Then Padre Guy Chapdelaine, now Canada’s Chaplain General, spent Christmas 2006 in Afganistan. Military chaplains must be prepared to minister to soldiers of all faiths and none. Photo courtesy of the Chaplain General’s Office

Military chaplaincy a ‘complex ministry’

  • January 10, 2016

OTTAWA - When Brigadier General Guy Chapdelaine, Canada’s new Chaplain General, spent Christmas in Afghanistan in 2006, he took no chances on what might be in store for him.

He said he “prepared all his things” and even visited the now retired archbishop of Sherbrooke to tell him if anything happened to him, he wanted his funeral in the Sherbrooke cathedral, though the archbishop did not want to hear about his plans.

His planning is all part of a “complex ministry” a priest takes on when they minister in the Canadian armed forces.

“It’s a complex ministry in the face of death or threats in the field of operations,” said Chapdelaine, a priest of the Archdiocese of Sherbrooke.

“We have this service. Our life can end at any time.”

Today, far from the battlefields, the Chaplain General exudes peace during an interview in his Ottawa office as he describes his work as a priest in the military, a calling that brings him great joy.

This willingness to embrace God’s will, no matter what, has nothing dour or fearful about it, said Chapdelaine.

“This is part of our life,” he said. “When we go into operations, especially in Afghanistan, when outside of the wires in 2006-2007, they did not have the Chinook helicopters then, so travel was by road and very dangerous,” under constant threat of attack or a roadside explosive.

Chapdelaine spent six weeks in Afghanistan over Christmas nine years ago to give two chaplains there a break. It gave him an opportunity to be with the troops, to help them cope with difficult situations such as the death of a friend.

“I don’t know how other chaplains cope with that but it was part of my spiritual preparation to be ready. A friend gave me a rosary. I always had the rosary with me. Faith, it’s not magical. It doesn’t remove us from passing through difficult times, but faith is there to help us pass through difficult times.

“What I experienced in the theatre of operations is to keep always hope in the middle of despair, always light in the darkness, to see good things in the hearts of the soldiers,” he said.

During his tour in Afghanistan, soldiers were to return to the field on the day after Christmas, he said. One unit had lost a couple of soldiers the previous month, so their supervisor asked Chapdelaine to speak with the unit because some were nervous.

The chaplains are there to speak to the troops, to “give them comfort and reassurance,” Chapdelaine said.

“If something happens, the chaplains are able to support their families.”

Chapdelaine said he “discovered a lot of faith in these men and many signs of faith,” and recalled seeing written on a pillar holding up the roof of an observation post the words: “Even if I pass through the valley of death I will fear no evil.”

“It was not a chaplain who wrote that, but a soldier,” he said. “It’s wonderful to see the faith of the people.”

Faith is not a topic that comes naturally in conversation among Canadians, Chapdelaine said. Not so when a soldier is on duty in a far off land.

“In Canada it is difficult to talk about faith,” he said. “In the theatre of war it is very easy to talk about faith, about religion. Here in Canada people are very reserved, even with us as chaplains.”

He recalled one soldier came to him and told him, “My mother asked me to come see you to ask for a blessing.”

“I found that request so moving,” he said. “Another asked me to baptize him. It was not an easy request in the middle of the desert.”

Chapdelaine began the soldier’s preparation for baptism, a process that continued after he returned to Canada.

“I knew in my heart he had the baptism of desire.”

Chapdelaine had long conversations with soldiers about prayer, especially after they were seeing other soldiers praying five times a day. That would bring them to consider their own faith and “to question the meaning of life.”

Many spoke of their loved ones and expressed fear they might never see their children or their wives again, he said.

“The chaplain is a friend — a person with whom we can talk, when they cannot talk with other soldiers.”

Sometimes the conversation is about news from home, concerning their families.

“The chaplain is there to encourage them.”

Chapdelaine, who was appointed last August, is the first Roman Catholic Chaplain General in 10 years. He leads chaplains of all faiths in the Canadian military and faces challenges in recruiting chaplains to serve in an increasingly diverse military.

