Serving God and Country

Last week I had the privilege of being on retreat with a group of 50 priests with whom I reflected on the life, ministry and writings of St. Paul. Fr. Jude Winkler, OFM, preached the retreat and offered much food for thought. For example, Fr. Jude, while commenting on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, asked us to consider service as an attribute of God. This invitation led me to contemplate Jesus’ beautiful statement that he came, not to be served, but to serve (Mark 10: 45). Jesus’ love for us is so great that he, as most clearly seen in his death on the Cross, came to us as a servant. God asks us to reflect this service in our lives, in all that we say and do.

As we approach Memorial Day Weekend, and the ordination of six new priests for the Archdiocese of Boston, it is a great opportunity to reflect on the gift of service, particularly in the priesthood and in the military. Since I serve as a priest in the Archdiocese of Boston, as Vicar General, and as an Air Force Reserve Chaplain, I would like to offer a few words on my service, and, more importantly, to reflect upon the sacrifice and service of our priests in the Archdiocese, our military chaplains, and all servicemen and women.

Serving as Vicar General and in a leadership position in the Air Force Reserve Chaplain Corps is both challenging and rewarding. My priority is, and the vast majority of my waking hours are devoted to, ministry as Vicar General. Like many of my fellow reservists, I meet my 24-days-a-year commitment primarily with vacation time. Through creative scheduling, I minimize the days I am away from the Pastoral Center, and the generous support of my colleagues at the center keeps the work on track. I am grateful to Cardinal Seán for allowing me to continue this rewarding ministry and to be part of the Archdiocese of Boston’s legacy as a leading diocese in providing priests for the military chaplaincies. When I was ordained 24 years ago, I never imagined my journey with the Lord would lead to a global ministry with the Air Force and to the ministry as Vicar General. These two opportunities to serve have been the greatest honors of my life.

While I find serving in the Reserve personally fulfilling, more importantly, our troops, the Church and dioceses benefit from having priests serve as military chaplains. First, there is a great need for Catholic chaplains. Second, Catholic chaplains provide Catholic leadership. And finally, the training we receive in the Reserve makes us better priests when we return home.

Need for Catholic Chaplains

There is a great need for Catholic chaplains, and our troops deserve caring and committed priests. That is not to diminish the interfaith nature of the military chaplaincy. My work in collaboration with Jewish, Muslim and Protestant chaplains has been a highlight of my military service. However, only a priest can provide Catholic troops the Eucharist; only a priest can anoint; only a priest can offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Having a Catholic chaplain minister to Catholic troops brings added comfort to them and to their families. I remember clearly the first fallen soldier I prayed for at Balad Air Base in Iraq. As I did not know his denomination, my plan was to say some prayers that would be acceptable to all faith groups as I greeted his body. Yet moments before the plane that carried his body arrived, the sergeant I was with told me the young man was Catholic. I prayed our Catholic Prayer of the Dead. This soldier had made the ultimate sacrifice. It was a privilege to honor him in a way that only a Catholic chaplain could.

It breaks my heart when I hear that someone is in need of the sacraments but no priest is nearby. There is such a shortage of priests in all branches of the military that many of our Catholic troops do not have priests to care for them. I pray that more priests will step forward and that Catholics in the Archdiocese of Boston will always have plenty of priests to provide pastoral care. I ask your prayers for an increase of vocations to the priesthood and for your encouragement of those discerning a call.

Catholic Leadership

During the presidential election, I wrote in this column about our calling to be faithful Catholics and faithful citizens, about our responsibility to bring the moral framework our faith provides to the national, state and local dialogue. That same principle applies to providing Catholic chaplains to serve in the military. We bring the Catholic voice to the chaplaincy. Just as our participation in civic life makes an impact on society, our participation in military life makes an impact on that institution. We are able to advocate for our Catholic military members and their families, keep them connected to their faith, and support them in ways that chaplains from other denominations cannot.

Enhanced Skills

Dioceses benefit when their priests return from their service as military chaplains because they receive an added perspective on leadership and superb professional training and experience. For example, much of the strategic planning I did when I served on the Air Force Chief of Chaplains staff has served the diocese well in my ministry as Vicar General. I am a better priest and a better vicar general because of my continuing service in the military.

When we look at the sacrifices our servicemen and women make to keep us free and safe, a few days of my time does not seem much to give. When I look at the inspirational service of the many dedicated priests in the Archdiocese and in the military, I am honored and humbled that God called me to be one of them. I am grateful to all who serve in these capacities and who support me in this service. On this Ordination weekend, let us pray for all priests and for all those called to priesthood. On this Memorial Day, let us pray for our troops, past and present, Reserve and Guard, and their families, and let us continue to pray for peace. Let us pray for all who serve God and let us pray for all who serve our country.

Father Richard M. Erikson is Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia of the Archdiocese of Boston.