Q&A: Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, The Archdiocese for the Military Services, U.S.A.

Archbishop Edwin O’Brien heads The Archdiocese for the Military Services, U.S.A., serving 375,000 military personnel, 900,000 family members, and 300,000 Coast Guard and reserve personnel. About 1,000 chaplains cover a lot of ground in the diocese – and so does Archbishop O’Brien. It’s not unusual for him to hit 30 military bases in 4 countries in 60 days. O’Brien began his military career almost by accident when he was assigned to West Point right after ordination in 1965, and was named archbishop of the military archdiocese in 1997. On October 1, he will succeed Cardinal William Keeler as archbishop of Baltimore.

CD: War is such a wrenching experience for families…

O’BRIEN: Yes, it is. A family that survives the pressure has to be a very strong family. And families certainly are affected more and more. Years ago, about one-third of our young military personnel were married. Now, it’s the reverse. Many marry just before they go to Iraq, and there’s immaturity there, and a lot of them don’t come through (those marriages). Our chaplains will tell you family counseling takes up most of their time.

CD: Does war deepen a person’s faith or shatter it?

It does both. I read a story in the news about a Protestant chaplain who lost his faith. I can see how someone witnesses the terrible bloody reality face to face and that happens – it’s got to test one’s faith. That is why the motivation has to be very strong to serve. Every chaplain is very clear about one thing: I’m willing to sacrifice my life in service for the cause of peace.

CD: What do you want Americans to know about your diocese, your chaplains, your parish?

O’BRIEN: So many people only have the vaguest idea of who we are: Wherever the military serves, that’s where we have jurisdiction. I know Americans appreciate the military. But if they knew it as I know it, they would really love the military.

The culture of generosity and authenticity is profound. Seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds come in lost. After two or three years, by and large, they are transformed. They are willing to give themselves away for a higher good. That’s in all of us, but that must be brought out. And the military does that. The dominant theme throughout the community is that I serve, and it rubs off on families.

CD: What can the average person do to help?

O’BRIEN: Families have a role, and they can make a powerful contribution by inviting 18- (or) 21-year -soldiers over to dinner, inviting them into their home and providing that warmth and support amid the loneliness.

CD: What brought you to the priesthood and to chaplaincy?

O’BRIEN: I always wanted to be a priest. My interest grew out of the strong parish that surrounded me. It was the strength of the parish that brought me to the priesthood.

After seminary, I was supposed to go to Puerto Rico to learn Spanish. Cardinal Francis Spellman sent half of the seminarians in the 1960s to do that. But, at the last minute, I was sent to West Point. I didn’t have a choice. I went, and I took to it. I like sports. I like people. And I very quickly found myself immersed in my duties. This was in the days of Vietnam. A lot of my parishioners weren’t that much younger than I was. I was marrying many of them in June and burying them within a year. A lot of young brides were still in the West Point area, and I had to knock on the door and give them the news. It was heart-wrenching. I witnessed sacrifice and service every day, and it’s still the case today.

CD: How do you keep yourself spiritually fresh when your parish is, in part, a war zone?

O’BRIEN: A priest must keep his faith strong. To do that, you have to have several things, and you need all of them working in concert (holds out his hand and ticks on his fingers): Prayer. Faith. Sacraments. Friends. Reading. Exercise.

If you do have a balanced priesthood, you’ll get the grace to meet those challenges. God has been good to me and given me the grace to bring the Gospel to the men and women of the military. You know, the whole priesthood and all of Christian life … You have to have a solid humanity to be a saint. And we’re all called to sainthood. Sainthood isn’t for perfect people. It is a process of faith for all of us.

CD: Does the church’s just war doctrine put you in a tough position with the war in Iraq? Pope Benedict XVI has said chaplains are to be peacemakers…

O’BRIEN: No, it doesn’t. It’s a difficult thing for people to understand, but it is our job to bring love, support and faith to people … to strengthen their spiritual life. A chaplain’s focus is on the soldier before him and along the way to answer questions he or she might have. A chaplain is concerned not just with the people fighting a war but also the people coming back who saw terrible things. Sometimes people do terrible things in the heat of a battle, there on the field. You have a split-second to make a decision. And, the military isn’t always right. In the heat of war, people make quick decisions that aren’t always right.

Now, I know the leadership of our military and I can tell you that our leadership is ethical, strong, and does its best. But that doesn’t always translate to the battlefield. A chaplain doesn’t want a warrior to come home thinking it was OK. A chaplain helps those who made the right decisions to be reconciled with those decisions. But if a wrong decision was made, it’s the chaplain’s job to provide reconciliation and moral direction there, too.

