WASHINGTON, D.C. – Back-to-school season brings new hope of relief for a severe Catholic chaplain shortage in the U.S. Military. Among the several hundred candidates entering American seminaries for the first time this fall, at least nine plan, after ordination, to go on active duty as chaplains. Additionally, another five U.S. Catholic seminarians in various advanced stages of formation have decided this year to pursue military chaplaincy in their priestly vocations, and have made a commitment to “serve those who serve” as priests in the armed forces. That brings to 14 the total number of Catholic men embarking this year on the vocational journey toward military chaplaincy.
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 eight percent of chaplains. At present, only 209 priests are on active duty, toiling in the vineyard to provide pastoral care for the approximately 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 14 prospective chaplains are newly enrolled in the “Co-Sponsored Seminarian Program” (CSP), a vocations partnership between the Washington, DC-based Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA (AMS), and 25 partner dioceses and archdioceses around the country. The CSP draws candidates for the priesthood from across the United States, but heavily from the military itself. According to church studies, the armed forces have proven to be 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 influence of chaplain role models.
“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, approximately $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 for further pastoral work. So both the AMS and the partner diocese benefit from his vocation.
The nine new seminarians come from the following dioceses and archdioceses: the Archdioceses of Atlanta, Cincinnati, New Orleans, and San Antonio and the Dioceses of Arlington, Kansas City-St. Joseph (MO), Monterey, Orlando, Raleigh, Richmond, St. Augustine, and Victoria. They are undergoing formation at the following seminaries: Assumption Seminary in San Antonio; Conception Seminary College (MO), St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, Our Lady of the Lake in Mundelein, IL (Chicago), Mount St. Mary’s Seminary at The Athenaeum of Ohio (Cincinnati), Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, MD, St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, CA, and Theological College in Washington, DC.
The five men, already in the seminary, joined the CSP this year and are continuing their formation at the following seminaries: St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Orlando, FL, St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston, TX, Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, LA, St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, CA, and the Priestly Discernment Program at Franciscan University in Steubenville, OH.
The addition of 14 brings the total current population of co-sponsored seminarians to 36 enrolled in 19 seminaries throughout the U.S. and in Rome. An additional five have been accepted by their home dioceses and seminaries but are awaiting release from active duty to enter the seminary with the intention of returning as chaplains.
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 full-time 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 eight years, so has the number coming out of the program, reaching the milestones of ordination and active duty as chaplains. Since 2008, 19 priests have been ordained through the CSP, and so far, six 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 fifteen 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.
Father Aidan Logan, O.C.S.O., AMS Director of Vocations, said: “I am continually struck by the number of young men who sense a call to both the priesthood and military service. This should not surprise us. Service and solidary are vital elements of our Catholic Faith. Catholics are twice as likely as their fellow citizens to join the military. The Co-Sponsored Seminarian Program is a concrete response to these promptings of the Holy Spirit. In these perilous times the need for Catholic priest-chaplains is greater than ever.”
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.