Because of a nationwide shortage of Roman Catholic priests and the reluctance of most Catholic bishops to release their clergy for military service, 360 Catholic chaplains under the age of 40 are urgently needed for active duty, according to Army recruiters.
The Navy, Marines and Air Force are not experiencing the same shortage of Catholic chaplains as the Army, and there is not a comparable need for additional Protestant and Jewish clergy in any of the services.
A spokesman for the Catholic Church said it has the same ratio of priests to military personnel in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf as the Catholic population on the home front. That is approximately one priest for every 1,100 congregants.
But for Catholic military families outside the war zone, the shortage of chaplains is more than twice as severe.
The ratio of priests to U.S. Catholic soldiers and their dependents generally is one to 2,500, said the Rev. Michael McCormack, who is on the Silver Spring staff that administers the church's military chaplaincy program.
He said 130 of the 687 Catholic priests on full-time active duty with the armed forces are serving in the gulf area. He estimated that there are 150,000 Catholics among the troops there.
Father McCormack said 570,000 Catholics are on duty with U.S. military branches worldwide. Their spouses and children add 875,000 military family members to the Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services, U.S.A.
Also included in its mission are 172 Veterans Administration hospitals and civilian employees of the U.S. government serving in 134 countries, raising the total number of Catholics it serves to 2.3 million. The headquarters of this far-flung archdiocese, led by Archbishop Joseph T. Ryan and five auxiliary bishops, is in Silver Spring.
Maj. Gregory Sykes, one of two Army recruiters based in Washington who spend much of their time traveling across the country to try to persuade Catholic priests to become Army chaplains, said, "We need a minimum of 530 to 550 on active duty, and we only have 189."
He said the Army's "desperate need of more Catholic chaplains" has forced recruiters to make exceptions to the age requirement.
Unlike the Army, Major Sykes said, the Navy and Air Force are turning down applicants for Catholic chaplaincy positions.
"Our whole day is spent with the soldiers. If soldiers are dirty, we are dirty. If soldiers are wet, we are wet. If soldiers are uncomfortable, we are uncomfortable. It tends to be a not-so-desirable lifestyle."
By contrast, Major Sykes said, "There is no living in the field in the Air Force." As for the other major branch, he said, "There seems to be a certain mystique about the Navy."
Of eight Catholic priests from the Baltimore archdiocese on active duty as chaplains, only two are with the Army. Four are with the Navy, and two are with the Air Force.
Since the buildup of forces in the Middle East, Major Sykes said, he has observed "only a slight increase" in the number of Catholic priests willing to serve with the Army.
A Catholic priest himself, he placed most of the blame for this on the nation's Catholic bishops. "The bishops are not willing to release their priests -- that's the problem," Major Sykes said.
The Archdiocese for the Military Services suggests that 2 percent of the priests in a diocese be released for chaplaincy duty. Under that guideline, the contingent from the Baltimore archdiocese would number 13 instead of eight.
The Rev. William Au, spokesman for the Baltimore archdiocese, said Archbishop William H. Keeler would not discourage priests who asked to be military chaplains. But he said, "You can't force anybody to go."
Father Au said young priests are required to perform parish work in the archdiocese first.
Father McCormack emphasized the special contributions and satisfactions of military chaplaincy work, especially among the troops in the gulf war. One chaplain at the front, who offered Mass 17 times in a recent week, reported four adult baptisms and two inquiries about entering the priesthood, Father McCormack said.
Another priest in Saudi Arabia recently wrote, "Many men are rediscovering their faith and coming back to the sacraments."
Major Sykes recently wrote an article for Extension, a Catholic missionary publication, about the Army's chaplain shortage. "For some priests, the call to be an armed forces chaplain is Christ's call to love without measure," he said. "For others, it is a difficult duty accepted."