Ministry to troops vital, vicar general says at lecture

BOSTON -- The presence of Catholic priests in Iraq has a profound effect on the troops they serve, said Father Richard Erikson, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Boston.

He was speaking March 1 at the Old State House in downtown Boston to those gathered for Christ Speaks in the City, a lecture series sponsored by the archdiocesan Vocations Office. Aimed at young professionals, the monthly lunchtime series was launched last fall and will continue this spring from March to May.

As an Air Force chaplain deployed to Balad, Iraq in 2004, the vicar general said he served many injured troops at Balad’s two medical facilities. One young Catholic man told him, “Thank you so much. Never has a priest cared for me as you have done.”

“That is an example of the effect we can have in ministry in a war setting,” Father Erikson told the lunchtime crowd.

Another serviceman was hit by the blast of a grenade thrown by an 8-year-old Iraqi girl, and sustained non life-threatening injuries. The man believed God saved his life and told Father Erikson, “Chaplain, I have not been close to God in my life, but that all changed today.”

“When you’re literally living each day with life and death, then your connection with the Lord is challenged,” Father Erikson said. “It brings you face-to-face with the reality that life is short.”

Father Erikson was ordained in the archdiocese in 1985 and served the next three years at St. Mary Parish in Lynn. After a period of studies in Los Angeles earning a doctorate in sociology, he taught for four years at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton. It was during that time he decided to volunteer to serve as a military chaplain, which he did for seven years.

Father Erikson said he hoped the experience would give him a deeper sense of commitment to Christ in his life. After serving in a teaching position for several years, Father Erikson was deployed to Balad, the center of the insurgency and most attacked sector in Iraq.

“We were, and Balad remains, constantly under attack, so mortars and rockets were coming in constantly,” he said.

Father Erikson said he left the comforts of home behind. Accommodations included tents and bathrooms shared with hundreds of other people.

“You’d say, ‘I would do anything for orange juice,’ and then suddenly a truck of orange juice would arrive and after four or five days you’d say, ‘Stop it with the orange juice, will you,’” he said.

Contact with the outside world was limited and very much appreciated, he added. Boxes of greeting cards arrived from the United States for the troops who were wounded in combat.

“I would know that these troops were injured even before their family would know,” he said. “These cards were their first contact with people back at home.”

After a 40-day tour, Father Erikson returned to the United States and was later assigned to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. He was preparing for his new position when he received a call from Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley’s office about returning to Boston and serving as vicar general.

“I thought about Hawaii a lot in July and August. I thought a real lot about Hawaii in January,” Father Erikson joked.

“Accepting the challenging ministry of vicar general was difficult, but leaving the ministry of the military was more difficult. That was the hardest decision of my life because of the great need we have for priests and the sacraments in the military,” he added.

Father Erikson said his service in Iraq has changed his perspective on what is important.

“As you all know the Archdiocese of Boston has been through enormous crisis in the past five years, and I believe [that] I have hope in the days to come because of what is most important in life. Christ has not changed. Faith in the Church has been shaken, but we will survive,” he said.

Cindy Patriarca, a parishioner at St. Mary Parish in Foxborough, works across the street from the Old State House and said that the lectures have been very good.

“They’re very informative, and this one was very emotional,” she said. “You hear about the soldiers who are killed, but you don’t hear much about the ones who are severely injured.”

The next Christ Speaks in the City lecture will be delivered by venture capital investor Jo Tango who will speak about “Making Time for God” on March 22. Upcoming dates include April 26 and May 24.