Program #0308 for Monday, May 28, 2012: Memorial Day and Boston military chaplains

May 28, 2012

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Boston military chaplains on Memorial Day

Summary of today’s show: As we observe Memorial Day, we hear from a number of different voices, including the words of Fr. Paul Hurley, serving with the 101st Airborne Division; Beirne Lovely, archdiocesan general counsel who was a young Marine lieutenant during the Vietnam War; and Fr. Stephen Rock, pastor of St. Agnes in Reading who was a Navy chaplain for 34 years. Scot also talks to Mary Doorley and Michelle Huntley about a video they helped produce highlighting the service of the priests sent by the Archdiocese of Boston to serve as US military chaplains over the years and how the annual Catholic Appeal supports that ministry to servicemembers all over the world.

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Today’s host(s): Scot Landry

Today’s guest(s): Fr. Stephen Rock, Beirne Lovely, Mary Doorley, Michelle Huntley

Links from today’s show:

Today’s topics: Memorial Day and Boston military chaplains

1st segment: Scot read a column by Fr. Paul K. Hurley, a military chaplain with the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army, that appeared in the Pilot this week.

“The desire that overcomes fear”, Fr. Paul K. Hurley, The Boston Pilot

Twelve years of service as a Catholic chaplain in the Army have given me a deep respect for the men and women serving in the military. Though most soldiers deployed in combat zones are young (the majority under the age of 30), they are willing to lay down their lives for the sake of their friends and for their country.

On one of my recent combat deployments, I was celebrating Mass in as many locations as possible to bring the sacraments to troops. Due to rugged terrain, most movements were done by helicopter. Though helicopter travel is the safest means of transportation, it often means an extended stay at a base until an aircraft for transport becomes available, or until combat operations permit travel.

I’ll never forget one such time when I was stranded for several days at a small and remote Forward Operating Base (FOB) awaiting Army helicopter transport. An unexpected convoy arrived at the FOB with a very special mission. The soldiers explained that they had come from an even smaller and more remote FOB. Due to the location and isolation of their base, no Catholic priest had ever been able to reach them. After learning that a Catholic priest was at a base nearby, these soldiers had risked their lives to bring me to their location to celebrate Mass.

All chaplains in the military provide counsel and care to the troops, but a Catholic priest’s primary mission is sacramental—to offer Holy Mass and confession. Though 20 percent of soldiers are Catholic, less than 6 percent of all Army chaplains are Catholic priests. More often than not, Catholic chaplains are not able to stay at one base or with one unit because the need is too great to visit troops who may not have encountered a Catholic priest in months.

Despite a perilous route filled with dangers from roadside bombs or attacks, the soldiers in the convoy decided it was worth the risk to organize a mission to find a priest. These young soldiers’ hungry desire for God and Holy Communion was stronger than their fear of the dangers they faced. I was honored to travel with them, to celebrate the Eucharist, and to hear their confessions.

As I geared up for the return trip to my base, I was inundated with the most meaningful and heartfelt gestures of gratitude. These young men were so thankful to have the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in their midst and have the opportunity to attend Mass and have their confession heard by a priest. I never have encountered such profound and genuine thankfulness for the gift of the Eucharist—in combat zones or at home in the U.S. These experiences crystallize how important it is for our soldiers to have access to a priest and to the sacraments.

The ministry and presence of a chaplain can make all the difference for a soldier and help him or her find hope and comfort during difficult times—when a friend is wounded or killed, or when a soldier feels the loneliness that so often accompanies deployment. Away from home and loved ones for extended periods of time and living under the constant threat of attack and danger, soldiers look to a chaplain for normalcy and reminders of the love and comfort that family, friends, and faith provide.

Though I’m a Boston priest, my work in the military takes me outside the boundaries of the Archdiocese of Boston to deployed troops who need the same pastoral care that is so easy to take for granted living in safety. The chaplain’s ministry helps carry out the universal mission of the Church to care for souls, and it is a ministry of which I am privileged and honored to be a part.

The most important thing you can do to help this ministry is to pray. First, pray for the brave men and women who go into harm’s way in the name of freedom. Remember their families—spouses, children, parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, and uncles—who also are making a sacrifice. Second, pray for an increase in vocations to the priesthood. We need more holy men to hear and answer the call to serve the Church as priests both domestically and abroad in the military. Finally, please pray for me, and for all priests serving in the military as chaplains. The Catholic faithful who offer their prayers renew and strengthen the work of all Catholic chaplains and this critical ministry of presence to our brothers and sisters in the military. May God continue to bless our faithful soldiers and give them the grace, hope, and strength they need to serve and protect our country and all of us.

