Military, church struggle to address Catholic chaplains shortage

As Catholics around the world observe Good Friday and prepare for their most holy day Easter Sunday, the U.S. military is facing a crisis in faith. The number of Catholic chaplains has plummeted nearly by half the last decade, leaving thousands of soldiers going months without seeing a priest.

“If you’re out in a location defending our nation,” the Rev. Kerry Abbott said, “you may not have ready access to a Catholic priest chaplain, if you’re out in a combat zone, for example.”

Abbott is the director of the Military Archdiocese, charged with serving all the armed services. He’s down to 216 Catholic chaplains. Catholics make up the largest single religious denomination in the military, with 275,00 among the active-duty troops. It means there is one chaplain for every 1,300 Catholic servicemen and servicewomen.

Catholic soldiers are largely on their own when it comes to practicing their faith, with little chance to celebrate the sacraments, such as Holy Communion, Reconciliation and Anointing the Sick.

“These are staples of Catholic life,” says Army Chaplain Col. Gary Studniewski who’s stationed at Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington state. “To be denied that when you’re in the service of your country is a travesty.”

The Rev. Charles Kanai saw the impact on the fighting troops. He served 10 months in Afghanistan where he was the only Catholic chaplain for 28 forward operating bases.

“The chaplain is a force multiplier in the sense that every soldier, especially those on deployment, they go through stuff,” Kanai said.

Typically, chaplains serving in war zones hop from base to base spending a few days at each stop before flying or driving to the next. Kanai says he was always busy counseling soldiers as he served their spiritual needs. Then just before he left a base, he celebrated Mass.

Kanai wanted to stay in the military longer, but his bishop in Kenya refused, saying he was needed back in a local parish. The church’s priest shortage is leading fewer bishops to approve of seminarians going into the military. The Detroit Archdiocese recently shut down several parishes, in part because they don’t have enough priests to serve them all.

The crisis is being addressed by a new scholarship program initiated by the Military Archdiocese. It calls for a civilian archdiocese and the Military Archdiocese to split the cost of training a seminarian.

When the man is ordained a priest, he becomes a chaplain until he reaches retirement age at 62. At that time, he returns to a local parish where he may serve another 15 or 20 years depending on his health.

“When the man leaves military ministry, they’re going to have a priest who has a phenomenal amount of training and experience and is going to enrich that local diocese,” Abbott said.

So far the program is working. A couple years ago there were just two seminarians on the path to becoming a Catholic chaplain. Now there are 31. Among them is Michael Hofer, an Air Force cadet who recently answered a higher calling. “I’m motivated by a love of God to give myself to the church and also a love of my country,” says Hofer.

Army Capt. Dan Goulet also made the transition from active-duty serviceman to chaplain. He sees a difference in the soldiers he ministers to. “It kind of brings a sense of ‘I’m not invincible’ to the forefront,” says the Rev. Goulet. “They latch on to that spirituality.”

From the U.S. Army’s beginnings during the Revolutionary War, chaplains were seen as invaluable. There’s always been a belief that a spiritually healthy soldier, one who’s willing to sacrifice all, is a better soldier.