‘To the world he was a soldier, but to us he was the world.” This inscription, on the grave of a soldier killed by terrorists in Ireland, has always epitomised for me what military life is all about: the soldier is invariably taken for granted by the nation and, even in death, he is just another name in a newspaper. That soldier is someone’s son, brother, husband or friend whose memory is not easily erased. Yet even the most grateful nation can have a short memory.
I have been a military chaplain for nearly 27 years, first in the Royal Navy and for the last 19 years in the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department. The Catholic Church has always been generous in releasing priests for military service knowing, perhaps, that it is missionary work, very often dealing with men and women who are unchurched, and put in the same category by the social services as travelling people.
For 200 years priests have been present in every major conflict: they have risked and even given their lives ministering to the spiritual needs of the soldier. For the first half of my chaplaincy career, the Soviet threat was the dominant feature. In more recent years our young men and women have tried to support the police in Northern Ireland; establish peace in the Balkans and in Sierra Leone; and engage in war fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The chaplain’s role doesn’t vary; he is there to preach the Gospel and to lead others to Christ, wherever he might find himself. The sacramental ministry involves dealing with small groups of soldiers, and their families, from Catterick to Kabul, and from Gutersloh to Basra. The chaplain has the privilege of living with young men and women from every place in Britain, and, in recent years, from Commonwealth countries. Where the soldier goes, the chaplain goes; you eat with them, train with them, live with them, and somehow grow to love them despite their frailty and ungodliness. They will surprise you when you least expect it by turning up to Mass because their mum told them they should, or because they saw their mate killed and wanted to pray for him.
What does the Army expect of its chaplains? The Army attaches chaplains to Units, and requires them to offer moral, spiritual and pastoral care to all, regardless of faith or the lack of it. It asks that chaplains facilitate the “faith needs” of others by finding, when needed and asked, the appropriate chaplain of a soldier’s own faith or denomination.
Catholic chaplains also care sacramentally for their own, which can involve long and arduous journeys, especially on operations. Chaplains are uniquely placed as a channel of communication at all levels and in almost all circumstances; they act as “a lightning conductor” for soldiers’ feelings and as a sounding board for commanders. Experienced commanding officers will look to even the most junior chaplains for support and impartial advice, given without fear, despite differences in age and seniority. The effective chaplain is one who is the spiritual friend of the individual soldier and officer from the bottom to the top of the Army. As one chaplain wrote of his experiences during the Iraq war: “I also assured people I was available to them as their spiritual father and they were receptive to that. I prayed the Divine Office in the morning in a way that would be seen so that people might gain strength through prayer. I drew strength from the celebration of daily Mass and the band of people who supported me. If we took casualties, I would pray for the dead, and try to reassure and support the wounded and sick. You enter into the mystery of iniquity and Man’s ability to use freedom wisely or otherwise. War is destructive when it comes, but when faced with the prospect you have to respond as charitably and wisely as possible ... conflict simplifies life incredibly. Everything that insulates us from God is stripped away when our mortality becomes a real prospect.” What of the moral dilemmas that may face any serviceman or women? The chaplain must ask himself a variety of questions: is it right to take up arms? Is it ever right to take another person’s life? When is it right to go to war? The soldier is no automaton; most, in my experience, do ask relevant moral questions and will very often ask the chaplain for answers.
Of the 150 chaplains serving in the Regular Army, 100 have been deployed operationally at least once in the last two years. That means being away for six months. The majority of those have served in Iraq, but Army chaplains are also to be found in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Northern Ireland. Such deployments make enormous demands on family life. Even for the Catholic chaplain, it is six months away from family and friends.
Military chaplaincy will make a good priest better. You need a strong spiritual life and pattern of prayer to survive. Above all you need to be able to work outside a parochial system and structure. I also happen to believe that military service will enrich a priest when he returns to parish life.
In our calendar, November is the month of the Holy Souls. As a nation it is also the month of remembrance. We forget the sacrifice of our servicemen and women at our peril; the cost in human life is the cost of our freedom. As Catholics we have the privilege of not only remembering, but also of praying for the dead.
“Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn, at the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”