out a week later that the lance corporal was killed by an IED. The priestly ministry is different in that reason, in that regard.

TCNW: How is it different now?
FJTH: Now I'm back at Twenty-Nine Palms and I'm involved with going to houses and accompanying the officer that is telling people that their loved ones were killed in Iraq. In Iraq, when I saw people get killed, or was anointing someone who got killed, I would always think that someone back home is going to get the bad news. When we deployed, I couldn't wait to go to Iraq, because I did not cherish calling on people at their homes to be part of the entourage that let them know that their loved one got killed in Iraq. I really enjoy the ministry being deployed.

TCNW:What was most challenging about being deployed?
FJTH: The hardest part about being deployed, I would say, was probably being around the troops either when they are wounded or when death has occurred. When you're wounded-I remember this one particular Marine, he was just really upset. He wanted to see a Catholic priest, so they got me-he really did not want to talk to his battalion chaplain, who was Protestant. They made me aware of the situation and I got over there and I said "Hi, I'm Father Hannigan, and I'm here to give you the anointing of the sick." The people who were taking care of him afterwards told me, "You'll never know how calm he got when you walked into the room. Just to know that you were there, it really calmed him down." When you are deployed, you're right there with them every step of the journey. You're living with them, you're sleeping in the same vicinity, eating the same food, you're doing everything with them. And you're in danger with them. I had six close calls with death. I hit an IED, but I was in a tank. Another time, I was 6 inches away from hitting an antitank, two-propane-tank IED. I was outside the wire every Monday morning to Saturday evening. Outside the wire means you were out there in harm's way. Inside the wire, you were in a camp where it would be very unlikely for the enemy to attack us with a mortar or an IED. Outside the wire we were traveling on roads that were filled with IEDS and we would be walking from vehicles into buildings under sniper fire, or with RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) coming in over our heads. When you're traveling down the road after hitting an IED or being so close to hitting an IED, you start thinking after a while, it's not all that safe out here. It's a very dangerous place to be in.

TCNW: How did you find Christ there?
FJTH: You find Christ first of all in the people. "Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me." So I was finding Christ in the needs, finding Christ in the various situations that I was in, serving Christ, being challenged by Christ and also being comforted by Christ, too. I found Christ when I saw other people exhibiting faith, other people exhibiting strength and courage and kindness.

TCNW: You were instrumental in getting donated rosaries and catechisms shipped to Iraq. How did the soldiers and Marines react to them?
FJTH: I wish that I would have taken pictures of every single person that got one. The looks on their faces-it was like, "Wow, I can keep this?" The support means a great deal to the troops whether they know that they're getting prayers from their fellow Americans, whether they're getting Catholic religious goods, sacramentals, candy, anything that reminds them of home, seasonal things they can't get there, like red and white striped candy canes at Christmas. . Cards and letters from school children. We had gotten these little cards that you could paste or hang on the wall, and these children would write things like: "Be strong, Marine," "We're thinking about you, soldier. We're praying for you." I saw this Marine, he had tears in his eyes. His buddy had just gotten killed, and he had just seen this thing hanging on the wall, "Be strong, Marine." He was crying thinking there are people who really care about him. It touched him deeply.

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