GATES — As he sat at the kitchen table of his mother’s home Aug. 2, Father William B. Leone noted that next year he would finish his service as a chaplain for the 27th Brigade of the New York Army National Guard. During his 26 years of military service, the priest — who’s pastor of Rochester’s St. Anne Church — said he only has had to serve overseas once in Iceland for a brief period of time.
The only other time he had to leave New York state for military duties was last year, he said, when he was deployed to serve in Mississippi for two weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated the state.
However, by December, he noted, he is slated to be deployed to Kosovo, where National Guardsmen from the United States are serving as peacekeepers in the former Yugoslav republic, which is currently being administered by the United Nations.
On Aug. 3, Father Leone, 59, left for training at Fort Belvoir, Ind., with an Army National Guard division from Virginia. During his time away, Father Peter Abas will serve as interim parochial administrator of St. Anne.
When asked how he felt about going overseas, Father Leone’s mouth turned into a slight grin.
“I’m resolved and resigned to do my duty,” he said with a chuckle, noting he wished he was a little younger and had more energy. However, he said he is not fearful to serve overseas in a region that was riven by war in the late ’90s.
“I’m confident in our soldiers’ ability and their professionalism to do a good job and to get all the troops home safely,” he said.
He added that sometimes chaplains are called upon to help U.S. soldiers relate to the locals, and that he has been reading up on Kosovo, which is home to both Orthodox Christians and Muslims.
As a military chaplain, Father Leone said that his duties include administering the sacraments to soldiers, visiting them when they are wounded, and supporting their spouses and families. He noted the latter duty has become more challenging in recent years with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have separated soldiers from their loved ones for extended periods of time. He added that he’s been present at a number of soldiers’ funerals over the past few years, and that he feels called to minister to the young men and women serving in the military.
“They’re going to be put in situations that none of us would want to be in, and I have an obligation on my part to be with them and to give them my support as a Catholic priest and as a fellow human being,” he said.
Father Leone noted that he’s well aware that some Catholics opposed to the Iraq war — or who believe war in general conflicts with Christ’s teachings — may not agree that a priest should serve in the military. However, he said that he believes chaplains provide essential spiritual services to soldiers working in an imperfect world.
“In an idealistic world, we might want to choose to absent ourselves from anything negative or difficult to deal with, ” he said. “But in the world in which we live, in which some people are going to be taking advantage of others, we have an obligation to defend those who are innocent, those whose human freedom has been denied. On our best day, I think the U.S. and its military have been committed to doing just that.”
Ordained in 1974, Father Leone said it was the fact that he was exempted from military service while studying for the priesthood that partly motivated him to become a military chaplain. A number of his friends were drafted to serve in the Vietnam War, he said, including one man who lost both his legs.
“You realize, ‘Hey — if I wasn’t in the seminary doing what I was doing, I would’ve been with them,'” he said. “I looked at (chaplaincy) as a way of doing my part, as a way of serving as a priest.”
He added that he has enjoyed serving as a chaplain and encouraged other priests to consider the job, especially since there’s currently a shortage of military chaplains.
“It’s a change of pace from the parish,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to minister to young people, and it’s an opportunity to see places in the world I’ve never dreamed of going.”