Father Paul K. Hurley is lieutenant colonel of the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. His ministry is made possible in part, by the Archdiocese of Boston’s office of clergy personnel and the vocations office, two of 50 central ministries supported by the Annual Catholic Appeal. To support the Catholic Appeal, please visit

2nd segment: We will now replay two segments from The Good Catholic LIfe on Memorial Day last year, interviews with Beirne Lovely, archdiocesan general counsel who also served as a US Marine in the Vietnam War, and with Fr. Stephen Rock, pastor of St. Agnes Parish who served for many years as a U.S. Navy chaplain.*

Scot welcomes Beirne Lovely, general counsel for the archdiocese and a former Marine, to the show. Scot asked him about his military service. He was commissioned as a Marine officer directly from Dartmouth College in 1967, followed by six months in Marine officer training, and then directly to Vietnam. He was stationed there for 13 months, all of 1968, which was one of the worst years of the war, including the Tet Offensive. He spent his whole tour up north, including a Khe Sanh and the DMZ. He was very close to the North Vietnamese border, serving as a platoon commander in an infantry company. He became a company commander when his company commander was killed.

Scot said his perception of the Marines is that they are the ones who go in first, taking on the most difficult and most life-threatening assignments. Beirne said that was true. The Marine Corps had responsibility for the northern region of South Vietnam so they primarily were facing uniformed, trained North Vietnamese Army soldiers rather than Viet Cong guerillas, so that’s a fair statement.

Beirne has been out of active duty with the Marines for 40 years now. What’s it like to be a veteran on Memorial Day, remembering all those who have served and given their lives? Beirne said he lost a lot of friends in Vietnams. He arrived in Vietnam on an airplane with about 40 infantry Second Lieutenants and of those about half were killed and virtually all of the rest were wounded, so he has a special memory of service. He spends Memorial Day with other veterans in his hometown of Milton, which has services of recognition of veterans. He’s spoken at a number of memorial services. He stays in touch with them year-round. He belongs to a number of veteran organizations to gather and recall the services of others.

It’s a difficult day in some respects because it reminds him of the friends he’s lost as well as the people who served with and under him who were killed. He remains close to a small cadre of friends who he survived with and periodically they gather. Every year they celebrate the Marine Corps birthday on November 10. Boston is famous for its Marine Corps birthday recognition. They have a Marine Corps luncheon with over 2000 at the Hynes Convention Center. It’s the biggest gathering of Marines in the country and often the Commandant or the assistant commandant come and speak. They have a number of Medal of Honor winners who are present. Msgr. John McDonough, a priest of Boston and former Chief of Chaplains for the Air Force (who Scot and Beirne jokingly call “the General”) and Fr. Rich Erikson, the vicar general of the Archdiocese and reserve Air Force chaplain, have attended the last couple of years with Beirne.

Scot asked Beirne about the message he often delivers about the debt we all owe to those who are willing to give their lives in service to their country, particularly those who have lost their lives. The principle message he tries to send is one of respect and thanks and admiration for those who have served. This past week was recently Armed Forces Day, which honors everyone, living and dead, who have served. Memorial Day is a special time to remember those who have given the ultimate sacrifice. When he talks to young people, many of them have no idea of this reality and have not experienced this and hopefully never will. But given Iraq and Afghanistan, people are more cognizant. He tries to make them understand that people can have a special calling and sometimes we have to do what we don’t like to do. No one likes war, but someone has to fight it.

Scot said Beirne served in a time when the respect for the military was low during the War in Vietnam. Beirne said during his last parade at Dartmouth College before graduating, they had to move to the stadium because there were so many protesters. He remembers having eggs thrown at him. Coming back from Vietnam, he recalls spitting at him or looking the other way or yelling at him. Quite a different experience than what troops experience today. He doesn’t hesitate to say that he thinks Vietnam was a mistake, but when one is serving in the Armed Forces, you don’t challenge your superiors, from the President on down.

