AF looks to foreigners to end priest shortage
By Sam LaGrone - Staff writer
Posted : Wednesday Sep 24, 2008 12:18:05 EDT
To combat a record low number of Roman Catholic chaplains, the Air Force chaplain’s office is pitching a plan to turn foreign-born priests into naturalized blue-suited clergy.
“We’re working on getting non-native Americans to come into the Reserve and then we would fast track them to American citizenship,” said Air Force Chief of Chaplains Maj. Gen. Cecil Richardson.
“Once they became citizens, we will bring them into the [active] military as priests.”
Currently, there are 79 chaplain priests in the Air Force. Of those, 17 have medical problems that prevent them from deploying, and at least nine plan to retire by the end of the year. In short, priests for the Air Force are “a critical need” for the 25 percent of all airmen who are Roman Catholic, said Lt. Col. Gary Linsky, a Catholic chaplain in the plans and programs division of the Air Force Chaplain Service.
To blunt the blow, the Air Force will follow a trend in civilian parishes that have relied on foreign-born priests for years. But recruiting foreign priests into the active U.S. military presents more hoops than just getting an out-of-town padre a green card.
It’s like an SAT question: If all active-duty U.S. chaplains are officers, and all active-duty officers are U.S. citizens, are all active-duty chaplains U.S. citizens?
Yes, by law.
So the Air Force Reserve and the Chaplain Service want to use a provision in Title X of federal law that allows foreign legal residents to take reserve commissions. Once in, priests would undergo an accelerated naturalization process, based on President Bush’s 2002 executive order, in order get an active commission.
“What we’ve heard is three to six months, but we have yet to prove that,” Air Force Reserve Col. Anne Hamilton said. The Chaplain Service proposal comes in addition to other Air Force efforts that let priests take commissions when they are older, stay in longer or get waivers for problems that would get other candidates laughed out of the recruiting station, Richardson said.
The need for the clergy in the military is crucial since only ordained priests can administer Catholic sacraments such as Holy Communion, confession and last rites.
In forward operating areas, Air Force priests are in as much demand as special operators. Come January, Catholic chaplains will be required to deploy for six months at a time, at a dwell rate of 1-to-1 — six months in theater, then six months at home. Chaplians of other denominations deploy far less.
The clergy shortage is not unique to the Air Force. In the past 20 years, the Archdiocese for the Military Services has seen the number of priests drop from 1,500 across all services to about 290 active-duty chaplains and 250 in the reserves and the National Guard, said Monsignor Ronald A. Newland, the archdiocese’s chancellor. Catholic chaplains are responsible for nearly 1.5 million troops and family members worldwide covered by the military diocese.
The priest shortage in the military reflects a larger trend in the Roman Catholic Church.
“I can recruit a priest into the military, but I can’t recruit a young man into the priesthood,” Richardson said. “It’s a Catholic Church problem.”
On average, each year only brings 450 to 500 new priests to the entire church, said Mary Gautier, senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, a group that researches demographics in the Roman Catholic Church. That rate will only make up a third of what the worldwide church loses each year to priests’ deaths and retirements, Gautier said.
And most new priests are not American. The countries that are seeing the most new priests are, in order, Mexico, Vietnam, Poland, the Philippines and Columbia, according to Gautier’s data. For Chief of Chaplains Richardson, the program awaiting Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz’s approval is imperative to the welfare of Catholic airmen.
“We need to meet the needs of the men and women who’ve pledged to support and defend the Constitution and say, ‘By the way, I’m Roman Catholic,‘” he said.
Saturday, October 11, 2008
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