Now, more than ever, their numbers are dwindling, and the need continues to be great.
From Stars and Stripes:
Spc. Joe Murphy’s job in Afghanistan was to hunt down the things his fellow soldiers hoped they’d never have to encounter.
As part of a route-clearance team that combed the roads connecting Bagram Airfield to outposts in the region, the 23-year-old Iowa National Guardsman gained a close-up familiarity with roadside bombs. Understanding the devices that insurgents have used to kill thousands of U.S. and allied troops in the last decade didn’t make them any less terrifying.
Heading out on dusty patrol, Murphy said, “You wonder if you might die today.”
The threat didn’t inspire Murphy to fatalism. Instead, it intensified his longing for the familiar rituals of the Catholic faith he’d practiced in weekly Masses since childhood — confession to a priest, the sacrament of communion and the quiet time spent in prayer and meditation in front of an altar holding the consecrated Eucharistic wafer.
“When you are able to go to Mass, it relaxes you,” he said. “It lifts your spirits no matter what the situation is.”
Searching for bombs day in and day out, Murphy needed the reassuring hand of his faith more than ever, but because of a worsening shortage of Catholic chaplains in Afghanistan and throughout the military, it had never been more difficult to practice it.
“The only time in Afghanistan I ever saw a priest was on large bases, and I wasn’t on large bases very often,” Murphy said. He estimated he attended Mass three times during his nine-month deployment in 2010 and 2011.
Catholics, the largest avowed faith group among U.S. servicemembers, have among the lowest availability of chaplains of any religious group in the military. The ratio of practitioners to Catholic chaplains lags far behind other major Christian denominations, as well as Judaism and Islam.
Servicemembers from smaller religious communities — even those proportionally well-represented — can have similar difficulty meeting up with their own chaplains because of low numbers dispersed through a vast network of military bases. Nowhere is the problem of access more wide-reaching than among Catholics.
Catholic chaplain numbers have dropped by 46 percent since 2001, likely the result of an overall societal decline of the priesthood. Today, just more than 200 active-duty Catholic chaplains remain, while more than 275,000 active-duty troops identify themselves as Catholic. That number is exceeded only by those who list no religious preference, according to recent Pentagon data.