Scot said we may face some of the same issues today where some don’t agree with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which can lead to an attitude towards men and women in uniform. It seems to have gotten better, but Scot’s not sure that we still show proper appreciation for those who offer their lives in protection of our country. What’s Beirne’s sense of how we as a society, particularly in Massachusetts, appreciate our servicemen and women? He thinks we’re getting much better at it. He thinks veterans are being accorded the respect that they’re due. It’s painful for him to watch. He wasn’t a big supporter of what we did in Iraq or the strategy in Afghanistan. It’s difficult to conceive how the war will be “won”. He has friends, whose children are in the service and going back for their third, fourth, or even fifth tours. In a sense, you’re waiting for the bubble to burst. Vietnam was somewhat similar.

Beirne was at Khe Sanh for 100 days. It was a famous base in a valley that was ill-situated. He remembers taking patrols out every day for 100 days and running into small-arms contact every day without exception and forcing his troops to walk through the densest of brush. Today, the young people are forced to drive on roads which they don’t have complete control over and there’s no way to combat the improved explosive devices (IED).

One of Beirne’s jobs, his hardest, was when he came back from Vietnam. He was assigned to Newport naval base as executive officer of the Marine barracks over a couple hundred Marines. His job every fourth day was to make casualty calls to families of Marines who had lost a loved one. He probably did 100 of those over 3-1/2 years. That was the most painful task. There’s nothing worse than knocking on the front the door and telling a mother her son is dead. Scot said, they know as soon as they see you. It’s a very quick notification in the sense that you have to get it out: “Mr Lovely, I’m sorry to tell you that your son, Charles, was killed two days ago in the Republic of Vietnam serving his country.” It just doesn’t get any worse than that. After the notification it was his job to follow through and handle the funeral and coordinate the military honors at the funeral.

Of all the things that bring him tears, he’s not ashamed to say it, is thinking about those people who gave their lives.

Scot said, both for our Catholic and non-Catholic listeners, Memorial Day takes on an air of “what cookout are you going to?” using the language of celebration, not thinking of how difficult it is for someone who’s made 100 of those calls and lost so many friends. What suggestion does Beirne have for everyone, but especially Catholics?

Beirne said he was not the most devout and faithful Catholic when he finished college. But he remembers in Vietnam the role of the chaplain. At Khe Sanh, you had to stay in a trench all the time. They were taking 2,500 rounds per day of heavy artillery. These chaplains were notoriously visible, which gave him a great deal of comfort.

His message to people is to pause some time during the day to think about those who have worn the uniform and have made the ultimate sacrifice for their God and their country from their perspective. Scot would add to that to pray for the souls of the faithful departed, particularly those who have served in the military. Something we’re very good at in the Church is remembering those who have gone before us. If you happen to encounter someone you know has served, thank them for their service, however short or long it is.

3rd segment: Scot welcomes Fr. Rock to show. He’s pastor of St. Agnes in Reading and a former Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard chaplain. Scot said he’s retired as a military chaplain and asked him about the assignments he’s had as a Navy chaplain. Fr. Rock said he served for 34 years, the first 13 in the Reserves and the rest on active duty. He served with the Marines in Okinawa, Japan; on board the USS Long Beach out of San Diego, (which was built in Quincy); Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, with the Marines; and then Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily, Italy. From there he was called back to Washington to serve as personnel director for chaplains serving the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard.

Scot asked how many Navy chaplains are there? Fr. Rock said there were 1,100 chaplains around the world, 235 of them active duty priests. That was at the time he left he job in 1996. As he understands it now, there are less than 100 priests on active duty.

After that job, he assigned himself to the USS Theodore Roosevelt out of Norfolk, Virginia, an aircraft carrier with 5,000 sailors and Marines on board. From there he went back to the Marines in Okinawa and then around the world again to Naples, Italy, which gave him an opportunity to be in Rome on several occasions. For his last assignment, he returned to New England for the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. He spent 3 great years with those young men and women.

Scot asked him what attracted to being a naval chaplain when he was in the seminary. Fr. Rock said his father had a cousin who was a chaplain with the Army Air Corp in World War II and he’s sure he heard some of those stories growing up. Also growing up in Boston, he had a great love of the ocean and stories of naval history here. He wanted to be a priest in conjunction with serving the country and traveling and seeing the world.

