Catholicism in the Military
A sailor's reflection

Philip Gerard Johnson


(Posted 04/26/07 It’s not easy being a Catholic sailor deployed to the Persian Gulf.  As an officer, it is my duty to ensure that those placed under my leadership are properly cared for, and that all of their needs are met.  To ignore their spiritual needs would be a failure on my part as a leader and a Catholic man.  And so, when the opportunity arose for a “Catholic Lay Leader” to volunteer, I felt that it was my duty to fill this role – not knowing entirely what it entailed.

My first “duty” as Roman Catholic Lay Leader was to attend a morning workshop advertised as a training session to prepare us for our Lay Leader ministry.  Expecting rigorous lectures on Catholic teachings, how to schedule priest visits to our ship while deployed, or other worthwhile information, I was disappointed to find myself sitting in a circle with men of every denomination discussing why we wanted to be Lay Leaders. 

After a few testimonies, I realized that it would soon be my turn to participate.  Since the exit was not easily accessible, I began to seek guidance from Our Lady about what I could possibly say.  To my surprise, there happened to be another traditional Catholic who found himself in a similar predicament.  A young officer stood up and boldly stated: “I became a Lay Leader because many Catholics are losing their faith.  The only place I feel comfortable is at the Tridentine Mass, and I want to help bring tradition back to Catholics on the ship.”  The priest jokingly responded: “Well, I suppose this is a good example of the reform of the reform,” to which the young man replied by sitting down.

As all Catholics know, living out the Catholic faith is hard enough when you have regularly scheduled Masses and readily available priests.  Some of the larger ships have a Catholic chaplain embarked onboard, but the smaller ships have only a Protestant chaplain.  While the Protestant minister can often be a close friend and companion to a Catholic and help ensure port visits free from mortal sin, these Protestant ministers often encourage ecumenical services to the point that almost no visible distinction exists between Catholicism and Protestantism on the ship.  As a result, many Catholics become drawn into the erroneous belief that all denominations compose a single, visible “Church of Christ.” 

Gradually, I have seen some Catholics unknowingly distance themselves from the Church, which is obvious by their words.  Weekly “Catholic services of the Word” (a sort of pseudo-Catholic service usually composed of the Novus Ordo Missae with the Offertory and Communion deleted) are referred to as “Mass,” and the rare opportunity for Holy Mass becomes “Sunday Service” to many.  There is no concept of what Holy Mass really is, so catechesis onboard can often be frustrating.

For those that do have a Catholic chaplain onboard or are blessed with a priest’s visit, he is often of questionable orthodoxy. While I am convinced from my experiences that some of the most conservative diocesan priests belong to the Military Archdiocese, the military chaplaincy often leads priests to compromise and false ecumenism.  Part of a military chaplain’s job description is to provide worship opportunities for all faiths, and so any beliefs about absolute truth or the errors of other religions must be kept silent.  Public prayers may not mention the Holy Name of Christ.  Instead, a watered down, all-encompassing prayer must be offered.  While a priest may hear confessions and offer Holy Mass, he must also ensure – not allow, but ensure – that all “recognized” faiths have the same worship opportunities.

Despite these hardships, the wartime situation forces one to have hope.  Because of my proximity to danger and reduced access to the Sacraments, every chance to be absolved of my sins is an absolute blessing.  A beam of God’s grace seems to follow the helicopter which carries the first priest to visit our ship in months.  Though I would stay far away from some of these priests if I were in America, necessity moves me to realize that I must praise God each and every time that a priest comes onboard.  Perhaps this is God’s way of showing me that I should still have hope in these dark times in the Church, and realize that all priests have the indelible sacramental mark of the priesthood on their souls and deserve our respect and prayers. 

I am often reminded of an episode in the life of Saint Teresa of Avila. When she was a young lady, she spoke of a very sinful priest who would offer Mass in her parish.  He was so evil that darkness seemed to cover the sanctuary.  But during the Consecration, light penetrated the darkness as the very Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ was offered in sacrifice to the Father. 

Let us pray for these priests who, knowingly or unknowingly, fail to uphold the truths of the Faith.  God has not given up on them, nor on us, and prayer can change even the hardest of hearts.