AUSTIN, TX – Father Callan Sweeney, (1LT), USA, a candidate for the United States Military chaplaincy, was ordained a priest on Saturday, June 5, in Austin, TX. He plans eventually to serve as a Catholic chaplain in the U.S. Army with endorsement and faculties from the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA (AMS). The new priest is on track to go on active duty following a three-year period of pastoral service in his home Diocese of Austin under its seminarian co-sponsorship agreement with the AMS.
Father Sweeney, 32, completed the program for priestly formation at Saint Mary’s Seminary in Houston. His ordination was celebrated at St. Vincent De Paul Catholic Church through the laying of hands and the prayer of consecration invoking the Holy Spirit by Bishop Joe S. Vásquez. His Excellency, the Most Reverend Timothy P. Broglio, J.C.D., Archbishop for the Military Services, concelebrated the 10:30 a.m. ordination Mass. Among those in attendance were the new priest’s parents, Steven and Jean Sweeney, and his sister, Ms. Sarah Sweeney Ray.
Father Sweeney is a 2007 graduate of Lake Travis High School in Austin, TX, and a 2011 graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) in Kings Point, NY. It was through the example of the priest chaplains at the USMMA, he said, that he discovered his vocation. The newly-ordained priest holds a Bachelor of Science Degree from the USMMA, and in 2019, he earned a Master of Science in Psychology from Divine Mercy University in Arlington, VA. From 2011 to 2014, he served on active duty with the 1st Aviation Brigade at Fort Rucker, AL, and now serves as a Chaplain Candidate in the Army Reserve with the 17th Psychological Operations Battalion, based in Austin.
The eventual service of Father Sweeney and other Catholic chaplain candidates is greatly anticipated by the Army, which, like other branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, continues to suffer a chronic shortage of Catholic chaplains due to attrition: priests are reaching mandatory military retirement faster than they can be replaced. Since 9/11, the number of active-duty U.S. Military chaplains in all branches of service has fallen from more than 400 to fewer than 200. While Catholics make up about 25% of the U.S. Armed Forces, Catholic priests currently account for only about seven percent of military chaplains. In the Army, 83 priests currently on active duty serve some 118,000 Catholic soldiers. That’s approximately one priest for every 1,325 Catholics spread worldwide, not counting their families, whom the priests also serve.
At the same time, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), the military itself continues to be a rich source of vocations in the U.S. CARA’s annual Survey of Ordinands to the Priesthood found that five percent of the Class of 2021 has prior military experience, and 11% comes from families where at least one parent served in the military, making the AMS the nation’s largest source of new priests. The actual numbers are certain to be higher, because only 73% of this year’s ordinands (346 out of 472) responded to the survey.
The AMS is now busy tapping this source for prospective chaplains. The Vocations Office is focusing attention on active-duty servicemen expressing an interest in the priesthood, inviting more qualified candidates to consider joining the Co-Sponsored Seminarian Program, a vocations partnership between the AMS and cooperating dioceses and religious communities around the country. In the case of Father Sweeney, the partner diocese is the Diocese of Austin. Under the co-sponsorship agreement, Father Sweeney will provide civilian pastoral service for three years in the Austin Diocese before going back on active duty in the Army. Upon completion of his Army service, he will return to Austin for further ministry.
Thanks in large part to the support of U.S. bishops and religious superiors, along with increased awareness and discernment opportunities, the number of co-sponsored seminarians such as Father Sweeny has risen from seven in 2008 to 36 today.
The AMS, which receives no funding from the government and depends entirely on private giving, is now looking for ways to fund a fast-rising seminary bill, now projected at more than $5 million over the next five years. To support the Co-Sponsored Seminarian Program, visit milarch.org/support-seminarians/. Gifts made through June 30 will be matched dollar for dollar up to a total of $25,000 by a retired military couple wishing to remain anonymous in their generosity.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 719-3600.