Now that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plans to recall the fighter jets currently bombing Islamic State targets in Syria, replacing them with trainers for Peshmerga troops on the ground, the Chaplain General has to consider how to serve the spiritual needs of these trainers.

Though the military is not permitted to ask the religion of its service men and women, Chapdelaine estimates the number of Catholics in the military mirrors that of the Canadian population: roughly 40 per cent. The Military Ordinariate, Bishop Donald Theriault, recruits priests for service as priest chaplains. Seventy per cent of them will retire in the next 10 years. In an era of priest shortages, it is a big sacrifice for a diocesan bishop to give one of his priests to the military, Chapdelaine said.

The Chaplain General tries to make sure there is a Catholic chaplain deployed in the field so Catholic troops can receive the sacraments. They might work with lay chaplains and those of other faiths, but finding a balance is challenging, he said.

Chaplains who are sent into the field of operations not only need to be fit and trained so as not to be a burden on the troops, but must be prepared to minister to those of all faiths or none, be bilingual, prepared to work with women and possibly even have a female supervisor, Chapdelaine said. Female chaplains are also needed to serve the women in the military.

Unlike priests in a parish who get little opportunity to be with their people where they work, military chaplains are “there to build a ministry of presence and to establish and build bridges. They are bridge makers, pontifiers,” he said.

“If they trust you, if they learn to get to know you, they will come to you in times of difficulty.”

Chapdelaine said his call to the military came before his call to the priesthood, even though when he was 11 or 12 he entertained the idea of becoming a priest. He came from a Catholic family that regularly attended Mass, but during his teenaged years, the thought of being a priest faded away.

While looking for a summer job at age 17, he joined the 52nd Medical Company, now the 52nd Field Ambulance Company, as a reservist. He loved the social aspect of military life, the teamwork, the community life. A year afterwards he was invited to begin officer training, which he began in May 1980. Not long afterwards, a member of his unit died in a car crash.

“It was my first time dealing with death up close,” he said. “The chaplain came to be present with us.”

The chaplain, a priest from the Quebec archdiocese, “did a wonderful ministry to help us cope with the death.” Chapdelaine recalled being “fascinated” by the joyful presence of the chaplain and thought, “I would like to be like him.”

“I was called into the military, even though I was not full time until 1998,” he said. “My call was for the military, and in the military I decided to enter seminary in 1981.”

A year after that, he approached the Sherbrooke archdiocese to begin the process that led to his ordination in 1989. He served part-time in the military and in seminary and was thus able to pay his way and exercise ministry as a student chaplain or pastoral associate during his training.

Upon his ordination, Chapdelaine was promoted to the rank of captain and began service full time in the military in the Canadian Armed Forces Chaplain’s branch. In 2004, he was sent to Rome to study for a licentiate in ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, another passion of his.

As he travels to various bases in Canada, he meets with religious leaders to promote dialogue and build rapport.

Chapdelaine said he is concerned about radicalization and homegrown terrorism. Society needs to be on guard for extremism of any kind, he said.

“Any ideology can become extreme.”

Though not a problem in the military, extremism can be a problem in wider Canadian society, he said.

“It’s important for the Canadian Armed Forces to be open to Muslims so we can work together to building a better understanding of the role of faith,” he said.
“In the military we take a holistic approach to the human being; faith is a part of that.” The armed forces cares about the “physical fitness and spiritual fitness of our soldiers,” Chapdelaine said.

There are three Muslim chaplains and two rabbis in the Canadian forces, he said. He would like to have even more diversity among chaplains. Chapdelaine noted new Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan is a Sikh, and he would like to have Sikh chaplains.

All chaplains, regardless of their faith, minister to all and if there is a specific religious need, such as access to Catholic sacraments, the chaplain will help the soldier find the help he or she needs, he said.

“I say always chaplains must be grounded in your faith,” he said. “We are on loan from our faith communities. I’d like to return these people in good spiritual health to them.”

Dialogue is possible when you are grounded in your own faith, he said.

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