For much of the previous year, Father Joe Porpiglia had a grueling routine--and he wasn't even running his parish in Buffalo. He was in Afghanistan as a U.S. chaplain, racing across a rugged and war-torn landscape in massive helicopters and transport planes. He served Mass and the sacraments to thousands of soldiers, but also offered counsel and comfort to anyone who sought him out.
What makes Porpiglia's tour stand out is that he was one of only 10 Catholic chaplains in Afghanistan during the last 18 months.
That hardly meets the needs of the huge population of Catholics serving in the U.S. military. According to CatholicMil.org, a website for chaplains and military personnel, out of 1.2 million active-duty soldiers, 375,000 are Catholic. And don't forget to add their 800,000 dependents. Yet just 300 priests are currently ministering to them. During World War II there were 3,200 Catholic chaplains, accounting for 1 out of every 10 U.S. priests at the time.
Today's numbers have triggered the Pentagon to aggressively recruit Catholic priests to serve as chaplains. The campaign includes advertising in Catholic publications, including U.S. CATHOLIC.
High-level officers speak with bishops and visit seminaries with the message that the U.S. Army alone needs 400 priests. In 2007 the Air Force invited thousands of priests to spend several days at Peterson and Schriever Air Force Bases in Colorado and fly in military aircraft. Six priests ended up joining the Air Force Reserve, and 11 became active duty.
Still, serving as a chaplain is a grueling job, taken on by men and women often much older than their physically fit soldiers. Nobody denies the need for military chaplains, but both chaplains themselves and other Catholics debate how they can serve God and the army at the same time.
Capt. Father Gregory Caiazzo is a recruitment officer and spokesperson for the U.S. Navy's Chief of Chaplains Office, which oversees all chaplains for the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard. He says some Catholic priests have been deployed multiple times. "It is really inspiring to see the [priests] that do it over and over again," he says.
One of those priests is Porpiglia. The lieutenant commander has been a reservist with the Coast Guard for 17 years and recently returned home from his second tour, which was extended several weeks. Six years ago he took part in the beginning of the Iraq War.
His most challenging missions involved moving from one forward operating base (FOB) to another so he could celebrate Mass and hear Confessions. Some of these FOBs are small outposts where there's no running water or kitchen; others are huge complexes complete with gyms and a Pizza Hut.
"I don't like focusing on me," he wrote recently from an air-hub while waiting for a plane back to his home base in Kandahar, Afghanistan. "I like to focus on what our men and women are doing and the great job they are doing."
Nevertheless, Porpiglia, who is physically unassuming, quips, "Did I tell you the flak jacket with plates weighs 70 pounds?"
Faith at the front
Father Marian Gardocki has also donned the flak jacket in 120 degrees of stifling Afghan heat--weapons free, as all chaplains do. In May of last year he went out on a patrol searching for Taliban. It is not something he likes to do, but it's not easy turning down your fellow soldiers who ask, "Padre, come with us on patrol, because we will be safe then."
Gardocki is pushing 60, yet he's still in the Navy reserve, trains with Marines on weekends in Baltimore, and works during the week as a counselor at the VA medical center in Buffalo.
Looking back on two tours, the last in 2008 in Afghanistan, Gardocki is most satisfied that he had become to the troops a shield of sorts from the demons of a war zone, a source of energy, and a confidant.
"Most of the soldiers are so very young," he says. …