The Catholic Crunch: Inside the Shortage of Catholic Military Priests

Troubling trends leave Catholic military chaplains short-handed as America comes home from war.

Protestant U.S. Army chaplain Brian Chepey leads prayers on Sept. 11, 2011, at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan.
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A few months later Kopec accompanied nearly half the entire unit to Pinon Canyon roughly 170 miles away for massive field exercises in preparation for a national training event.

While away Kopec learned of an accident back on the base where a female soldier was accidentally crushed and killed by a forklift she was operating. The incident was further saddened by news that her husband, also an active duty troop stationed on the base, was the first to be able to get to her.

Memorial services were set up for the troops both in Pinon Canyon and back at Fort Carson.

Kopec was puzzled to learn that the husband refused to speak to any other chaplain who offered help and comfort, insisting instead on speaking directly with him. He would later find out the husband, who was not a Catholic, was the same soldier he had met late that night months prior.

Upon reuniting after the accident, the man told Kopec, "Chaplain, when my wife died, there were a lot of other chaplains who showed up. I'm sure they're good guys, but I don't know them. I want to talk to you."

"It summarizes very well," Kopec says, "in my opinion, why it is so important to be a chaplain. You get that interaction with soldiers."

"That exemplifies how important it is, as chaplains, we make a personal connection with soldiers and help them and guide them through their faith experience when they have difficult times in their lives," he says. "To embed with units and to get to know our soldiers, that's [where] important relationships are."

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On the Job

Chaplains' work will be continually important as the U.S. draws down from the war in Afghanistan and continues to treat veterans from Iraq. Multiple officials who spoke with U.S. News cited the "invisible wounds" that have marred these wars, including traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress.

Subsequent military suicides are considered an emergency issue among top brass. Many chaplains also cite the importance of counseling from a position within military service. They have deployed, they understand the culture, they have shared common ground and they are able to understand the cruelty of war that can leave a lasting effect.

As for the shortage of Catholic priests, the Defense Department and Roman Catholic Church are working to build a stronger foundation.

But it's an uphill climb. A prospective chaplain must spend roughly 4 years pursuing an undergraduate degree, then 5 to 6 years of graduate training. He must then complete at least 2 years of civilian pastoral experience before he can join the military as a Catholic chaplain, amounting to a total of 10 to 14 years of preparation. This framework is roughly the same for all religions, though each denomination decides when it is prepared to endorse a prospective chaplain for the military.

"All of the few chaplain corps are earnestly trying to recruit more priests," says Archbishop Broglio. "That's a very active part of the equation."

His diocese has also sponsored a seminarian program, with 35 men currently enrolled. They'll spend 3 years at a home diocese after becoming ordained and will then enter active duty in the service of their choice, Broglio says.

The Defense Department says it respects, places a high value on and supports by policy the rights of service members to observe the tenets of their respective beliefs.

"The Department does not endorse religion or any one religion or religious organization," says Pentagon spokesman Navy Cmdr. Nathan Christensen in an email, "and provides to the maximum extent possible for the free exercise of religion by all members of the Military Services who choose to do so."

Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey sent a video message to a recent bishops conference emphasizing the importance of chaplains in his own military life. Broglio himself spoke at a national conference of bishops 3 years ago and stressed the significance of encouraging seminarians to become chaplains.

"I think my remarks were well received," he says.