On November 11, many nations will be honoring those who served in their armed forces, and in many cases, paid the ultimate price on the battlefield. In the United States, we mark Veterans Day, while in the UK, Canada, and several other countries, members of their armed forces who died in the line of duty are commemorated through Remembrance Day.
“Among those being remembered on these days, let’s also hold in prayer those who serve the spiritual needs of our men and women in uniform. In a special way, military chaplains carry out their duties displaying exemplary courage and faith. They reflect the love of Jesus to those around them, often in heartbreaking and difficult situations. In some cases, they even go to the point of laying down their lives for their companions.”
Military chaplains are part of Military Ordinariates, a unique setup within the Catholic Church. A military ordinariate is similar to a diocese, but it does not cover a geographical area like a typical diocese does. Headed by a bishop, it is responsible for the spiritual care of Catholics serving in the armed forces of a country, wherever they are assigned – be it on a military base at home or abroad, a naval ship, international peacekeeping missions, and so on. While most military chaplains are given basic military training, they are usually unarmed and their main goals are to keep the morale of the troops high, and to support the troops, and sometimes their loved ones, through tough times.
Military chaplains don’t restrict their ministry just to Catholics, but are available to whoever may need pastoral care or spiritual guidance. They often serve men and women who never go to Church, but are comforted merely by the fact that there is someone praying for them as they head out the door into an armed conflict. As one military chaplain put it to me, “You see the look on their faces and they know that someone’s looking out for them. They need to know there’s a sense of the sacred, even if things seem to make no sense.”
Undoubtedly, a military chaplain’s job can be quite challenging, as on one hand, they are trying to facilitate worship in places where a variety of belief systems and levels of faith abound. On the other hand, they have to try to be a pillar of strength, hope, and light in situations that defy reason. In many instances, they have to dig deep as they stand by grieving family members and comrades of fallen soldiers.
While the techniques for military combat have changed over the years, there are diaries of priests even from recent wars that speak of how they had to move through battlefields to comfort and anoint dying soldiers. Even today, a military chaplain’s role can put him in harm’s way, or at the very least, make him a target of enemy combatants. During the recent Iraq War, there were reports that Iraqi insurgent snipers were encouraged to target chaplains (along with medical personnel and engineers), under the assumption that their deaths would demoralize entire units. Yet, despite the risks, military chaplains all over the world continue to carry out their duties faithfully and bravely.