“I’m a vessel that God’s going to use”: A Chicago priest returns from serving in Afghanistan

Photo by Alex Garcia

The story, from the Chicago Tribune: 

Please don’t let him die.

That’s not much of a prayer, I suppose, but it’s what I said to God five years ago as I sat in a pew at St. Agnes of Bohemia Catholic Church in Little Village and watched the Rev. Matt Foley sworn in to the U.S. Army.

Father Matt — Padre Mateo, as they called him in the neighborhood — had been the heart and soul of that predominantly Latino community for eight years. He had buried nearly 30 members of the warring Latin Kings and Two-Six street gangs, and now he was heading to war, drawn to be an Army chaplain.

He read a Gospel passage at his swearing-in: “When you were young, you walked where you wanted to walk. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will carry you where you do not want to go.”

You’re not old, Father, I thought. You’re only 45. Can’t you stick around?

“I’ll be a vessel that God’s going to use,” he told me.

…It starts to blur from there. Four deployments. Visits to more than 60 spots across that war-torn country. And now, I’m happy to report, a safe return to the Chicago area and a new parish to head up, St. James Catholic Church in Arlington Heights.

I met Foley in his new parish office on a sunny weekday, the only noise coming from cars zipping along Arlington Heights Road and the occasional squeals of children in the church school. It seemed a peaceful respite from a war zone, and his spirits were good, even as he recounted what he had witnessed.

“I’m able to preach about it and tell the stories,” he said. “What happens with a lot of these soldiers is they go through traumatic events and then they don’t get to process it. When I was in Little Village, I’d be at Mount Sinai (hospital) to see a teen who was shot. I’d talk about it the next Sunday, I wouldn’t just bury it. That makes a big difference.”

His duties were many: visiting with soldiers each day; catering to the injured; celebrating a daily Catholic Mass; delivering news of a family member’s death or illness to young men and women already homesick…

…He described what he did there as “a ministry of presence.”

“To sit in an MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle) and to be ambushed and to look across at the eyes of a 19- or 20-year-old soldier,” Foley said, his voice trailing off. “I’m glad I’m there to say, ‘We’ll make it through this.’ I’m glad I’m there for the parents who sent their sons and daughters over there.”

Read it all. 


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