It’s quite likely that Father Patrick Van Durme will end up in Iraq or Afghanistan within the next year — a drastic change in scenery from his rural parish setting in western Steuben County.
“Baghdad’s a lot different than Hornell,” he said with a laugh before adding,” It’s scary. You don’t do this because it’s easy. It’s a whole different world.”
After serving in diocesan parishes throughout his eight-year priesthood, Father Van Durme is about to become a chaplain in the United States Army. His final Sunday as pastor of Our Lady of the Valley Parish will be June 1. One week later he’ll begin basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., for an assignment that’s due to last at least three years.
He acknowledged that some parishioners have struggled with his decision, since diocesan priests are already so scarce. Yet he pointed out that there’s also a severe shortage of Catholic military chaplains, particularly for American troops in such battle-torn parts of the world as the Middle East.
“Whether you agree with the war or are against it, I can’t believe these men and women are living in these horrific situations and have nobody to pray with them,” he said.
Called to service
Father Van Durme is among numerous diocesan priests who have answered the call for a vocation in the military chaplaincy, during both war and peacetime. Assignments range from a couple days per month, to periods of several weeks, to lengthy assignments such as Father Van Durme’s. Though called to duty by their respective military branches, chaplains’ assignments are subject to final approval by their local bishops.
Father William Leone completed his one-year hitch in Kosovo in late 2007 with the 29th Infantry Division of the Army National Guard, having taken leave from his pastorate at Rochester’s St. Anne Parish. In 2006 he also assisted in Mississippi with Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. Father Leone, a lieutenant colonel, said he felt an obligation to chaplaincy, having been a student during the Vietnam era, when many peers were drafted while he was exempt as a seminarian.
“One of my grammar-school classmates came back minus two legs,” said Father Leone, who joined the National Guard in 1980, six years after he was ordained.
Father James Jaeger said he originally viewed being a chaplain as a way to see the world. He has certainly accomplished that, having served the National Guard in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Germany and France. Yet his globe-trotting also has been marked by a deep commitment to his people. Ordained in 1986, he has served 19 years in the National Guard and is a lieutenant colonel and reserve chaplain with the 107th Air Refueling Wing in Niagara Falls where he has regular monthly duties. Much of his ministry has been performed on personal vacation time.
“You know what, I love those troops and I would do it again in a heartbeat. There’s plenty of time for going to the beach,” remarked Father Jaeger, who serves as pastor of St. Anne, Palmyra/St. Gregory, Marion.
Fathers John DeSocio and Lewis Brown each were influenced to become chaplains by phone calls from U.S. Navy recruiters well into their priesthoods.
“I thought I was too old,” said Father DeSocio, who was ordained in 1978 and has been a Navy Reserve chaplain since 1991, attaining the rank of lieutenant commander.
“I wrestled with the idea — ‘Should I really pursue this, am I kidding myself or is the Lord offering me an opportunity?’ After some sleepless nights I finally said, ‘Lord, if you open doors, I’ll walk through them,'” recalled Father Brown, who was ordained in 1967 and entered the Navy in 1985. He ended up remaining a full-time chaplain for the next 22 years until his 2007 retirement, reaching the rank of captain and serving in such varied settings as Okinawa, the USS Nimitz, Arlington National Cemetery and a Chicago recruitment base.
Father Van Durme, who saw active Army duty more than 20 years ago and later was a reservist, said the wheels toward chaplaincy began turning last year when he received a call from a young man on a military boat in the Arabian Sea who simply wanted to talk with a priest.
“I said, ‘When was the last time you talked to a priest?’ He said, ‘Six months ago.’ I really felt like that was a message (from God),” Father Van Durme said.
‘It takes a toll’
In addition to providing sacraments, military chaplains minister to people struggling with such issues as loneliness, depression, stress, addiction, marital discord, injuries, grief and thoughts of suicide. Father Van Durme noted that chaplains are often “the main entry point” for counseling services and are charged with performing the funerals of soldiers, as well as informing families of the deaths of loved ones.
“It takes a toll,” Father Leone said of military life, noting that he dealt with 20 or so troubled marriages while in Kosovo. He said soldiers are generally stoic, but upon seeing a chaplain, “they come and break down. Thank God chaplains are there for them.”
