AMS Chancellor Reflects on Need for Support as Home Diocese of Venice, FL, Prepares to Take Up Special Collection Father Robert Cannon, Ch, Col, USAF (Ret.), knows first-hand the dire need for civilian Catholics to support the free exercise of faith in the U.S. Military

Father Robert R. Cannon on a pastoral visit to a U.S. Army forward operating base near the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan in 2009.

VENICE, FL – At Sunday Masses the weekend of May 14-15, Florida Catholics in the Diocese of Venice will have an opportunity to contribute to a special collection for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA (AMS). Father Robert R. Cannon, Ch, Col, USAF (Ret.), knows first-hand the value of such a gift from anyone who can contribute. Not only is Father Cannon a priest of the Diocese of Venice, he is also the AMS’s chancellor in Washington, DC.  He is a vital contact for fellow Catholic priests serving worldwide as U.S. Military chaplains, a position he held for almost 30 years.

“It’s hard to describe how a Catholic priest affects so many people,” Father Cannon says, “just by being a priest on a base and people learn who you are, you immediately have a flock. You’re their shepherd. They don’t even have to know you. As soon as they see that Roman collar you have thousands of people that are going to be trusting you and looking for support from you. Your very presence is a great consolation and comfort to Catholic military members and families.”

But Catholic priests are increasingly in short supply on active duty these days because of attrition: aging chaplains are retiring faster than they can be replaced. Twenty-five percent of the U.S. Military’s nearly 1.2 million men and women on active duty are Catholic, but the Military’s 192 active-duty Catholic priests make up just seven percent of the chaplain corps. In response to the shortage the AMS, along with partner dioceses and religious communities, has developed a thriving “Co-Sponsored Seminarian Program,” in which dozens of men are now in formation to become priest-chaplains and help relieve the shortage.

That’s just one way the special collection comes in. The AMS, which receives no government funding, has no network of local parishes to take up collections, and depends entirely on private giving for survival, now faces a $3.5 million seminary bill over the next five years. That’s in addition to the archdiocese’s annual operating budget of more than $7 million to provide religious education and faith formation for military families, an active archive of sacramental records, a tribunal to handle anomalous marriages, annulments, and other issues of canon law, travel for AMS bishops, and other forms of pastoral care for Catholics in uniform and veterans receiving care in the nation’s Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical centers.

Seeing the AMS’s growing need for support back in 2012, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) approved the special collection in parishes nationwide every three years. The first collection was taken up in 2013 with others to follow in 2016, 2019, and now, 2022. The Archdiocese of Boston was the first to take up this year’s collection the weekend of Feb. 26-27. The Diocese of Madison, WI, will take it up, along with the Diocese of Venice, the weekend of May 14-15, and the Diocese of Austin, TX, May 28-29. Other dioceses will take up the collection on various weekends throughout the year, but the vast majority will do so on the weekend of Nov. 5-6. For a list of participating dioceses and scheduled dates of the collection—or to donate—visit milarch.org/national collection.

Father Cannon was ordained in 1978 for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, FL, but became a priest of the Diocese of Venice when Pope John Paull II erected the new Diocese in 1984. Before becoming a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force Reserve in 1986 and he was asked by the USAF Chief of Chaplains to go on extended active duty in 2003, Father Cannon held several positions, including Dean of Students and Adjunct Professor of Social Sciences at St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami, Judicial Vicar, and Rector of Epiphany Cathedral in the Diocese of Venice.

He vividly recalls leaving his position as rector to answer the call to serve those who serve in faraway places. “I admit that I cried diving I-75 with a packed car up to Washington, DC. I had come to love the people, the cathedral. I certainly was able to relate to military personnel when they had to leave their families.”

Father Cannon described how years later while talking to his spiritual director, he was asked, “‘Do you ever think about Epiphany (Cathedral)? Do you miss the parish’? I had to think about his question. I looked at him and said, ‘No, I don’t think about Epiphany very often.’ He said, ‘Well why not’? I said, ‘Because it hurts too much…. It’s too painful.’ And he said, ‘Oh, do you know the reason why’?  And I said, ‘Uh, no. I just accepted it as part of leaving.’ And he said, ‘It’s because you still love your people in your heart.’ He said to me, ‘If you didn’t love them, you wouldn’t feel like you do.’ And that’s when I realized the pain of separation as a reminder of loving those you serve…. As a military chaplain, you have to leave your sheep to go on into another pasture to care for other flocks, many of which are in distant lands. Military chaplains are always moving every two or three years. You have to meet and engage people immediately, and take care of them. You don’t have time to waste, ‘Hey, how are you doing? What’s your name?’ You’ve got to go in and take care of them, and use every minute you’ve got, whether months, weeks, days, hours or even just a few minutes.”

As Father Cannon knows all too well, time and resources are precious commodities for a Catholic priest on active duty in the U.S. Military. Priests like Father Cannon can provide the time, but only the faithful can provide the resources. The 2022 national collection for the AMS gives them a chance to do just that. For Father Cannon’s fellow Catholics of the Diocese of Venice, that chance comes May 14-15, but you don’t have to wait for the collection basket to come around. To donate now, visit milarch.org/nationalcollection.