What is the life of a priest serving in the U.S. military like?
Imagine that your job is to provide spiritual and emotional support and guidance to a Catholic military faith community of thousands of mostly young men and women. Imagine most of the people in your Catholic faith community move away every three years and that new people move in. Imagine that you, too, must move and start learning the “ropes” of a new place, not to mention preparing for combat deployments while also being the only priest in the area.
That constant change is part of the everyday life and work of Catholic priest-chaplains in the military. Unlike a priest in a civilian parish, chaplains in the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard must work with a constantly changing group of people. It is a personal ministry of presence, caring for the needs of Catholic military personnel, their families, and others.
The work of chaplains is not confined to the chapel. They go wherever their people are—in a tent in the desert, on the deck of an aircraft carrier, in the barracks on base, in combat, in the hospital, in the halls of the Pentagon.
Because military service requires extraordinary sacrifices on the part of those who serve and their families, priest-chaplains strive to make themselves present and available, day or night, to offer guidance, education, and direction on Church doctrine, or simply to listen. Through their words and actions, they provide a place where those in the military can take comfort, draw strength from the sacraments, and reflect on the responsibilities and challenges they have taken on to protect their fellow Americans.
The 1.5 million Catholics served by AMS priest-chaplains are a diverse group: 5th generation service members, new citizens, young people from cities and farms, veterans, people in positions of command, young mothers and fathers. Chaplains often speak about the exciting, creative nature of their ministry. They seek ways to reach out and connect with the different people they serve on a personal level, an opportunity they note is hard to come by in a civilian parish.
The days are long and it can be lonely. Yet, if you talk to most of the priest-chaplains in the military, they will tell you they would not trade this ministry for any other. The rewards are great and the support of people in the military is abundant. They are open to spiritual growth and willing to work hard for it. As the people in our military engage in the difficult work of protecting our freedoms, Catholic priest-chaplains walk beside them, providing the spiritual and emotional strength they need.
Who is eligible for the Military Chaplaincy?
Any Catholic, single young man who is a United States (US) citizen who shows signs of a vocation to priestly ministry, can meet the academic requirements for seminary training, and qualifies for military service is eligible to apply.
A candidate must be commissionable as a US military officer (priest-chaplain) prior to age 42, but adjustments to this requirement may be made by the specific branch of the armed forces (Army, Navy, Air Force) for those with prior military service.
For current seminarians, AMS policy requires men to discuss your interest in the military chaplaincy with your vocation director, director of seminarians, and/or bishop or religious superior first. Once a seminarian has permission from those responsible for his formation, contact the Director of Vocations, Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA.
Can I choose my military branch?
Yes. Candidates are free to choose whether they wish to serve with the Army, Navy, or Air Force. Ministry in the Coast Guard and Marine Corps falls under the purview of Navy Chaplains.
What if I feel unworthy?
Then you are in good company. Simon Peter told Jesus, “Depart from me, for I am sinful man.” Yet Jesus called him. This is a common worry among people considering the priestly or religious life.
You might ask: “Am I worthy?” So often, your feeling is: “No. Who am I to aspire to such a life and position?” You are not alone. In ordinary parish ministry, people wonder: “Who am I to be a Eucharistic Minister and distribute Holy Communion? Who am I to lector at Mass? To teach RCIA? I am a sinner.”
To this feeling, the only answer is: “Welcome, sinner!”
Prior to spreading the Gospel, Peter denied Christ. Paul persecuted the Church. Thomas doubted Him. James and John misunderstood Him. Yet Jesus called them, as he calls all to be disciples and follow him.
No one is actually “worthy,” and no one starts out as a saint. You don’t earn God’s call. Instead, He calls you. “Remember, it was not you who chose me, rather it was I who chose you.” (Jn. 15:16)
Pope Benedict XVI writes: “If Jesus calls you, do not be afraid to respond to him with generosity, especially when he asks you to follow him in the consecrated life or in the priesthood. Do not be afraid; trust in Him and you will not be disappointed.”
Will I have to give up friends and family in order to join?
No, in fact, friends and family are a very important support for priests, religious sisters, and brothers.
What if I’m afraid of making such a permanent commitment?
Seminary formation will give you the time and space to discern whether priesthood and/or religious life is your call before you make a long term commitment. What is most important is to stay in conversation with God. No matter what twists and turns your discernment takes, prayer is the key to discovering the commitment God is calling you to live out.
What’s the difference between a diocesan priest and a religious priest?