Scot asked what it was like to be a chaplain on the Roosevelt, how it’s different from being pastor of a large parish in Reading. Fr. Rock said he was the senior chaplain on the ship with two Protestant chaplains who served under him along with a couple of enlisted personnel. Their role was to provide not only for the religious needs of the men and women onboard, but also the personal needs that are the equivalent of social work. They would handle all the Red Cross messages from the US regarding a death in the family or issues back home. They became pastors for the whole trip. The difference between being a chaplain on the ship and a pastor in a parish is just the uniform. In the parish he has the collar on and on the ship he has the uniform on.

Some of the sailors would refer to him as “Captain” (his rank), but most would call him “Chaps” or “Padre” or “Father”. It was always a sign of endearment. He wasn’t into the rank. He remembers a sailor telling another, “Don’t worry about his rank. He couldn’t care less about it. He’s more interested in being with us.” Fr. Rock saw that as the ultimate compliment.

His responsibilities as a chaplain extended beyond the Catholics. Fr. Rock said chaplains are responsible to provide religious opportunities for everyone. So of course he would celebrate the Masses, which occurred on the Roosevelt on Saturday night, Sunday morning, and Sunday afternoon. He would also helicopter to other ships in the carrier’s task force. There was no Jewish chaplain so he would work with the Jewish community onboard to prepare lay-led services. Before they would deploy, he would connect one of them with a local rabbi for training. They would do the same for all the other faith groups as well.

Scot asked if there were big difference between serving with the Navy versus serving with the Marines and serving with the Coast Guard. Fr. Rock said that one interesting difference is that there were more Catholic Marines than there were Catholic sailors. He’s heard different explanations, but he doesn’t know how to explain it. He said there’s a deep desire in people for a better understanding of God, and who more than those putting themselves in harm’s way. They want to know there is a God who cares and loves them. That is the same between the services. The chaplains serve as role models and to share with them not only their hardships, but also the love of God and the hope that comes from a relationship with God.

Scot asked what it’s like to be at sea for long periods. Fr. Rock said it’s awesome to see the beauty of God. Being a person of faith, you try to see God everywhere in His creation. At sea, you see the ocean, the clouds, the sunrises and sunsets, and the night sky. Also the animals you find at sea. You get a whole sense of God’s creation. In 1987, he was on an Aegis cruiser coming out of the Persian Gulf through the Straits of Hormuz about midnight. The Captain told him that they would have Mass that night out on the deck between weapons mounts and they jokingly named it St. CIWS of the Sea. It was incredible in terms of the brightness of the stars and the phosphorescence of the ocean so they didn’t need any lights for the Mass. The men and women could sense that God was with them in this place in a very special way. It’s one of his best memories celebrating Mass at sea.

Scot asked Fr. Rock what is like to be chaplain in the Far East during his two stints at Okinawa for himself the men interacting in a culture different from our own. Fr. Rock said it’s a blessing for our military to have assignments around the world because they are put in contact with other cultures and they don’t have a choice. When they get there, they can embrace it and go out and discover it, or they just stay on the base. For those that want to learn as much as they can, there’s a richness that opens up for them. Fr. Rock was blessed to have a priest in the local diocese, a Capuchin Franciscan from Wisconsin who’d been there since the 1950s. He was a great mentor to all the priests coming through Okinawa and he gave them a view into the local culture that was very Shinto Buddhist but also connected to the Catholic Church.

The more Fr. Rock understood Shinto, it was like reading the Old Testament. He remembers being at a ceremony in a town in northern Okinawa called Nago, for the cherry blossom festival, which is a big celebration for Japan. There was a huge banyan tree in the middle of the city, in front of which was an altar covered with fruits and vegetables and other items, like sake. Of course, Fr. Rock didn’t understand Japanese, so he just had to go on what he saw was happening. But he watched them chant, beat the drum, and dance around, and then take the food on the altar and throw it up into the tree, and then take the big bottles of sake and pour them on the roots of the tree (which disappointed the Marines he was with). Later on the day, one of his chaplain friends who’d been a missionary in Taiwan before becoming a chaplain said to Fr. Rock that’s right out of the Old Testament. Wherever the patriarchs had encountered God in a special way, they would build an altar and offer sacrifice to God in honor of that visit. For the Shinto, in the ceremony they weren’t worshipping the tree, but worshipping the gods as they understood them. What they did know is that because the tree was so big and unique in Okinawa, they believed the gods as they understood them must have touched earth in this particular spot. The Franciscan missionary told him that they were able to use much of the folklore to help the people understand Christianity because of the connections to Christian understanding.

