The all-pervasive fog of desert dust notwithstanding, there is a clear and powerful chaplaincy vision out here in the Iraqi desert. Of course, a vision of ministry, whether on a home unit or away, must in some sense be the same for all who labour in the rich harvest of the Church’s ministry; yet here in Basrah, it is, perhaps, in some senses simply more undiluted, more vital and more immediate.
Praying and preaching the Word, administering the sacraments and explaining the faith – these are the ‘bread and butter’ of any Christian ministry to be sure. Listening (I mean really hearing what people have to say) and answering questions where possible, pointing out useful directions, and offering guidance, support, comfort and assurance are also tools of the trade. This type of ministry is simple, plentiful and fairly well-known. Yet a different but no less ancient vision of ministry exists alongside as well.
Chaplains are iconic. Catholics have traditionally understood this truth in terms of their priests being ‘in persona Christi’. This is neither an arrogant nor vain boast, but rather provides a genuine source of humility and even dread for those who answer the call. Of course, the chaplain is fallible and weak, and sees himself as one with the people he serves, in uniform, membership, loyalty and duty. Like them, he is at constant risk of injury or death.
Nevertheless, he is also, in a very profound sense, set apart from those he serves. For the religious and the the skeptical alike, the chaplain represents a calling and mission; he makes visible his membership of a kingdom of values and hope which he hopes will transcend the dirt and confusion that characterise armed conflict. The chaplain is, in this case, a very real presence of the Good Shepherd Himself amongst His flock.
Of course, I don't mean to say that all people welcome the chaplain. For every person who welcomes his presence, there will almost always be one who rejects it. Although the chaplain's primary function is to offer comfort and assurance, he also faces challenges that will always be a part of the fulfillment of his ministry.
‘Comfort my people’ says the prophet Isaiah. When the rockets rain in, when the siren sounds, when strong men and women fall to their faces in the mud, why do they often do they glance toward the chaplain? Not for marching orders or military direction, but rather for evidence, however small and fleeting, that at least one person remains steadfast in the faith that ‘all manner of thing shall be well’. Isn’t this the meaning behind the well-meant jibe so often voiced: ‘you’re ok, Padre! – we know who’s looking after you’? The chaplain represents to some that gossamer hope that they too might come to have a share in his godly favour.
‘I come to bring a sword’ says the Lord. Of course, the chaplain never wishes to sew conflict or bring trouble. Yet inevitably he acts ‘in persona Christi’ not just as priest but as prophet too. The untold pressures of operational duty weigh heavily on the shoulders of all, but none more so than those in command. They make bitter decisions in which notions of right and wrong, or justice and peace may almost vanish. It is the chaplain’s reluctant duty at these times to stand firm, and he does so not by direct challenge to authority, but rather more powerfully by virtue of his silent presence.
None of my thoughts here is in any way new or original, but the ministry of a military chaplain is hardly new either. Ever since priests began to march with armies hundreds of years ago, the work of the chaplain, an undoubted opus Dei, has been both valued and praised. My final reflection, made through the swirl of this choking dust of war and strife, is that if only the chaplain can stand firmly in the Person of Christ amongst his people, then surely the risen Christ will stand next to him.