A diocesan priest ordinarily serves the Church within a well-defined geographical area (a diocese). He serves the people within that particular diocese as a parish priest, but may also be involved in other forms of ministry: teaching, chaplaincy in hospitals or prisons, campus ministry, et cetera. Most diocesan priests live and work in the same diocese for most of their life. Diocesan priests make two promises: obedience to the bishop and celibacy. This means that they promise to work with the Bishop and do what he asks them to do for the needs of the people of the diocese. The promise of celibacy is both a sign of the priest’s interior dedication to Christ and a motive of pastoral charity for the sake of the kingdom and in lifelong service to God and humanity.
A religious priest, on the other hand, is a member of a community, which goes beyond the geographical limits of any diocese. A religious priest seeks to live a vowed life within a community of men for mutual support and the accomplishment of some work consistent with the charism of the particular religious community. An emphasis in the community is on shared ideals, prayer, and commitment to Christ. Religious priests work in a wide variety of ministries. Religious communities were founded at different times in history and often focus on a special ministry. As members of a worldwide order or group of men, following the ideals of their founder (e.g. the Benedictines follow the Rule of Saint Benedict), they make vows to live their lives in the same manner. The vows that religious priests make are poverty, celibacy (chastity), and obedience. The vow of poverty means that the priest will not own anything of his own. A religious, for instance, would not personally own a car, but more than likely would have the use of one provided by his community, which is shared by all of his brothers.
What are the differences between religious brothers and monks?
A religious brother commits himself to Christ by vows of poverty, celibacy, obedience, lives in religious community, and works in nearly any job: teacher, cook, lawyer, and so on. Brothers are not sacramental ministers; they are not ordained and so do not preside at Mass, reconciliation, or the anointing of the sick. The role and ministry of a brother is as diverse as being a nurse to a teacher to working in the missions to being a CEO of a hospital.
Monks on the other hand can be either priests or brothers. A monk is the term used in abbeys when the members of the abbey refer to one another. A monk is a member of a certain monastery or community. Most often the focus of a monk is on the interior life through personal and communal prayer. They may be involved in retreats, spiritual direction, educational endeavors, or simple work.
How long does it take to become an ordained diocesan priest?
Generally it takes five to seven years after college to become a diocesan priest, the same as for many professions. The actual amount depends on your diocese or religious community and your education prior to entering the seminary. Your vocation director can be much more specific.
How does one join a religious community?
To become a religious sister, a religious brother, or a religious priest, there are several stages. While these vary from community to community in name, length of time, and format, the following outline gives a general view of formation programs.
Contact: A person of high-school age or older who is interested in religious life but is still searching for the answer to the question,” What does God want of me?” can contact a religious community. The person meets monthly with a priest, brother, or sister and shares in experiences of prayer and community life with the congregation in which he or she is interested.
Candidate: A more formal relationship with the community occurs when a person becomes a candidate. The candidate lives within the community while continuing his or her education or work experience. This period enables the candidate to observe and participate in religious life from the inside. It also gives the community an opportunity to see whether the candidate shows promise of living the life of the community. A person may be a candidate for one or two years.
Novice: The novitiate is the next stage of formation. This is a special one-to-two-year period that marks official entrance into the community. Novices spend time in study and prayer, learning more about themselves, the community, and their relationship with the Lord. At the end of the novitiate, novices prepare for temporary promises, or vows.
Vows: Promises of poverty, celibacy, and obedience may be taken for one, two, or three years, depending upon the decision of the individual. These promises are renewable for up to nine years. Final vows can be made after three years of temporary vows.
Additionally, men studying for religious priesthood must also undergo (seminary) training, where he studies theology, the Bible, the teachings of the Church, and the skills he will need to be a priest and religious.
How old must one be to enter the seminary?
There is no certain age to start preparing for the priesthood. Some people enter the seminary after high school; others transfer into the seminary from college. Some come after completing college, or after working in a profession for a number of years. The Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA does not have a “cut off” age; however, when a man reaches an age between 45 and 50, it starts to become problematic to accept him into the seminary. We judge each man on a case-by-case basis.
What is the seminary like?
