Priests in Uniform

Nov. 20-26, 2003
Priests in Uniform
By Blessed Sacrament staff/ SUN contributing writers
Two diocesan priests serve as chaplains in the fight against terrorism

Five thousand miles away from home, on separate chaplain assignments in the war in Iraq, Father Sean O’Brien and Father Paul Mathis, were brought together by a Merchant Marine for “a few spirits and dinner.” It was quite a coincidence considering Father O’Brien, a chaplain with the Navy Reserves, and Father Mathis, a chaplain of the 174 Fighter Wing at Hancock Field of the Air National Guard, did not know each other was in the small Middle Eastern country of Bahrain. They never expected to meet there. “This Merchant Marine told me I reminded him of a Catholic priest he had taken down the coast. It turns out it was Sean O’Brien,” said Father Mathis, pastor of St. Mary of the Assumption in Cleveland and St. Bernadette Mission in Constantia. “I couldn’t believe it.”

While some American troops directly fight the war on terrorism, the two priests, who have since returned to the U.S., had the unique opportunity to guide troops and their families through life’s triumphs and tragedies. They celebrated Mass “out on the lines” in the desert, on makeshift altars surrounded by military vehicles and floating down the river on a coalition war ship. But the chaplains did more than hold Sunday services for the troops, they listened to concerns, helped ease fears and offered words of support and encouragement. “Chaplaincy is a ministry of presence,” said Father Mathis. “We take care of spiritual and emotional needs.”

Father O’Brien, pastor of Christ Our Light Church in Pulaski, said that everyone likes the chaplain. “They know that chaplains aren’t there to evaluate them. We just help to make things better by letting them get things off their chest,” Father O’Brien said. He has counseled sailors about everything from dilemmas with their fellow sailors to apprehensions about the rigors of sea life. But the most visited subject, said Father O’Brien, was family issues, such as missing a spouse, or a sick child. “The stuff that bothers sailors most is not what they are doing at sea, but what they are missing at home,” remarked Father O’Brien.

Father Mathis agrees. “When you have a parent go overseas, it can upset the balance of a family,” he said. “There are certain spousal issues and issues with children that arise.” According to the two chaplains, the best thing they can do for these anxious men and women is to offer an open ear. Sometimes Father O’Brien and Father Mathis found themselves lending their ears to familiar faces. Even overseas, the priests ran into people from the diocese –– besides one another. These connections are important, said Father O’Brien, who ran into college friends and a former altar boy from Utica. “It’s a small world,” said Father O’Brien. “When someone you know pops out of a helicopter 10,000 miles from home, it makes far away seem not too far away.”

The Army, Air Force, Marines and Navy offer chaplains for all denominations who provide separate religious services for troops. But outside of Mass, chaplains minister to all, regardless of religious affiliation. “A chaplain is there to care for all the troops, even if it’s something as simple as saying, ‘Hi, how are you doing?,’” said Father Mathis. Being a chaplain gave Father O’Brien and Father Mathis a different perspective of the war than those who watch scenes back home. While CNN showed pictures of rockets being shot off U.S. ships into Iraq, Father O’Brien witnessed the morose sailors’ reactions. They were not cheering, he said. “There was no high-fiving,” he said. “It was absolute silence.”

While meeting with sailors, Father O’Brien encountered some young men and women who were skeptical of the war. But he did notice the sailors were all united in the fight to end terrorism. “They might not all be for what we are doing in Iraq, but they believe that we must fight terrorism,” said Father O’Brien. Just like the troops, chaplains are putting their lives on the line when they serve. Unlike the troops, though, chaplains go unarmed into combat, said Father Mathis. “We all get put in harm’s way, but the benefits of being a chaplain outweigh the risks,” said Father Mathis.

Both Father O’Brien and Father Mathis said that the support from the diocese comforted them while overseas. E-mails and care packages from religious education students and their fellow priests, along with the support of Bishop James Moynihan and Bishop Thomas Costello, uplifted their spirits. “It’s always nice to hear people are wishing you well,” said Father O’Brien. “I’m thankful for everyone’s support.”

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