WASHINGTON, D.C. – Back-to-school season brings promise of relief for a severe Catholic chaplain shortage in the U.S. Military. Among the several hundred prospective priests entering American seminaries for the first time this fall, no fewer than seven plan, after ordination, to go on active duty as chaplains. Additionally, at least another four U.S. Catholic seminarians in various advanced stages of formation have decided this year to pursue military chaplaincy, and have made a commitment to “serve those who serve” as priests in the armed forces.
That brings to 11 the total number of Catholic men embarking this year on the vocational journey toward military chaplaincy, joining 32 others already in formation.
The Military is in desperate need of their services. Currently, 25 percent of the American Armed Forces is Catholic, but Catholic priests make up only about eight percent of chaplains. At present, approximately 200 priests are on active duty, toiling in the vineyard to provide pastoral care for the more than 300,000 Catholic men and women in uniform scattered at sites around the world, not counting their families. The shortage, growing for decades, is due mainly to attrition: aging priest-chaplains are reaching retirement faster than they can be replaced.
The eleven new prospects are newly enrolled in the “Co-Sponsored Seminarian Program” (CSP), a vocations partnership between the Washington, D.C.-based Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA (AMS), and more than two dozen partner dioceses, archdioceses, and religious communities around the country. Their addition brings to 43 the total number of prospective chaplains now enrolled in the CSP, which draws candidates for the priesthood from across the United States, but heavily from the military itself. According to church studies, the armed forces are a rich source of priestly vocations with up to ten percent of each year’s nationwide ordination class made up of men with prior military service, and up to 20 percent from military families. A constant theme among co-sponsored seminarians is the positive influence of chaplain role models, suggesting that more servicemen might answer the call if only more chaplains were around to support their discernment.
“Co-sponsorship” means that a diocesan bishop or archbishop agrees to accept a prospective chaplain as a seminarian in partnership with the AMS. Co-sponsored seminarians participate in the chaplain candidacy program of one of the three main branches of the armed forces—Army, Navy, or Air Force. The Navy Chaplain Corps ministers to all the Sea Services: Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine. Chaplain Candidates are commissioned as Second Lieutenants (Army and Air Force) or Ensigns (Navy) and receive their training as chaplains during the summer months of their time in the seminary.
The AMS and the seminarian’s home diocese jointly share the cost of the co-sponsored seminarian’s six-to-seven year, $36,000-per-year formation, each paying 50% of tuition, room and board and other expenses, or about $18,000 a year. Once the priest is ordained, he serves for at least three years in his home diocese before his bishop releases him for full-time military service. When the priest leaves the military, he returns to the diocese or community for further pastoral work. So both the AMS and the partner diocese benefit from his vocation.
The seven new seminarians come from the following dioceses, archdioceses and congregation: the Archdiocese of Atlanta, GA; the Archdiocese of Hartford, CT; the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, CA; the Diocese of Colorado Springs, CO; the Diocese of Fairbanks, AK; the Diocese of San Diego, CA; the Diocese of Savannah, GA; and the Congregation of the Holy Cross. They are undergoing formation at the following seminaries: Our Lady of Providence Seminary in Providence, RI; Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, IL; St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, CA; Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, MD; Moreau Seminary in Notre Dame, IN; and the St. Francis Center for Priestly Formation at the University of San Diego.
The numbers reflect a steady growth in the CSP since 2008, when the population of co-sponsored seminarians stood at just seven. The AMS attributes this growth to establishment of its own Office of Vocations combined with the generous support of U.S. bishops, leading to increased awareness and discernment opportunities for prospective chaplains in response to the shortage.
As the number of young men entering the CSP has grown over the past nine years, so has the number coming out of the program, reaching the milestones of ordination and active duty as chaplains. Since 2008, 23 priests have been ordained through the CSP, and so far, seven have gone on active duty as chaplains, completing the three-year period of pastoral service in their home dioceses and successfully meeting the military’s physical and other requirements. Meanwhile, another dozen or so priests are set to transition to active duty over the next three years. The AMS Vocations Office is currently processing the applications of at least nine other men expected to enter the seminary in the near future. An additional fifteen seminarians are currently in one of the three chaplain candidate programs without being co-sponsored.
Over the upcoming Labor Day weekend, in keeping with an AMS tradition, the co-sponsored seminarians will gather at AMS headquarters—the Edwin Cardinal O’Brien Pastoral Center in Washington—for a few days of prayer and fraternity as the new academic year gets underway. Thirty-nine will attend the gathering this weekend. Four reside in hurricane-battered communities of Texas, but all but one will be able to travel to Washington for the gathering in spite of continued flooding from Harvey.
No government funding goes to the AMS. The Archdiocese depends entirely on private giving for survival and is looking for ways to fund a fast-rising seminary bill, projected at roughly $3 million over the next five years alone. This is in addition to the AMS annual operating budget of more than $6.8 million for programs and services including chaplain recruitment and endorsement, evangelization and catechesis, sacramental record-keeping, tribunal services, and pastoral visits to military installations and deployed units. Donations can be made here.
Young men interested in discerning a priestly vocation, and the vocation within a vocation to serve those who serve in the U.S. military, can find more information at www.milarch.org/vocations, or may contact the AMS Vocations Office by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.