Serving those who serve
Making the choice to serve as a member of the military takes much time and discernment, as does making the choice to follow one’s vocation to serve in the Church as a priest. The ordained clergy draws both worlds together when choosing to serve as a chaplain – service known in the religious community as “a vocation within a vocation.”
Fr. Aidan Logan was a chaplain for 20 years, and is now the Director of Vocations for the Archdiocese of the Military Services. Speaking at the AMS’ annual benefit, Logan told me that serving as a chaplain is “very different” from ordinary priesthood, because “living with these men 24/7, you share everything they go through. A priest is as close to his flock as he can get.”
Logan’s tenure as a chaplain for the Navy and Marine Corps saw him posted at various times on land and sea, and in areas as diverse as North Carolina, San Diego, Japan, and New England.
As an active duty member of the service, Fr. Logan had to go through “chaplain school” to learn to salute, march, wear the uniform, and “function in the system.”
(Fr. Logan, photo courtesy of John Whitman)
Captain Robert Roth, the current commander of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Harry S. Truman and who has witnessed and benefited from chaplain services throughout his 28 active years in the military, reiterated Fr. Logan’s sentiment: “We don’t treat [chaplains] differently,” he said, “except on Sunday.”
“All the men have their responsibilities,” Roth added, saying it’s no different with the chaplains, whose job it is to prepare troops for war-fighting readiness.
There exists a dearth of military chaplains, however, which has increased especially in recent years. Fr. Logan said he served at his first post in 1991 with 14 fellow chaplains. Ten years later that number had dwindled to 8 chaplains, and today, there’s only one.
Nevertheless, Fr. Logan said there’s a “wonderful spirit of cooperation among the chaplains,” regardless of religious affiliation, and that media reports on the military’s attack on religion in the military is largely “hype.”
“The military is largely very open to our ministry,” Fr. Logan said.
The Chaplain Corps has recently lost another of its members, though this time to a higher order, as Pope Francis this week appointed U.S. Air Force Chaplain (Maj.) Chad Zielinski as the new bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska.
Bishop-elect Zielinski has been stationed in Alaska for two years, but was not expecting the lofty appointment.
“I was absolutely shocked, amazed,” he told me. “I thought, ‘this doesn’t make sense. How can this be?’ I never saw myself as bishop material.”
(Bishop-elect Zielinski, photo courtesy of John Whitman)
Many are familiar with the famous photograph of a priest saying Mass in a war zone, using the hood of a Jeep as an altar. Fr. Zielinski says his experience as a veteran chaplain translates perfectly for the “itinerant life” required of a cleric stationed in Alaska, where the majority of the parishes are remote, only accessible by plane or boat. Various deployments, constantly traveling, adjusting to different cultures, and “living out of a backpack” have been the norm for him the past twenty years he’s served as a military chaplain.
Though carrying out his duties as a chaplain has equipped him with necessary leadership skills, Fr. Zielinski says becoming a bishop was “never my personal desire,” but that “God works in mysterious ways.”
For people enduring difficult times of confusion, Fr. Zielinski reminds us, “God draws straight with crooked lines. He uses curious moments. He’s in charge. We try to lead God around, but it never works.”
Teresa Mull is managing editor of Human Events.