By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp
“We can have these ideas that the [military chaplain] spends most of his life knee deep in blood on the front line. It’s not like that at all”, Bishop Paul Mason, Bishop of the Forces in Great Britain explained in an interview with Vatican News. Armistice Day and the remembrance of the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One provides an occasion to understand the role of the military chaplain during peace time.
Ministering to families
Bishop Mason described the work of a military chaplain as quite similar to that of a parish priest. Military chaplains spend a lot of time ministering to the needs and challenges faced by service personnel and their families, he said. They provide support to officers, to families, and to young recruits. “They are very busy”.
Ministering to young recruits
In addition, they provide a crucial role in the lives of new recruits who find themselves perhaps for the first time away from home.
“They’re coming to the rather odd and challenging world of the military. They are asking questions. They want to know about things of faith. The number of confirmations or baptisms that our chaplains are doing working with young recruits who are finding themselves at a point in their life, a point of change when they’re asking questions which perhaps they’ve never asked before. Perhaps they’ve never in their life encountered the Church or a priest.”
Ministering as a Military Bishop
Bishop Mason was appointed by Pope Francis to the Bishopric of the Forces in Great Britain in July this year. He said he is still getting used to the role. The priority he has set for himself is that of supporting the chaplains. His message to them is,
“This is the work of the Church. It has prayer at its core. It has the Eucharist at its core. That is my practical role, as well as my symbolic place: to ensure that it stays as that evangelical side of what we’re doing – to bring the Gospel to people wherever we work.”
Visiting the garrison churches
He has made a commitment to visit the garrison churches. Although they seem to be like any other normal parish, he has to remind himself that each of those present is connected to the military. “They need support and I try to visit and get down to as many of those churches as I can”, he said.
Place of the Church in the military establishment
Bishop Mason has also begun to understand the importance of the presence of the Church in the hierarchical structure of the military establishment itself.
“To have the physical presence of the Catholic Church, having the conversation at that level, representing the interests of the Catholic Faith at that level, is really important.”
He, therefore, sees his own role as one of ensuring that the Catholic Church is present and fully engaged in order to promote the spread of the Gospel in the military environment.
Keeping the faith alive
Chaplains serving outside of normal parish settings can experience a struggle to keep the faith alive, Bishop Mason continued.
“There are so many other pressures to reduce the spiritual input to effectively a type of social work…. To ensure that the faith-based understanding of the Church within the military remains front and centre”.
Openness to the Faith
On the whole, Bishop Mason has found an openness to matters of faith in the military.
“It’s wonderful. You’re not pushing at a closed door. You’re pushing very much at an open door. Because the experience on the ground is that the place of religious faith in military context at so many levels is that it provides support, it gives morale, it helps people in their journeys of faith, coming to terms with what they are doing.”