Uncle Sam wants priests

Chaplains: Army officials are scrambling to find Catholics to serve as their number has dwindled to the lowest level since World War II.

June 26, 2000|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The nation's largest warrior society, the Army, is desperately seeking men of peace like Joe Angotti Jr.

The 36-year-old Roman Catholic priest from a small Indiana parish is training to become a member of the Army's chaplain corps, which is struggling with the lowest number of Catholic chaplains since World War II.

"It's something I wanted to do, not because I'm an Army type of person," said Angotti, who will attain the rank of captain after completing eight weeks of training at Fort Jackson, S.C., where he's sweating through the required push-ups, sit-ups and two-mile run. "I signed up because there's a need for priests."

About 100,000 Army soldiers, 22 percent of the total, are Catholic. But only 8 percent of the Army's chaplains - 99 of 1,290 - are priests. That's 225 priests short of the number needed, Army officials say. If the trend continues, they estimate only 60 active-duty priests will be wearing Army green by 2005.

As a result of the shortages, some soldiers in far-flung parts of the globe have not attended weekly Mass or received the sacraments for months, while the few Army priests are being run ragged trying to keep up with the spiritual needs of soldiers. A handful of Catholic chaplains have been burned out by the pace and left the service, officials said.

"It's definitely more demanding," said the Rev. Rick Spencer, 49, a priest from the Baltimore Archdiocese who has been an Army chaplain for nine years. Spencer is serving in Egypt's Sinai desert, the only priest for 3,600 U.S. and international peacekeeping troops scattered among two camps and 29 remote outposts.

For the past year, Army officials have been making appeals in Catholic newspapers, recalling retired Catholic chaplains and considering picking up the seminary debts - more than $60,000 - for physically fit priests under age 50 who are willing to trade their starched white collars for camouflage fatigues.

Col. Jack Anderson, a Methodist chaplain and director of ministry initiatives with the Army's Chief of Chaplains Office, said the aging of the Catholic chaplain force is part of the problem. The average age of Catholic priests on active duty is 54, about 10 years older than the average for Protestant chaplains. Chaplains retire between ages 60 and 62.

"The Roman Catholic priests stayed in as long as they could and retired," said Anderson. "As they left, we weren't getting any younger chaplains in."

The problem also stems from the continuing evaporation of the national pool of priests, which has declined by 20 percent since 1965, according to a recent report from the nation's bishops. In addition, local bishops are reluctant to allow that rare young priest to enter military service for a standard three-year tour, Anderson said.

The Army has fewer Catholic chaplains than the other military services and more Catholics, though it has roughly the same percentage of priests. At the end of last year, the Navy had 182 Catholic chaplains, 21 percent of its 882-member chaplain corps, which also serves the Marine Corps. The Air Force reported 125 Catholic priests, about 20 percent of its 616 chaplains.

Army chaplains generally face a more rigorous life in the field. The religious life of the Air Force centers around the base chapel, and the Navy chaplain typically caters to his flock aboard ship.

"We're not the service of choice," conceded Anderson, saying that many Army chaplains are given a rucksack and told to go where the soldiers are. "That means dirt and mud and sleeping on the ground. It's not a pretty place to be."

Angotti, the priest from St. Michael's Parish in Schererville, Ind., a small town in the northwest corner of the state, realizes that his new calling won't be easy.

He attended the Army chaplain's school at Fort Jackson this year, enduring four weeks of field exercises, marching, saluting and inspections.

"I won't say it was easy camping in 26-degree weather," he said. "I survived. I know if I have to I can do it." There were six priests in his class of 45 chaplain candidates.

After reading about the shortage of Army priests in the Catholic press, Angotti signed up. He had considered missionary work, though the overseas orders were well stocked with priests.

"The closest thing we have to the mission field is the military," Angotti said, eager to go where his skills as a priest are needed.

Despite the frantic pace in the Sinai, Spencer, the priest from Maryland, said he feels "blessed and very happy" to be in uniform and hopes to sign up for another three years if Cardinal William H. Keeler, archbishop of the Baltimore archdiocese, will approve another stint.

Besides saying Mass and hearing confessions, Spencer spends much of his time helping soldiers cope with being away from their families and far from home.

"The needs and requests for the sacraments are just as great as in any parish setting," he said.

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