WASHINGTON, D.C. – Thirty-three (33) 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” (CSP), a vocations partnership between the AMS and cooperating dioceses and religious communities.
The chaplain candidates took part in a full schedule of activities including Friday Evening Prayer followed by a barbeque dinner, served by the Knights of Columbus at the Edwin Cardinal O’Brien Pastoral Center near the Catholic University of America, and 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. Concelebrants at the Mass included Auxiliary Bishop Richard B. Higgins, Episcopal Vicar for Veterans Affairs; Monsignor John J.M. Foster, J.C.D., Vicar General; Father Christopher Armstrong, J.C.D., Judicial Vicar; Father Aidan Logan, O.C.S.O., Vocations Director, and chaplain recruiters from each branch of the armed services: Father Daniel Goulet, CH (CPT), USA; Father Benton Garrett, CHC, LT, USN; and Father Thomas Foley, Ch Capt USAF. The weekend concluded with a Sunday morning visit to Joint Base Andrews where Archbishop Broglio celebrated Mass in the base chapel with the same concelebrants along with Father Joseph Hoang, Ch Capt USAF, the Catholic chaplain at Andrews.
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.
The AMS is counting on the co-sponsored seminarians to help fill an chronic shortage of Catholic priests in the U.S. Military. The shortage comes as more and more Catholic military chaplains reach retirement faster than they can be replaced. The number of active-duty chaplains has fallen from more than 400 in 2001 to around 209 today. While Catholics make up about 25% of the U.S. armed forces, Catholic priests currently account for only 8% of military chaplains.
Father Logan, the Vocations Director, said: “These men from all across our nation and every branch of the Armed Forces are the future of Catholic Military Chaplaincy. Ten years from now, God willing, they will all be on active duty serving those who serve in every corner of the world. Though our need for chaplains is desperate their generous response to God’s call is a sign of hope and confidence for the future. I look forward to visiting them at their respective seminaries during the coming academic year.”
“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 at some point during 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.
As of this school year, the population of co-sponsored seminarians stands at 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.
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 at www.milarch.org/donate.
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.