The more he traveled in Asia and visited Shinto shrines, he saw the devotion of the people at them and their sense of the divine mystery. They had no understanding of it as we do, but they recognized that there was something beyond them. At these places of worship they would be present while we in the West, without our scientific way of thinking and wanting to figure everything out, have lost a lot of the sense of the sacred and the divine.

The biggest difficulty for Christianity in that part of the world is the crucifixion. They can’t understand the humiliation of the cross. Fr. Rock recalls a book that said the way to the Japanese heart is through the compassion of Christ and the stories of Scripture like the Samaritan woman and the the woman with the hemorrhages. Fr. Rock said it enriched the spiritual lives of those from the West who were able to experience it.

Scot asked Fr. Rock how often he brings his experiences in the Navy to his preaching at St. Agnes. He replied that it depends on what’s going on. He tries not to tell Navy stories all the time, but there are opportunities to bring his experience to a particular reading.

Scot asked him to describe St. Agnes. He said it’s a busy parish with a lot going on. They have had a great foundation of faith-building in the parish. They had Fr. Arthur Flynn as pastor for 33 years and they did a lot of great spiritual development at that time. Fr. Rock wants to go from being a good parish to a great parish and move forward, improving their outreach. That’s one of the big differences from being a chaplain. On a naval base, you take care of the chapel and maintain things for two or three years or maintain the chaplaincy on a ship, and you move on to another assignment. But now Fr. Rock is close to his fourth anniversary at St. Agnes, which is the longest he’s been in one place for the last 25 years. So on the one hand, he could sit back and relax, but on the other, there’s so much that needs to be done working with all the parishioners and growing the parish. Something they’ve took on was the project related to the book, “From Maintenance to Mission,” by Fr. Bob Rivers, to be come a church that is mission-oriented.

They started the process a year ago and in October they did the parish-wide survey during the homily at Mass. The surveys were sent to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown, who complied the data and put it together in a report. Then they did focus groups which involved about 140 people. In February, they had a listening day at which 175 people came to the church for six hours. They were excited to be able to talk and be heard. Then in March they had a discernment day, trying to narrow down all the ideas of listening day into some practical things they could move forward with. That was another six hour day. They have another one coming up at the beginning of June that they call vision day, to lay out what they will do for the next three years in outreach. It begins a process that is Christ-centered and will be all laid out on Pentecost weekend.

Scot said he will have Fr. Rock and some of his parishioners back on the show to talk about this process which could be a model for other parishes. He thanked Fr. Rock for his service to our country and as a priest here in the Archdiocese of Boston.

Fr. Rock said Memorial Day is a reminder to us of the sacrifice of all who have gone before us and a good day to remember them, to pray for them, and to thank God for the gifts we have in this country of those who are willingly to go in harm’s way on our behalf.

4th segment: Scot welcomed Mary Doorley and Michelle Huntley from Boston Catholic Development Services to the show. Scot said the office has created a video honoring military chaplains from the Archdiocese of Boston. Mary said they approached Fr. Michael Medas in the Clergy Personnel office earlier this spring if they could reach out to chaplains. Those chaplains shared their stories and photos which were edited into a video that has been getting a lot of positive response.

Michelle said priests serving in the military is a wonderful gift to the Church and we often don’t remember them. There are hundreds of thousands of Catholic soldiers serving overseas who need the sacraments too. Our priests lay down their lives in service for them. Scot said it’s important we’re connected through the support of these chaplains. Mary said it’s sometimes very difficult for servicemembers to receive those sacraments.When we support the Catholic Appeal, we help that ministry.

Scot said the priests of the Archdiocese of Boston and their bishops have been very generous. The Archdiocese is know for generosity in serving the St. James Society, but the Archdiocese also sends many priests to the chaplains corp. Michelle said it’s shocking that people don’t know the kind of service that chaplains provide and the grace and gift that it is for our men and women in the military.

Scot said he’s read testimonies from service members who can go months without seeing a chaplain and then when one comes they treasure the opportunity for the sacraments. Those priests are able to be sent from the Archdiocese because of the work of the Vocations Office and the Clergy Personnel Office and our seminaries. There are currently 12 who are actively serving as chaplains, but so many more in our parishes have experience as military chaplains. Many of these pastors in our parishes are still in the Reserves and National Guard, providing service throughout the year. There are a number of priests who are themselves veterans from before they entered seminary.

Mary thanked the many families who have supported the Catholic Appeal and asked those who are listening to do so if they can.

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