MENLO PARK, CA – Nineteen men are gathered here this weekend for a March 31-April 3 discernment retreat aimed at helping them discern if they are called by the Holy Spirit to be Catholic priests and U.S. Military chaplains. The Vocations Office of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA (AMS), is holding the retreat at St. Patrick’s Seminary in hopes of relieving a chronic shortage of Catholic priests on active duty.
The prospective chaplain candidates include three civilians with no military background including one already in seminary, nine from the Air Force including five cadets from the U.S. Air Force Academy, three from the Navy including a midshipman from the U.S. Naval Academy, two from the Army, one from the Marine Corps, and one from the Coast Guard.
Nine of the candidates hope to become chaplains in the Air Force, six in the Navy, and three in the Army. Another remains undecided about which branch to serve.
AMS Vocations Director Father S. Matthew Gray will direct the retreat. His Excellency, the Most Reverend Timothy P. Broglio, J.C.D., Archbishop for the Military Services, USA, will participate in the four days of prayer, reflection, and dialogue. Father Matthew P. Pawlikowski, CH (COL-ret), USA, chaplain at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY, and Father Thomas S. Foley, Ch Capt USAF, chaplain at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO, will also give talks. Also taking part are Catholic military chaplain Father Daniel R. Goulet, CH (MAJ), USA, of the Army; and chaplain recruiters Father Daniel Fullerton, CHC, LCDR, USN, of the Navy, and Father Robbie Deka, Ch, Capt, USAF, of the Air Force.
This gathering is one of two discernment retreats the AMS holds annually in the United States, one on either side of the country. The next will be held from Sept. 29 to Oct. 2, 2022, at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, MD. Young men interested in participating may contact the AMS Vocations office at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 719-3600.
The annual discernment retreats are part of the AMS’s continuing drive to overcome a desperate shortage of active-duty Catholic U.S. Military chaplains. The shortage results from attrition: aging chaplains are retiring faster than they can be replaced. The decline has persisted for decades—over the past 25 years alone, the active-duty roster has shrunk from more than 400 to fewer than 200. Currently, 25% of the Military is Catholic, but Catholic priests make up only about six percent of the chaplain corps, leaving them stretched thin over a globally dispersed faith community on a scale of one priest per 1800 service members, not counting their families.
Paradoxically, church studies show the military itself is the largest single source of U.S. priestly vocations. An annual Survey of Ordinands to the Priesthood, conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, typically finds year in and year out, upwards of ten percent of new U.S. priests once served in the armed forces and as many as twenty percent or more come from military families.
The AMS continues to tap this source for prospective chaplains. The Vocations Office is focusing attention on active-duty servicemen expressing an interest in the priesthood, inviting more of them to attend one of the discernment retreats. Over the past few years, this outreach has begun to yield a bountiful harvest, with a growing number of young men answering “yes” to God’s call through the Co-Sponsored Seminarian Program (CSP), a vocations partnership between the AMS and cooperating dioceses and religious communities. Enrollment has grown from seven in 2008 to an all-time high of 47 before the COVID-19 pandemic, producing a dozen new diaconal and presbyteral ordinations this year alone. Currently, 36 men are enrolled in the program, preparing for priestly ordination and military chaplaincy in hopes of relieving the shortage.
The CSP was established in the 1980s to encourage military service commitments from candidates for priesthood. Co-sponsorship means that a participating, non-AMS bishop or religious superior agrees to accept a prospective U.S. Military chaplain in his diocese or religious community as a seminarian, and the seminarian will participate in the chaplain candidacy program of one of the military branches. The AMS and the seminarian’s home diocese or religious community split the cost of his five-year, $40,000-per-year plus formation, each paying half of tuition, room and board, and other expenses, or about $20,000 a year per co-sponsored seminarian. Typically, once the seminarian is ordained a priest, he will work in his home diocese or religious community for three years before going on active duty. Once he completes his military service, he will return to his home diocese or religious community to continue his ministry as a priest in that diocese or order.
For the AMS and those she serves, the increase in co-sponsored seminarians over the past few years is a mixed blessing. While more prospective Catholic U.S. Military chaplains are in the pipeline now, the costs for their formation have soared exponentially. The AMS’s share is projected at more than 3.5 million dollars over the next five years alone. The AMS receives no funding from the military or the government and gratefully welcomes donations at 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 milarch.org/vocations, or may contact the AMS Vocations Office at email@example.com or (202) 719-3600.