Father DeSocio said much of his chaplaincy work involved maintaining morale: “It’s your presence; it’s a ministry of presence. In the military, that’s huge.” During four months on the Island of Crete off southern Greece in 2003, Father DeSocio counseled young men who had been among the first U.S. troops in Iraq. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he assisted military personnel who had searched for bodies, and also counseled families of military who were killed at the Pentagon.
“I’ve always heard really great confessions,” Father DeSocio said. “You can imagine the struggles that are going on inside.”
Father Jaeger described a military chaplain’s pace as “grueling” between Masses, sacraments, counseling, staff meetings and hospital visitations. A short stint last year at Germany’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center — the nearest treatment center for U.S. soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan — left him with indelible images.
“You see burn victims, people with severed arms and legs. You try to bring them comfort, be there for them and their families who come in hysterical. There was a big psych ward there,” he recalled.
Father Jaeger said chaplains support each other through these trying times, remarking that “it’s easy for them to lose hope.” He noted the ecumenical aspects of his ministry, saying chaplains of all denominations work side by side with people of all faiths.
“I am a chaplain for the whole flock, to help anyone in need,” he said. “When anything happens, they look for the chaplain.”
Father DeSocio recalled handing out coins with images of St. Michael the Archangel in Crete, saying, “That was the hottest thing on the base.” He noted that the coins were sought by non-Catholics and fallen-away Catholics, as well as practicing Catholics.
“When someone was distraught, your faith didn’t matter. You kind of walked with those people,” Father Brown added.
Father Brown observed that distress still exists when active duty ends, saying military personnel “struggle with blending back in with their family, the whole psychological elements of having been shot at, survivors’ guilt. They need to get it out, get it off their chest.”
Now a first-year assisting priest at All Saints Parish in Corning/Painted Post, Father Brown remains retired from the Navy but expects to be involved in veterans’ groups and ministering at veterans’ facilities. Father DeSocio already performs similar ministry while also serving as parochial vicar at Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick parishes in Tioga County. Meanwhile, Father Jaeger assists at the VA Medical Center in Canandaigua.
“Sometimes (veterans) don’t talk about what they’ve seen in the military to their family members, but they open up for me. They can leave some of the guilt and the horror with me,” Father Jaeger said.
Since the Archdiocese for the Military Services does not ordain priests of its own and must rely on those lent by dioceses and religious orders, it is directly affected by the overall declining number of priests.
“There’s a critical shortage of Catholic priests in the military — 50 percent under the authorized numbers the military would take if they were available,” Father Leone said.
Father Brown said the number of Catholic Navy chaplains declined from 250 to 110 during his 22 years of service.
“Yes, the need is tremendous,” he said.
Father DeSocio noted that in Crete he was the only English-speaking Catholic priest on the island, performing 16 services during Holy Week and serving men and women from the Navy, Coast Guard, Marines, Merchant Marines, Air Force and Army. Not surprisingly, he remarked that the local diocesan priest shortage is “nothing close to what the military is lacking in priests.”
But back home, with more and more diocesan priests serving in multiple-church assignments, even a one-weekend-per-month military commitment becomes tough to fulfill, Father Jaeger observed.
“Life was so different 20 years ago. We had lots of pastors,” he said.
Chaplains also must grapple with a segment of the public that views them as advocates of war simply by virtue of their contact with the military. However, Father Leone said that “we need to support our soldiers who have to carry out the political decisions of our nation, even though we may not fully agree with those decisions. They remain Catholic citizens of the United States.”
“I’m there for the person, not the policy,” Father DeSocio stated, and Father Brown added that “we’re not there to condone war.”
“Wherever our Catholics are, they should be able to exercise their freedom to worship their religion — and if they don’t have that opportunity, something’s wrong,” Father Jaeger said.
Fathers Van Durme and Brown asserted that military personnel, by and large, detest the idea of combat and bloodshed, but commit to that possibility in order to protect their country.
“‘Gung ho, let’s go and kill them all’ — that’s not real,” Father Van Durme said.
Despite the many challenges they face, Father Jaeger said chaplains are buoyed by appreciative gestures from the people they serve. He noted that he’s often heard sentiments along the lines of, “Father, I am so glad I didn’t throw in the towel, that I didn’t lose my hope. Thank God you were there to encourage and support me.”
Father Leone said that during his stay in Kosovo he was told, “I don’t know if I would have made it here if it wasn’t for you, chaplain.”
After a long pause, the priest added quietly, “That’s pretty powerful. It makes you feel pretty good.”