Fr. Lester Mendonsa, a Catholic priest, served for 11 years as a military chaplain for the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) from 2008 to 2019. Photo courtesy Fr. Lester Mendonsa

Priest transformed by 11 years of service as military chaplain

  • November 10, 2023

Fr. Lester Mendonsa said he was transformed by his 11 years of experience as a military chaplain for the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) from 2008 to 2019.

Akin to fellow Roman Catholic priests from around the world, Mendonsa’s seminary training at the Pontifical Urban College for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome armed with the knowledge to specifically serve Catholics and Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (R.C.I.A.) students. Then, he exclusively evangelized to Catholics as a parish priest in the Middle Eastern countries of Bahrain (1993-97), Oman (in the capital city of Muscat from 1997-2002) and Qatar (2002-05).

But to be an effective chaplain for the troops deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, Mendonsa burst out of his comfort zone. Adventure appealed to him. Upon arriving in Canada, which is now home to a few relatives, he wanted a different experience than being a parish priest.

“You meet persons who are Catholic, Catholics who are lapsed, non-Catholics like Protestants of many different denominations (who) have their own policies, spirituality and teachings that are different than the Catholic teaching,” said Mendonsa, now a judicial vicar for the Diocese of Tucson in Arizona. “You are also interacting with Muslims. One of the factors that got me selected was my multi-faith background. I speak Arabic and have been in the Middle East, which helped. In Afghanistan, (a country) with an Islamic background, my experiences helped with the cultural sensitivities. This helped me going forward in engaging with not just Catholics, but now reaching out with arms wide open, understanding them and walking the walk with them.”

Mendonsa invoked Pope Francis by stating he walked “sometimes behind to urge them on, sometimes in the middle to converse in synodality and sometimes in front to lead by example.”

Becoming a member of the Roman Catholic Military Ordinate of Canada gained him a parish flock of troops “of air, land and sea,” and their loved ones. He specifically was assigned for a time as chaplain of 16 Wing, one of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) units at CanadianForcesBaseBorden, which is roughly 100 kilometres north of Toronto. He celebrated Mass in English and French each weekend, and he offered sacramental education to the children and youth attending the three schools on base.

An active person throughout his life, Mendonsa was not fazed by the training required for the job. He learned to repel high walls and helicopter skids, passed physical fitness tests and engaged in winter and non-winter field exercises. The chaplain could also strive for a balanced body and mind by utilizing the gym, courts, pools and recreation centres on base available to all members.

One of the memorable experiences for Mendonsa in Afghanistan was, for a time, serving as a chaplain for all the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member countries on the ground because there was no other Roman Catholic priest assigned to the area.

Mendonsa said it was also special to see “the great dedication and unique spirituality of people of faith, people who grew in their faith and people who found their faith during deployment. The long conversations we had when time permitted touched me so much with how the spirit moved the way it wanted and the way He wanted.”

These conversations illuminated “how altruistic” these people are in uniform day by day, said Mendonsa.

“They are away from their families; they are in an (unfamiliar) land with danger all around. They don’t talk about themselves but instead show concern for their brothers and sisters in uniform. They were also hoping that their dependents back home were safe. It was not about them. It was always about the other.”

When asked if he gained greater reverence and appreciation for the sacrifices of troops past and present, Mendonsa said “much more than words can express,” and that we are “limited by human language to answer that question to the fullest extent.” 

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