CD: What kind of guy becomes a military chaplain?

O’BRIEN: A priest looking for a more exciting way of ministering, who likes young people, who likes travel, who is comfortable in non-Catholic surroundings. I have met very few chaplains who regret. Once they step in, they want to stay in. Catholic chaplains have a great track record and reputation for being straightforward and truthful. They don’t play games or reflect negatively on other denominations. Every commander wants one of his two chaplains to be a Catholic. They tell me this outright.

Every chaplain ministers to every soldier regardless of faith. Every chaplain has to know the limit where the question is about the specific details of that faith. You refer the question to the appropriate chaplain. It can be very damaging to go into territory that is reserved for that individual’s chaplain of faith. One of our psychological counselors recently told me that Catholic priests are very helpful because they listen first. Some evangelical chaplains, and I certainly do not want to disparage anyone or imply that all of them would do so because it really is a small number, but some don’t do that. Priests have to be good listeners first. Every chaplain must have at least three years in a parish to develop those pastoral skills. A chaplain has to know when to bring in that faith element for Catholics and when to suggest a Protestant chaplain or some other appropriate chaplain if the individual is not Catholic.

CD: There’s been some media attention indicating that fundamentalist chaplains are pressuring Catholics to convert. Is it true?

O’BRIEN: We’re short of Catholic chaplains and sometimes the only chaplain available to a Catholic is a Protestant chaplain. It can be that a (fundamentalist) message resonates with a Catholic who is not schooled in the faith. We have to hope, in that case, that God will be bringing something good out of that. To be a mature Christian, you need Baptism, Faith, Sacraments. You need all of those. Eight percent of the chaplains are Catholic and 26 to 27 percent of the military is Catholic. So you can see there is a gap there. We just have to leave the rest to God. If an evangelical chaplain does get out of hand, I can assure you that it is addressed. It’s rare. But it does happen.

CD: What is your first priority as the spiritual shepherd of 1.5 million Catholics?

O’BRIEN: We have about one-quarter of a million young adult Catholics age18 to 29 in our military. One day I’m going to meet my Maker and I’ll be asked: “How many young people went through (the ranks) under your supervision and were better Catholics than when they came in.” Right now, I can’t say that’s true for each one. Evangelization is the charism of the laity. We need your help there. Our young Catholics’ faith still has to find its strength wherever they are, and it will if they stay close to the Church, get to know Jesus, and live their faith.  CD

Close up with Archbishop O’Brien

  • Favorite book: The New Testament, Second Corinthians. We hear in this book about the light shining on the face of Christ and shining in our hearts and joining into our own lives. Moses on Sinai having to cover his face because of the light. Saul seeing the light on the road to Damascus. This is the light of Christ at work in our lives through grace and faith. It’s grace working in us, not something we accomplish. Also… Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen, Witness by Whittaker Chambers, Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
  • Favorite hymn: Oh, probably Faith of Our Fathers … and … O God, Our Help in Ages Past.What do you look for in a friend? I look for common values and something I’d like to be a part of me, to make me a better person. And I suppose that individual does the same. It’s that mutuality that makes it a friendship.
  • Favorite advice: Any good advice that has kept me going would have had something to do with being grounded in a faith that will always be there, that will always bring you through. Ratzinger said once that unless someone has wrestled with the reality of resurrection, faith can become just a pious legend. It has to rock you. The early apostles experienced that. Every Christian has to go through it. Unless you struggle with faith you’re not going to have much belief.
  • What makes you laugh? Taking myself too seriously and then seeing the incongruities of life. One time I went to the installation of a bishop-friend in St. Paul, Minnesota. After that, I had to go to Ontario, Canada, to a Knights of Columbus convention. So I booked my flight for Ontario. It’s 9 pm. I get on the plane, which is supposed to land at 10:30. I am sitting on the flight and hear that the flight will be 3 ½ hours. How can that be? Well, the plane took me to Ontario. Ontario, California. There’s panic. There’s embarrassment. But I still laugh at that. I got on the wrong plane.

Meet Catholics Seeking Christ

Catholics Seeking Christ is a peer-to-peer ministry for young enlisted military personnel wanting to understand the richness of our Catholic tradition and study Scripture in small groups to build a relationship with Jesus Christ. To learn more, contact: Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, Office of Young Adult Ministries, Attn: Pavel Reid, P.O. Box 4469, Washington, DC 20017-0469; or visit: http://www.cscmilarch.org/index.htm

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