For God and Country: Vocations and the Military
By Father Marty Smith (’15 Springfield)
Here at Mundelein Seminary, November 11 is a special day for both the Church and a number of students and faculty. Not only is it the Feast of Saint Martin de Tours, the Roman soldier who later became a priest and bishop, it is also the observance of Veterans Day here in the United States. Reflecting on the fact that many of our students and two of our faculty members have a military background, I began thinking about the connection between military service and priestly vocations, as well as the importance of military chaplains.
As I recalled my own time serving as a soldier in Iraq in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, and two Army Chaplains who made a profound impact on my vocation – Father Micheas Langston, O.S.B., and Father Ed Ohm – I wanted to see how military service had influenced other men’s decision to attend seminary. According to the Archdiocese for Military Services, nearly 10 percent of men ordained to the priesthood in the United States every year have prior military service or grew up in military households. With this fact in mind, I began to look at the question of how military experience can serve as an effective tool of the New Evangelization, both here at Mundelein Seminary and in future ministry.
Father Carlos Rodriguez (’09 Chicago) now serves as director of counseling services at Mundelein Seminary. Father Carlos says that there are many benefits from service in the military that translate well into the Church. As a young man who grew up in the projects of Brooklyn, N.Y., joining the Army offered the chance to serve the country that he loved and serve something greater than himself.
“Veterans make great seminarians. They understand commitment, they understand teamwork and they understand that missions are accomplished together.”
“Veterans make great seminarians,” says Father Carlos, “they understand commitment, they understand teamwork and they understand that missions are accomplished together.” While it may seem strange to some that military service could parallel service in the Catholic Church, Father Carlos offers his perspective: “A priest is a soldier who is trained to fight on a different type of battlefield, the hearts and souls of God’s people, against an enemy that is a spiritual reality, evil.” Father Carlos also adds that a military background is a great benefit, and that many parishioners who are veterans themselves, or have family members in the military, really respond to you with a great deal of appreciation. “They really open up to you, respect you, and know you understand them andtheir challenges.”
Father Adam Blatt (’15 Chicago) agrees that there are parallels between the military and the seminary. When finishing his six years of service in the United States Air Force, including a deployment to Qatar during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Father Adam said he had the feeling that “there is something else I should be doing now, something more.” Father Adam said the Air Force’s values of “integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do,” naturally led him to the vocation he had thought about since he was five years old.
“Military service certainly made the transition to seminary a lot easier,” Father Adam said. “The discipline learned in the military serves you well. Even on days where you may not feel like doing something, you do it anyway, because you’re serving something greater than yourself.” This value of service before self is in alignment with the third path of Father Barron’s vision for priestly formation: “Your life is not about you.”
Father Colin Parrish (’17 Seattle), agrees that the military really can help men discover a vocation to the priesthood. “There are so many latent vocations in the military,” Father Colin said. “They just need the example of a good priest, a good chaplain.”
Father Colin served five and half years in the United States Navy, with three deployments. He recalled joining the military to teach himself structure and to help him transition into adulthood. “It’s where I found my faith, where I heard the call,” thanks in large part to the impact made by Navy chaplain, Father Norbert Karava, O.F.M., Cap. Father Colin knows his military service will greatly impact his ministry, saying, “I’ve seen what human sin and weakness is, I’ve seen what it looks like, you see it very intensely in the military, you’re up against it.”
“Military Chaplaincy is not an easy priesthood, but it’s a very necessary one. You have to grow a thick skin and be tough, but also be compassionate, full of mercy and love.”
When I asked Father Colin about the future of the military he said “Military Chaplaincy is not an easy priesthood, but it’s a very necessary one.” Father Colin added that future chaplains will face many challenges, but need to be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves. “You have to grow a thick skin and be tough, but also be compassionate, full of mercy and love.”
Father Patrick Boyle, S.J., understands personally what the challenges of being a military chaplain are. Father Boyle became a chaplain after he was ordained for five years, and he served for 30, retiring as a colonel. A professor of moral theology, Father Boyle shared many insights from his time ranging as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division, to serving a year and half as a chaplain with the 1st Calvary Division in Vietnam (1969-71).
Father Boyle recalled asking himself two questions “How many priests would want to go to Vietnam, and how many would be able to go physically? I qualified on both accounts, so I went.”Father Boyle highlights that his reason for joining was for the men. “If anyone ever needs a priest, it’s during a war. I was there for the troops and only the troops.” Father Boyle said that after his time in Vietnam he came back radically pro-life, “you see the stupidity of war, people killing people.” Father Boyle also highlights the moral challenges that chaplains will face, “where society goes, the military will adjust to that.”
Recent Mundelein alumni who will serve as military chaplains include Father Michael Metz (’19 Atlanta) and Father Clay Elmhorst (’14 La Crosse). Seminarian Colin Patrick (Theology I) is studying to serve both the Archdiocese of Atlanta and the Archdiocese of Military Services
as a priest.
We pray for our veterans, veteran priests, and military chaplains, as these men live their lives in service to God and country.
Lord, we seek to honor your sons and daughters who have served or who are serving our country. May each of our veterans feel honored not just today but every day. We respect them, we thank them, we honor them, we are proud of them, and we pray that you will watch over these special people and bless them with peace and happiness. Amen.
This article originally ran in the Winter 2014 issue of the seminarian-produced BRIDGE magazine. The full magazine can be viewed here.