Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Catholic Combat Chaplains

"By their fruits you shall know them."
"No greater love than this, to give up your life for your brethren."

When combat chaplains are mentioned, the image of a Catholic priest amidst the grime of war always comes to mind. Catholic battlefield chaplains are the ones absolving a sailor, saying mass on the hood of a jeep, or giving Holy Communion to a B-17 crew before their next and perhaps final mission. They are the ones in the trenches dodging mortars just to get to a dying soldier to hear their last confession. Was this imagery put there by Frank Capa WWII films with a bias in filming more priests than, say other denomination ministers? Probably not. The reason is, Catholic chaplains were always ready at the side of fighting and dying men to prepare them for a heavenly banquet by delivering, to what many would receive as their last Sacraments - and their last living act as a man on earth.

The Sacraments is what separates Catholicism from the rest. A priest would risk his life and knowingly run into a battle to administer Extreme Unction to a dying man. During WWII the Imperial Japanese infantry were known for their devilish trickery. A priest would, sometimes knowingly, crawl into the foxhole of an Imperial soldier who, while feigning an American accent, would repeatingly called out 'help . . father' just to bayonet the unsuspecting priest to demoralize the Americans. U.S. Marines would warn a priest of the trap, but the dutiful father would merely sigh and answer "what if it isn't?" The priest understands well what God Himself in the Person of Christ calls him to. The battlefield chaplain puts his life on the line because the truth of our immortal destiny supercedes any danger the world presents. Christ Himself instituted all 7 Sacraments to give grace to His faithful through the channel of a priest who acts in His place. The battlefield chaplain knows all too well the struggle against unseen principalities and powers and answers his angelic call to bring another soul to Paradise.

We read of chaplains miraculously surviving munitions blasts, unopened parachute drops, and direct hits. We can be sure that God protected His servants to bring a specific soul to Heaven - for God is a merciful God.

One such example comes from the book Currahee! by Donald Burgett who writes:

Limping along behind I heard someone yell, "Look out"; almost overhead a man came hurtling down with an unopened chute. It was pulled out of the pack tray, but remained closed, a streamer. The man hit a few yards away, making the sound of a large mattress going "floomp" against the ground, and for the second time in a week I witnessed a man hitting the ground so hard that he actually bounced. Limping over, I looked down at him and nearly fell over when he opened his eyes and asked me, "What happened?" "Your chute didn't open," I told him. "You're kidding," he said. "Help me up, I've got to get going." . . . It was then I noticed the crosses on his collar; who else but a chaplain could fall 1000 feet with an unopened chute and live?

What tender care and devoted interest our Father in Heaven shows us by channeling His graces through the words of a priest so that our souls become united to the Creator of the Universe. Such unity has been exemplified by the mystics who bore the wounds of Christ on their bodies (St. Francis of Assisi, St. Pio of Pietrelcina), by those so united to Him that they elevated in prayer (St. Theresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Joseph of Cupertino) and those Catholics so in love with God that they gave their lives for Him (St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Thomas More, St. Lawrence). Catholic chaplains can be likened to the martyrs who willed to die for their trust in Christ's words.

The Christian martyrs made this quite clear by their willingness in allowing others to torture, dismember, burn alive, behead, disembowel, have their eyes gouged out, fingers chewed off, and otherwise painfully end their lives for their Catholic faith and God's greater glory. They died not claiming any earthly victory or, as in the case with Islam, claiming other lives in their 'process', but rather, the Catholic martyrs died as abandoned orphans; helpless, unarmed, and in cold blood - but - joyfully - always joyfully and always while forgiving their persecutors. The ultimate acts of hatred and violence were met with loving sympathy and a charitable desire for their return to God.

Similarly, the Catholic battlefield chaplains held in their hearts a burning love for God and the desire to bring a suffering soul to Christ. Their victory was to beat the devil and ensure that God claimed the soul as the soldiers lied bleeding and taking their last desperate gasps for life. The victory was not for themselves, for their career, or to meet a quota. The victory was for God and Him alone. Their motto, we can be sure, must have been repeated to themselves, just as the martyrs, in St. Pauls words: "May God increase and I decrease."

Another story of devoted priestly chaplain service was reenacted in a recent Hollywood production. Steven Spielberg, in his film Saving Private Ryan, to his credit depicted a priest on Omaha Beach hearing the Confession of a dying soldier. However, the hero of the true story was not an Army Ranger (Tom Hanks), but a Roman Catholic priest who saved Private Ryan. The Private's real name was Sgt. Fritz Niland, a polish Catholic who lost two of his brothers on D-Day. When Father Francis L. Sampson, chaplain of the 501st, learned that two of Niland's brothers were dead, and that a third was presumed dead, he began the paperwork necessary to send Niland home.

These examples of self sacrifice point in one direction - to the Father in Heaven who gave us His Sacraments, and His priests to administer them, so that men can be gathered in His Heavenly Family and share in all his richness. For God is a merciful God.

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