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Chaplain General describes Christmas in Afghanistan

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News


OTTAWA (CCN) — When Canada’s new Chaplain General Brigadier General Guy Chapdelaine spent Christmas in Afghanistan in 2006, he planned ahead for his possible death.
He said he “prepared all his things” and even visited the now retired Archbishop of Sherbrooke to tell him if anything happened to him, he wanted his funeral in the Sherbrooke cathedral, though the archbishop did not want to hear about his plans.

“It’s a complex ministry in the face of death or threats” in the field of operations,” Padre Chapdelaine said in an interview at his Ottawa office. “We have this service. Our life can end at any time.”

But this willingness to embrace God’s will no matter what had nothing dour or fearful about it. Instead, the Chaplain General exuded peace as he described his work as a priest in the military, a calling that brings him great joy.

“This is part of our life,” he said. “When we go into operations, especially in Afghanistan, when outside of the wires in 2006-2007, they did not have the Chinook helicopters then, so travel was by road and very dangerous.”

“I don’t know how other chaplains cope with that but it was part of my spiritual preparation to be ready,” he said. “A friend gave me a rosary. I had always the rosary with me. Faith, it’s not magical. It doesn’t remove us from passing through difficult times, but faith is there to help us pass through difficult times.”

“What I experienced in the theatre of operations is to keep always hope in the middle of despair, always light in the darkness, to see good things in the hearts of the soldiers,” he said.

In Afghanistan, the day after Christmas, soldiers were to return to the field, he said. This unit had lost a couple of soldiers the previous month, so their supervisor asked Chapdelaine to speak with them because some were nervous.

The chaplains are there to speak to the troops, to “give them comfort and reassurance,” Chapdelaine said. “If something happens, the chaplains are able to support their families.”

Chapdelaine spent six weeks in Afghanistan to give two chaplains there a break. It gave him an opportunity to be with the troops, to help them cope with difficult situations such as the death of a friend.

“I discovered a lot of faith in these men and many signs of faith,” he said. He recalled seeing written on a pillar holding up the roof of an observation post the words: “Even if I pass through the valley of death I will fear no evil.”

“It was not a chaplain who wrote that, but a soldier,” he said. “It’s wonderful to see the faith of the people.”

“In Canada it is difficult to talk about faith,” he said. “In the theatre of war it is very easy to talk about faith, about religion. Here in Canada very difficult people are very reserved, even with us as chaplains.”

He recalled one soldier came to him and told him, “My mother asked me to come see you to ask for a blessing.”

“I found that request so moving,” he said. “Another asked me to baptize him. It was not an easy request in the middle of the desert!”

Chapdelaine began the man’s preparation for baptism that continued after he returned to Canada. “I knew in my heart he had the baptism of desire.”

He had long conversations with soldiers about prayer, especially after they were seeing other soldiers praying five times a day. That would bring them to consider their own faith and “to question the meaning of life.”

Many spoke of their loved ones and expressed fear they might never see their children or their wives again, he said. “The chaplain is a friend — a person with whom we can talk, when they cannot talk with other soldiers.” Sometimes the conversation concerns news from home, concerning their families. “The chaplain is there to encourage them.”

Chapdelaine, who was appointed last August, is the first Roman Catholic Chaplain General in 10 years. He leads chaplains of all faiths in the Canadian military and faces challenges in recruiting chaplains to serve in an increasingly diverse military. Now that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plans to bring back the fighter jets from bombing ISIS targets in Syria, replacing them with trainers for Peshmerga troops on the ground, the Chaplain General has to consider how to serve the spiritual needs of these trainers.

Though the military is not permitted to ask the religion of its service men and women, Chapdelaine estimates the number of Catholics mirrors that of the Canadian population: roughly 40 per cent. The Bishop of the Military Ordinariate, Bishop Donald Theriault, recruits priests for service as priest chaplains. Seventy per cent of them will retire in the next 10 years. In an era of priest shortages, it is a big sacrifice for a diocesan bishop to give one of his priests to the military, Chapdelaine said. The Chaplain General tries to make sure there is a Catholic chaplain deployed in the field so Catholic troops can receive the sacraments. They might work with lay chaplains and those of other faiths, but finding a balance is challenging, he said.

Chaplains who are sent into the field of operations not only need to be fit and trained so as not to be a burden on the troops, but also they must be prepared to minister to those of all faiths or none, be bilingual, prepared to work with women and possibly even have a female supervisor, Chapdelaine said. Female chaplains are also needed to serve the women in the military.

Chapdelaine loves Pope Francis’ image of a field hospital, a “hospital after battle.”

“It’s not time to check cholesterol, but time to take care of peoples’ wounds, to go to the margins and meet with them,” he said.

Unlike priests in a parish who get little opportunity to be with their people where they work, chaplains in the military are “there to build a ministry of presence and to establish and build bridges. They are bridge makers, pontifiers,” he said. “If they trust you, if they learn to get to know you, they will come to you in times of difficulty.”

Chapdelaine said his call to the military came before his call to the priesthood, even though when he was 11 or 12 he entertained the idea of becoming a priest. He came from a Catholic family that regularly attended mass, but during his teenaged years, the thought of being a priest faded away.

While looking for a summer job at age 17, he joined the 52nd Medical Company, now the 52nd Field Ambulance Company as a reservist.

He loved the social aspect of military life, the teamwork, the community life. A year afterward he was invited to begin officer training. He recalled he began that training in May 1980, the day of the referendum on sovereignty. But not long afterward, a member of his unit died in a car crash.

“It was my first time dealing with death up close,” he said. “The chaplain came to be present with us.”

The chaplain, a priest from the Quebec archdiocese “did a wonderful ministry to help us cope with the death.” Chapdelaine recalled being “fascinated” by the joyful presence of the chaplain and thought, “I would like to be like him.”

“I was called into the military even though I was not full time until 1998,” he said. “My call was for the military, and in the military I decided to enter seminary in 1981.” A year after that, he approached the Sherbrooke archdiocese to begin the process that led to his ordination in 1989.

He served part time in the military and in seminary and was thus able to pay his way and exercise ministry as a student chaplain or pastoral associate during his training.

Upon his ordination, Chapdelaine was promoted to the rank of captain and began service full time in the military in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) Chaplain’s branch. In 2004 he was sent to Rome to study for a licentiate in ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue, another passion of his.

As he travels to various CAF bases in Canada, he meets with religious leaders to promote dialogue and build rapport. Chapdelaine said he is concerned about radicalization and home-grown terrorism. Society needs to be on guard for extremism of any kind, he said. “Any ideology can become extreme.”

Though not a problem in the military, extremism can be a problem in wider Canadian society, he said.

“It’s important for the Canadian Armed Forces to be open to Muslims so we can work together to building a better understanding of the role of faith,” he said. “In the military we take a holistic approach to the human being; faith is a part of that.”

The CAF cares about the “physical fitness and spiritual fitness of our soldiers,” he said.

The CAF has three Muslim chaplains and two rabbis, he said. He would like to have an even more diversity among chaplains. Chapdelaine noted the new Minister of National Defence is a Sikh, and he would like to have Sikh chaplains. All chaplains, regardless of their faith, minister to all and if there is a specific religious need, such as access to Catholic sacraments, the chaplain will help the soldier find the help he or she needs, he said.

“I say always chaplains must be grounded in your faith,” he said. “We are on loan from our faith communities. I’d like to return these people in good spiritual health to them.”
Dialogue is possible when you are grounded in your own faith, he said.

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