A seminary is a place to prepare and train men for the priesthood while they continue to discern God’s call and will in their lives. There are two types of seminaries – College (sometimes called “Minor”) Seminaries and Major Seminaries (sometimes called “Theologates”). Both are academic institutions and, like any other place of higher learning, one takes classes and works toward receiving fully accredited degrees. A college seminary focuses on undergraduate studies and is very much like any other college in terms of curriculum. Usually, seminarians are asked to seek an undergraduate degree in Philosophy. A major seminary is a graduate school and so offers Masters Degrees in Theology. In addition to classes at both kinds of seminaries, there would be times of daily prayer (such as Mass and Liturgy of the Hours). Like any other college / graduate school student, seminarians have free time which they may use to study, pray, exercise, play sports, read, watch TV, go to the movies, or simply be with their friends. There are also opportunities for pastoral and community service. Another part of seminary formation is the guidance and direction one receives from the seminary faculty. This may be internal (e.g. Spiritual Direction) or external (recognizing one’s gifts or areas of growth). In formation, a man meets with others to help understand his calling and to see if priesthood is for him.
What if someone goes to the seminary and then decides he doesn’t want to become a priest?
Seminarians are not people who have everything figured out. In fact what they are doing is seeking God’s will by putting themselves in a setting where they can truly discern God’s will. Spiritual direction and seminary formation are important components of this discernment. If an individual decides priesthood is not for him, he is most certainly free to leave. The job of seminary is not to try to convince seminarians that they should become priests, but rather to help them to truly discover God’s will and, should that be the priesthood, to make them the best possible priests.
What kind of degrees do priests get?
Those who attended a college seminary receive a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Philosophy. There are many options in terms of minors and electives. Individuals who come to seminary after already achieving an undergraduate degree receive a Pre-Theology certificate that puts special emphasis on philosophy. At a major seminary, seminarians usually have a number of options. Most common would be a Master of Divinity though many might also receive a Master of Theology or a Master of Arts. Sometimes these degrees have areas of specialization such as Scripture, Church History, Moral Theology or Systematic (Dogmatic) Theology. Sometimes after ordination, priests are given permission to continue their education to receive additional degrees (maybe in another area such as Liturgy, Canon Law, or Education) or even Doctorate degrees.
Why are priests called “Father”?
The term “Father” was used in the early Church for those spokesmen who were defenders of Christianity as well as for beloved leaders, confessors, and well-respected spiritual guides. Today we use this term “Father” when addressing most priests simply as a sign of love and respect. Truly, even though every priest sacrifices a particular family, he gains a much larger family in the Church. People most often look up to their priests, ask for their help, guidance, and counsel. These and many others indeed are qualities of a father who cares for his family, the Church.
Why do priests have to remain celibate?
Priests and religious sisters and brothers accept God’s gift of celibacy for two principal reasons. It is so they can totally dedicate themselves to God and to the service of His people. Many people assume that this must be a very difficult, lonely, way of life. If God were not in it, it certainly would be. Prayer is so important to living this way of life. Celibacy opens the individual up to the needs and concerns of the family of God. They choose to live this way out of devotion to God and His people.
Is the priesthood a lonely life?
Some parents worry that the life of a priest can be a lonely one. Loneliness is not inherent in the priesthood any more than it is in marriage. There are lonely priests and lonely spouses. We are only as lonely as we want to be.
Why do priests often wear religious garb or “clerics”?
Those who maintain habits or clerical garb do so for various reasons. One is that religious dress is a sign—an instantly recognized symbol of faith in God and commitment to Christianity. Another frequent rationale is that religious garb is simple dress and therefore a way to live out the vow of poverty as well as an important sign of penitence.
Do priests or Military Chaplains get paid?
Yes, they are paid commensurate with other military officers of similar time and grade.
How can I get started?
If you are already in seminary, contact your vocations director.
If you are not in seminary, contact your parish priest or Father Kerry Abbott, OFM Conv., Vocations Director of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA:
Director of Vocations
Archdiocese For The Military Services
P O BOX 4469
Washington, DC 20017-0469
Does the AMS provide financial assistance to those who have student loans to resolve?
The AMS does not provide financial assistance to men who are discerning their vocation to the priesthood and military chaplaincy and have student loans to resolve. For assistance with student loan resolution, contact the foundations listed below.
Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations
9243 Old Green Mountain Road
Esmont, Virginia 22937
The Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations’ mission is to eliminate the obstacle an aspirant’s student loans present to answering his vocation.
The Labouré Society
1365 Corporate Center Curve, Suite 104
Eagan, Minnesota 55121
The Labouré Society (501(c)(3)) exists to provide financial assistance and spiritual support to men and women, who must resolve student loans in order to pursue their vocation to priesthood and/or religious life in the Catholic Church.