After taking command of the Royal Regiment of Canada June 4, Lt. Col. Joseph Nonato paces in front of those he is to lead for the next three years. Photo by Evan Boudreau

Faith is Lt. Col. Joseph Nonato's best companion

  • June 10, 2017

While some soldiers question their faith when confronted by the horrors of war, Lt. Col. Joseph Nonato found that military service affirmed him as a Catholic.

“Every single person has to undergo some kind of pressure so you can confirm your faith,” he said. “Having to go somewhere like Afghanistan, where you are having to live your faith in front of everybody else ... that was mine.”

For the next three years Nonato will command the 250 men and woman of the Royal Regiment of Canada. The reservist who teaches religion at Toronto’s De La Salle College is the first Filipino Canadian to command the regiment, which is one of the oldest in Canada, founded five years before Confederation in 1862.

Novato took command from Col. Tom Payne at a ceremony June 4 at Fort York Armoury attended by Canada’s first Filipino Senator, Tobias Enverag. He called Nonato “a trail blazer in our community.”

“I am honoured by the fact that they are giving me this and yet I feel the responsibility and the weight,” Nonato said. “It is with a lot of dignity and a lot of gravity that I feel in my heart that I am getting this. It’s a vocation and I do believe that it is a divine vocation to a certain extent.”

The regiment’s history of active service dates back to the pre-Confederation Fenian Raids and the 1885 Riel Rebellion. Its infantry also served in both World Wars, Korea and, most recently, in Afghanistan, where Nonato served for seven months in 2008 in operations support.

“When I was in Kandahar Air Field there were bombs coming down on us,” said Nonato. “One time we were at Mass, it was near the consecration so our Lord was already on the altar, and a rocket attack happened. All the alarms went off ... (but) the priest looked up at everyone and said ‘well I don’t know about you but I’m going to keep going with the Mass because if we are going to get nailed this is the best place to be.’

“That is the reality that is around you.”

Surrounded by death, Nonato found strength in faith.

“If you are a person of faith, especially if you are a Catholic, death is not something that you are supposed to be afraid of, because if you did what you are supposed to be doing in your life, then you are going to get the reward,” he said. “Catholics really have to live with that reality — that death is just a door or a portal to living our happiness. It is a part of existence here.”

Not only did Nonato’s faith give him comfort during war, it was also a bridge into the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. During Ramadan, Nonato was part of a psychological operations team that arranged for copies of the Quran to be distributed to the poor. His group also distributed dates, the food that tradition says the Prophet Muhammad used to end his fast, as Ramadan month came to an end.

“Since I am a person of faith, I try to live my faith and I feel that this is a very comfortable way to try to bridge that gap” between Canadian soldiers and Afghans, said Nonato. “I could say (to them) I’m a guy who believes in God, you’re a guy who believes in God, so let’s work together. That was one of the main messages that we were trying to put forward.”

Volunteering to serve overseas is also challenging for a soldier’s family. Nonato is married with two daughters.

“It can be easy to forget the home front, but it’s also a very challenging role to take care of ... and to be a strong support for my husband,” said Sheila Nonato. “It can be long days and nights of taking care of the kids (alone). It’s not always easy but it’s an important job.”

Whenever her husband was promoted, “he told me it is our achievement together as a family,” Sheila said.

“It’s an honour to serve Canada as the wife of a soldier.”

Growing up in Brampton, Ont., the son of Filipino immigrants, Nonato, 44, often heard stories of military life from relatives who served as conscripts in the Philippines armed forces. He joined the cadets while still a freshman at Cardinal Leger Catholic High School and began contacting military academies, fully committed to becoming a soldier. He joined the Canadian Armed Forces fresh out of high school in 1991.

“Joining the military was something I wanted to do when I was a kid,” he said.

The other commitment Nonato developed as a teen was to God.

“I started the practice of going to daily Mass when I was in Grade 8 and I kept that up through all of high school,” he said.

Keeping that up proved challenging after he entered the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont.

“It was an issue for me because in the military … you are being immersed into a place where, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. it is basically that your time is theirs,” he said. “After the recruitment term, when times started to get a little less structured and we were focusing on academics … I told the padre that I go to daily Mass and I was obviously the only cadet that had ever proposed that to him.

“He said we will make that happen ... (and) the good old padre knew what the military duties were, so this guy for the next four years would meet me at like crazy hours in order to have Mass — 5:30 in the morning, 4:30 in the morning, 11 o’clock at night.”

During the change in command, Col. Andrew Zalvin, commander of the 32 Canadian Brigade, said much is expected of the regiment’s new commanding officer.

“Do well by this regiment, it only deserves the best,” said Zalvin. “We expect that of you and you have my full confidence. Joe this is your command now.”

As the new regiment commander, Nonato said he is fulfilling God’s will.

“In Catholicism, our spiritual life, you have to build that grace so that other people can benefit from it,” he said. “You have to fill yourself with grace because other people might have to draw from that.

“With a lot of prayer I hope that I am going to be the guy who is able to rise to the challenge that lies ahead.”

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Great story and excellent photos, Evan! Thank you!

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