WASHINGTON, D.C. – Thirty-eight 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 a full weekend schedule, including: a Friday night riverboat dinner cruise along the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers; Saturday and Sunday morning Masses celebrated by his Excellency, the Most Reverend Timothy P. Broglio, J.C.D., Archbishop for the Military Services; and a Saturday afternoon barbeque served by the Knights of Columbus (K of C) James Cardinal Hickey Assembly #2534 at the Edwin Cardinal O’Brien Pastoral Center near the Catholic University of America.
For the seminarians—all in various stages of preparation to become chaplains, 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 they share: serving those who serve the nation in uniform. The AMS is counting on the co-sponsored seminarians to help fill a desperate shortage of Catholic priests on active duty. The shortage comes as more and more priests reach military retirement faster than they can be replaced. The number of active-duty chaplains has fallen from more than 400 in 2001 to fewer than 200 today. While Catholics make up about 25% of the U.S. armed forces, Catholic priests currently account for only 6% of military chaplains, representing approximately one priest for every 1,700 Catholics spread globally on active duty, not counting the families of those service members.
Co-sponsorship means that a diocesan bishop or religious superior agrees to accept a prospective chaplain in his home diocese or religious community as a seminarian, and that the seminarian will participate in the chaplain candidacy program of one of the branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. Once the new priest is ordained, the bishop or religious superior typically agrees to release him for military service after three years of pastoral experience in his diocese or community. When the priest leaves the military, he returns to his home 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 a proactive AMS Vocations Office, along with the support of U.S. bishops and religious superiors and increased awareness and discernment opportunities for prospective chaplains, the number of co-sponsored seminarians has risen from seven in 2008 to 48 today. They come from 27 U.S. dioceses and one religious community. They are enrolled in 18 seminaries.
By agreement, the AMS and the seminarian’s home diocese or religious community split the cost of his five-year, $40,000-per-year education in half, each paying 50% of tuition, room and board and other expenses for an average of $20,000 a year each. With 48 co-sponsored seminarians now in the program, the AMS share of seminary expenses will amount to $4.8 million over the next five years alone. 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. Donations can be made at www.milarch.org/donate.
This year, five co-sponsored seminarians have been ordained priests, eight have been ordained transitional deacons on track for priestly ordination next year, and another is scheduled to be ordained a transitional deacon next month. Six priests are due to go on active duty this year. Several more priests are set to transition to active duty over the next three years. Meanwhile, the AMS Vocations office is processing the applications of more prospective co-sponsored seminarians.
The Co-Sponsored Seminarian 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. Year in and year out, the survey finds as many as 10 percent report having previously served in the U.S. Armed Forces, and up to 20% report having military family backgrounds. Those numbers are almost certainly higher, because typically, only about three-fourths of the new ordinands respond to the annual survey.
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 Vocations Director Father Aidan Logan, O.C.S.O., by email.