Fr. Timothy Nelligan, seen here speaking at Ottawa’s Maryvale Academy. Photo from Facebook

Military prayer ban denies chaplains’ purpose

By  Fr. Timothy Nelligan, Catholic Register Special
  • October 26, 2023

“If you deny me before the world, I will deny you before my Father, which art is Heaven.” 

(Matt 10:33)

With the recent salvo across the bow of religious rights and freedoms, the very person of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), the Chaplain General, Brigadier General J. L. Guy Bélisle, a Roman Catholic Pastoral Associate, has turned inclusion into exclusion. It is shocking to think that the very department of the CAF intended Charter guarantees of freedom of conscience and religion, thought, belief, opinion and expression would so readily enforce denial of those same rights.

How can it be possible for chaplains to be true to who they are in their own denominational beliefs if they are harnessed and gagged when it comes time for them to exercise their fundamental freedom of religion? The CAF, via the Chaplain General’s Office, is demanding that chaplains deny their very selves in order to be of any service within the CAF. The very dictate that chaplains are responsible for fostering the spiritual, religious and pastoral care of Canadian Armed Forces members and their families is being ignored.

There is no doubt Canada is becoming an increasingly secularized nation. Attacks on  religious rights have marred the news over the past few years. Last year’s minister of national defence document railing against Christian, Jewish and Muslim chaplains, and especially Catholic priests, was but one example of the federal government’s attempt to silence the fundamental freedoms all Canadians enjoy.

I recently e-mailed the national president of the Royal Canadian Legion, who is ultimately responsible for the National Remembrance Day Ceremony, suggesting he take the step needed to safeguard the very reason we even have Remembrance Day.  It is to honour the memory of those, the vast majority people of convicted faith, who suffered and died for the rights and freedoms we now see trampled upon.

The Legion should immediately revoke the invitation to the Royal Canadian Chaplain Services to participate in this year’s Remembrance Day Service. A Legion chaplain, or a retired military chaplain, should be invited to take up the mantle of prayer for our fallen. I have no doubt veterans across this country, their families and most of this fair nation, would readily support such a decision.  This is about veterans and their service to Crown and country, not some pathetic political pandering. 

As a 35-year veteran who served in the ranks, becoming a warrant officer and company sergeant major, then a chaplain in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Germany and Kuwait, I know how significant the value of chaplains can be. There are 26 names on the list of Afghanistan soldiers who lost their lives that I personally knew, including two corporals that I trained during my infantry days, and one of my drivers from my tour in Bosnia.  It is a humbling reminder of the service I readily gave, to say nothing of the memory of those with whom I served.

Imagine for a moment if the Chaplain General said: “I, Brigadier General J. L. Guy Bélisle, Chaplain General of the Canadian Armed Forces, on behalf of all chaplains, do hereby declare we will not abide by this ‘No God’ dictum.  We are either chaplains or we are not!  We will not be forced to comply with this illegal order.  Should that effort be made, we will, as an entire branch, submit our resignations to the Canadian Armed Forces.” What courage and true conviction to the faith that would show. It would recall the warning and instruction that St. Paul gives to St. Timothy:

“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of His appearing and His kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage — with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry” (2 Timothy 4: 1-5).

Pro Deo et Patria!

(Fr. Nelligan is a retired chaplain in the military ordinariate of Canada.)

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