Twenty-six (26) men from every service branch of the U.S. armed forces and civilian life are gathered [in Menlo Park, California] today for a March 21-24 discernment retreat aimed at helping them determine if they are called by the Holy Spirit to be Catholic priests and military chaplains. The Vocations Office of the Archdiocese for the Military Services (AMS) is conducting the retreat at St. Patrick’s Seminary, but so many are taking part that nearby hotel rooms had to be reserved for two of the retreatants and three recruiters. The prospective chaplains include: eight (8) from the U.S. Army; eight (8) from the U.S. Navy; five (5) from the U.S. Air Force; one (1) from the U.S. Marine Corps; one (1) from the U.S. Coast Guard; and three (3) civilians.
The strong turnout is a great sign of encouragement to the AMS, which is working diligently to overcome a shortage of Catholic priests serving as chaplains in the U.S. military. The shortage comes as aging chaplains reach the military’s mandatory retirement age of 62 faster than they can be replaced. Since the time of 9/11, the active-duty roster has shrunk from more than 400 to fewer than 260. Currently, 25% of the U.S. military is Catholic, but Catholic priests make up only 8% of the chaplain corps.
To fill this shortage, the AMS Office of Vocations, in cooperation with local bishops and religious communities, is inviting more and more young men to discern whether they are called to pursue priestly vocations and eventual chaplaincy in the military. Over the past four years, this outreach has begun to yield a bountiful harvest. The number of seminarians, deacons and priests enrolled in the “ Co-Sponsored Seminarian Program,” created to support military chaplain vocations through partner dioceses, has risen from seven (7) in 2008 to 48 this year. As many as five (5) are expected to enter the program in the fall, and the AMS is processing applications of nine (9) others.
Church studies show the military itself is the largest single source of U.S. priestly vocations. According to an annual Survey of Ordinands to the Priesthood by the Center of Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, approximately one out of every ten newly ordained priests once served in the armed forces. The weekend discernment retreat now underway offers promise that more will be added to those ranks.
Father Kerry Abbott, O.F.M., AMS Director of Vocations, said:
“I feel so grateful to the Holy Spirit for gently gifting, prompting and supporting all of us through His Grace to discern and respond to God’s call for our lives. As we gather with more than two dozen men from every service branch of the armed forces, from a former Special Forces member to a young Chaplain Assistant, together with civilians who feel the call to service of God and Nation, my mind is also drawn to the 10th Anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq this past Tuesday. These men are from that generation, they are responding to God’s call to serve our sisters and brothers who serve and protect us all in the armed forces and who are themselves strengthened through the sacraments that only our priest-chaplains can provide. I am convinced that is one reason our AMS vocation program has continued to grow so profoundly; these are often men that have seen the sacramental needs of our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Coast Guard members from within our armed forces, through their own experiences, often in combat. And these 25 men having taken that step forward to ask, ‘is it me Lord, here I am Lord…’”