By:Fr. Michael Duesterhaus Fr. Michael Duesterhaus, another Arlington Virginia priest-chaplain, has served with Marines stationed in Fallujah, Iraq.
Back in the real world it is Labor Day weekend. I have never attended a Labor Day parade. In fact, I don’t think they have them in Virginia since it is a right to work state. Virginia does have the “Kings Dominion Law” – named after the amusement park on Route 95 between Fredericksburg and Richmond. (Been there so many times with youth group, Scouts, and other organizations, not to exclude earlier trips as a kid with my family – before it was bought out by Paramount – such that I could walk almost blindfolded from one side to another.) The law holds public schools from opening prior to Labor Day. (There are exemptions, but the go all the way up to the House of Delegates to be granted.)
This is so that all the teenaged employees aren’t yanked and that families would still visit the place. And boy, is this a tangent, but a nice diversion, from the humdrum life in Iraq. So it is a holiday weekend in the States, and nothing really different over here. The Marine Corps footprint continues to shrink and very soon the Army will be running things here on Ramadi. A few small detachments and a very few individuals (me & my RP!) will be staying on after the Regiment leaves.
It is at this juncture that I would like to continue to reflect on the need and use of Catholic priests as chaplains in the military.
I am assigned to duty in Iraq on the ostensible reason that there is a need for Catholic ministry to the troops. Often the numbers are thrown out: “40 percent of the Marine Corps is Catholic. Half the Naval Academy is Catholic. The largest faith group among commanders battalion/squadron and up is Catholic.”
And to this I say, “Hooey.”
About 15% of the Marine Corps and Navy are Catholic. About 25% had it put on their dog tags because their mother/grandmother said to. We need to be honest from the start. There are a decent, but not a great, number of Catholics in the Sea Services.
In this past year I have encountered officers from all branches of the Armed Forces that encapsulate the frustrations of many brother priests in uniform. I focus on the officers because they are supposedly better educated and are career military men, as apposed to the young enlisted who will honorably serve for four years, and then get out.
The observations that I will make have been sanitized and the individuals are no longer here in country, but many just like them are. Anything related was either said in a public forum, or later repeated in the presence of others, so no privledged information or issues with the seal of confession apply.
First there is the officer who is infrequent at best to Sunday Mass and relates to me that he was, in a previous civilian parish a few years ago, an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. This comes up because he has questions about my homily from a few weeks prior and did not know what was meant by the term “Real Presence.” Upon further conversation, it is clear that this gentleman has not even a scant understanding of the Eucharist. And he would be identified by his unit’s chaplain (a fine Protestant pastor) as a “serious Catholic.”
There is the senior officer that used to be an EMHC in the military several years ago when Communion Services were still allowed. As I have written before, the abuses and sacrileges to the Blessed Sacrament finally forced the archbishop to forbid such events. (Plus many a non-Catholic chaplain thought that this ceremony was more than sufficient to cover for Catholic ministry and no priest ever would visit the unit.)
So this officer tells me stories of priests he has had as chaplains in the past, of his ‘fervent faith’ (his words), and his strong Catholic upbringing. In the two months he has was on this camp, he never came to Mass. The chapel is not more that a fifteen-minute walk from the farthest parts of the camp. And it is not because there is that much going on to keep people away. Like a large minority of Catholics back home, presumption is the major issue. ‘I can get to that later.’ Later comes awfully quickly sometimes, as many find out.
Then we have the situation of the officer who in our first meeting identifies himself as a ‘devout Catholic’ and then goes on to explain his problem of not being married in the Church, and that he also might need an annulment, and cannot remember the last time he went to confession, but it probably was back in college, about five years ago. I helped him on several fronts for several months and he was surprised to find out that truly devout Catholics actually go to confession and would never think of getting married outside the Faith. I pray that he continues to grow in his relationship with Jesus Christ.
Lastly, there is the officer who came to Mass back at the beginning of the deployment, and then stopped after a few months. When I reached out to him, he was evasive. We finally had one decent conversation about the Sacrament of Penance and he knew my door was always open to him. And he stayed away until he left. Don’t know what or why, but on a relatively small FOB (compared to Al Asad or Balad or Victory), finding me is not too hard. Again, like many in the States, the longer you go without the Sacraments, the more you grow used to it.
I have faced these situations, as have all my brother priests in the civilian world, and we will continue to do so because we are working with a broken world. This I accept. But what must be noted is that the proportion of poorly catechized, rarely worshipping, uninformed, and marginal Catholics in uniform are growing in number.
Where do I see hope?
I see it in the junior enlisted Marine Reservist who is deployed halfway through college (and is working on a minor in music) and takes on the role of leading music from my Guard officer who redeployed back to CONUS. Not a public person, but for the glory of God and for the Mass, he led the singing. And did so quite well. He sung the ‘Panis Angelicus’ after Communion. Half my people had never heard it before.
I see it in the sergeant in the National Guard who flexes his duty schedule so that he can come to the Rosary and Eucharistic Adoration on Thursdays at 9 PM. Praying for his family, he continues to anchor his Catholic Faith.
I see it in the dozens of people that I have worked with on this deployment who have prepared to either enter the Catholic Church or worked to receive their First Holy Communion and Confirmation (because their parents dropped out). In spite of the poor example of many Catholics around them, they saw the truth of the Church of Christ and embraced it.
I see hope when I go early one morning into the Blessed Sacrament Chapel to pray some of the Office and find it dusted, wiped, and mopped. When I go to thank the RP for doing an extra field day (it is impossible to get ahead of the dust and sand over here), he relates that it was not he. It was a Marine and one of the contract guards. They both had stopped in to have some quiet time in the chapel, and then decided to do some cleaning of the ‘Lord’s house.’ They related to my RP that both had grown up serving at the altar. Praying the rosary together as they cleaned, these two men, from different parts of the world, were united in devotion to our Lord. No one tasked them – they wanted our little chapel to be as nice as things can be over here. And somewhere in America and in Uganda, someone’s parents should be told that they did a fine job raising their sons.
Frustrations and hopes – it is our lot in this life. Especially here in sandbox
More later as life unfolds.