Two dozen prospective Catholic military chaplains gather for fraternity, reflection, and prayer
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Two dozen prospective Catholic military chaplains gathered in the nation’s capital over the Labor Day weekend for a three-day celebration of prayer, reflection, and fraternity sponsored by the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA (AMS). The group comprised seminarians from all over the United States participating in the “Co-Sponsored Seminarian Program,” a vocations partnership between the AMS and cooperating dioceses and religious communities.
The chaplain candidates took part in, among other events, a Friday night riverboat dinner cruise along the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers; a Saturday morning Mass celebrated by his Excellency, the Most Reverend Timothy P. Broglio, J.C.D., Archbishop for the Military Services, at the Crypt Church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception; and a Saturday afternoon barbeque served by the Knights of Columbus at the Edwin Cardinal O’Brien Pastoral Center near theCatholic University of America. Concelebrants at the Saturday morning Mass included Monsignor John J.M. Foster,J.C.D., Vicar General; Auxiliary Bishop Richard B. Higgins, Vicar for Veterans Affairs; Father Christopher Armstrong,J.C.D., Judicial Vicar; and Father Aidan Logan, O.C.S.O., Vocations Director.
The weekend concluded with the scheduled Mass at Fort Myer, Va. The concelebrants with Archbishop Broglio at that Mass included Father Paul K. Hurley, Chief of Chaplains of the U.S. Army, and Father Fred Wendel, Catholic Chaplain at Fort Myer.
For the seminarians—all in various stages of priestly formation, many of them with previous military experience—it was an opportunity to get to know each other better and learn more about the vocation within a vocation that they share: serving those who serve the nation in uniform. Mr. Michael Kapolka of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Ohio, said, “I love getting together with all the other co-sponsored seminarians, learning about their experiences in seminary, their military experiences, just being able to connect and work with them and getting an idea of what’s going on in the AMS.” Mr. Madison Hayes of theArchdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska, described the weekend as “awesome, just to have that fellowship.” Mr. Sean Koehr of the Diocese of Arlington, Va., said he knew before coming to Washington that the weekend encounter would be beneficial: “You know that there are other guys who are going to be doing the same work, the same ministry as a chaplain, and you can talk about what we’re learning in seminary but also the different challenges we’re going to be facing as chaplains.” Mr. Koehr added, “I’ve gotten to know the bishops a lot better. The bishops have been very kind and personable, as well as the priest recruiters.”
The AMS is counting on the co-sponsored seminarians to help fill an ongoing shortage of Catholic priests in the U.S. Military. The shortage comes as more and more priests reach the military’s mandatory retirement age of 62 faster than they can be replaced. The number of active-duty chaplains has fallen from more than 400 in 2001 to around 225 today. While Catholics make up about 25% of the U.S. Armed Forces, Catholic priests currently account for only 8% of military chaplains, representing only one priest for every 1,300 Catholics in uniform, not counting families of those service members.
Co-sponsorship means that a diocesan bishop or religious superior agrees to accept a prospective chaplain in his diocese or religious community as a seminarian, and that the seminarian will participate in the chaplain candidacy program of one of the three branches of the armed forces. The AMS and the seminarian’s home diocese or religious community split the cost of his five-year, approximately $30,000-per-year education in half, each paying 50% of tuition, room and board and other expenses, or about $15,000 a year.
Once the new priest is ordained, the bishop or religious superior typically agrees to release him for military service after at least three years of pastoral experience in his diocese or community. When the priest leaves the military, he returns to the diocese or community for further pastoral work. So both the AMS and the priest’s home diocese or religious community benefit from his ministry.
Thanks in large part to the support of U.S. bishops and religious superiors, along with increased awareness and discernment opportunities for prospective chaplains, the number of co-sponsored seminarians has risen from seven in 2008 to 27 today. They come from more than 20 U.S. dioceses and are enrolled in more than a dozen seminaries nationwide and the North American College in Rome. This year, five of those seminarians were ordained priests, and two priests went on active duty. Another 13 priests are set to transition from reserve status active duty over the next three years. Meanwhile, another five men entered the Co-Sponsored Seminarian Program this fall, and the AMS Office of Vocations is currently processing the applications of still others.
The AMS, which receives no funding from the government and depends entirely on private giving for survival, is now looking for ways to fund a fast-rising seminary bill, now projected at $2.7 million over the next five years. Donations can be madehere.
The Co-Sponsored Program draws priestly candidates largely from the military itself, because the military has proven to be a rich vocations pool. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University conducts an annual survey of newly ordained priests in the U.S. This year, it found that the Class of 2015 turned out nearly twice as many military veterans as compared with each of the past two years. According to the survey, at least 6% of men ordained to the priesthood this year and responding to questions—24 of 411 altogether—report having previously served in the U.S. Armed Forces, up from 4% (13 of 365 respondents) in 2014, and 4% (14 of 366 respondents) in 2013. The CARA study also found an increase in newly ordained coming from military family backgrounds. Sixteen percent of this year’s responding class members reported one or both parents had a military career, compared to 15% in 2014 and 13% in 2013.
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 here, or may contact Father Logan by email.