Fr. Brad Sweet, left, is a retired chaplain with the Canadian Armed Forces. Richard Bernier, right, as just been sworn in as a chaplain attached to the Montreal-based Black Watch reserve infantry regiment in April 2023.

Tale of two chaplains

  • November 9, 2023

Richard Bernier was only sworn in as a military chaplain six months ago while Fr. Brad Sweet retired as “padre” on Oct. 19, but the two men share a common approach to their service in the armed forces.

Bernier was sworn in as a chaplain attached to the Montreal-based Black Watch reserve infantry regiment in April 2023. Though not himself Ukrainian, Bernier is a member of St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Parish in Montreal and was spurred to enquire about service with the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) after the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“It struck me that whatever protection was afforded for vulnerable people in Ukraine was not through diplomatic resolutions or pious sentiments, it was the armed forces that were providing a measure of protection for civilians. It made me think about what I was contributing to Canada’s armed forces,” said Bernier.

Bernier didn’t approach the recruiters with the idea of being a chaplain. The Concordia theology professor has held a number of pastoral jobs through the years, and he didn’t think he needed to do that again.

“It was the recruiters who suggested that there is a need for padres,” said Bernier. “Initially I thought, ‘I have done a lot of that sort of thing, and I am okay with not doing more of it,’ especially if it is not really useful or needed, but I encountered a conviction, from officers to junior ranks, that this was an important role. It was a strong enough message that I was persuaded by it.”

Sweet didn’t always receive that same message. Having spent seven years as a full-time Intelligence Officer with the Royal Navy before ordination, Sweet knew that military chaplains don’t always have the best reputation.

“Most of the military wonder what the chaplain is doing. Sometimes the chaplains are considered the ‘happy people,’ going around throwing out candy, and it can come across as a little bit silly sometimes,” Sweet told The Catholic Register.

For both men, the answer has been to “show up for the troops.”

In 2019, Sweet received permission from his bishop to return to the military and served four years before he bumped up against the retirement age of 60. Sweet spent the first two years at the recruitment centre in St. Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., and the last two based in Halifax. Sweet was deployed twice, both at sea, with Operations Projection and Reassurance.

“Especially at sea, you have to build your own credibility,” said Sweet.

“The troops do not know who you are. You have to demonstrate that you will work as hard as them. They are working 12-hour shifts or rotating four-hour shifts and they are tired. If you are sleeping in or just sitting in the lounge all the time, they are not going to have any time for you.”

Sweet mucked in wherever he was, whether it was doing ruck marches with the new recruits or standing on the line at 5:30 a.m., dishing out breakfast on the ship.

“I scrubbed with them and scraped paint. When I was with the recruits, I marched every day. You have to show them that, though you don’t have to do it, you are willing to do it.”

His philosophy was that if they knew who he was, the men and women on the ship would feel more comfortable seeking Sweet out when they needed to talk.

“A lot of what we do has nothing to do with religion. The majority of what we do is accompaniment and to help as a filter. They want to talk to someone who isn’t going to have a career impact. There are very few people they can go to.”

Even if it was often an uphill battle in persuading the military hierarchy of the need for chaplains — the military is a “secular organization that wants a secular solution,” he says — Sweet received the best kind of affirmation at his retirement lunch last month when 50 people from the ship showed up to see him off.

“They didn’t need to come, but they did,” said Sweet.

Bernier too understands that the padre’s primary responsibility is “to be there and that means showing up.”

Bernier is a chaplain to a reserve unit and that means it is a part-time role. Across the country, reserve units train on Tuesday nights and Bernier tries to be present on those nights and on as many of the monthly weekend trainings as he can. He joins the classes and spends time in the messes “so that the soldiers get to know me and feel like they can come to me.”  

Though Bernier was officially sworn in on April 19, he will receive a blessing on his new role at St. Michael’s, among the people that first inspired his decision to become a serving officer, on Nov. 12.

A few days after the Feast of St. Michael, patron saint of soldiers, and one day after Remembrance Day, Bernier will partake in a moleben, a prayer of supplication, entreating the blessing upon the military chaplaincy. In a curious Canadian blend of highland gallantry with an Eastern Catholic flavour, Bernier will step up to serve the reservists of the Black Watch, who, he says, are “an extremely welcoming and even familial unit” and that he is “very proud and pleased to be there.”

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