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Aspiring Military Chaplains Prepare to Serve Parishioners, Members of the Military

by Karla Dorweiler

All seminarians prayerfully discern God’s call to the priesthood. Some discern an additional summons: the call to be a military chaplain. 

United States military chaplains minister to men and women in the Army, Navy, and Air Force; Navy chaplains also serve those in the Marines and Coast Guard. Men who choose to be chaplains are co-sponsored in the seminary by their home dioceses and the Archdiocese for Military Services (AMS) based in Washington, D.C. In addition to financial resources, this partnership provides seminarians support through the AMS and networking opportunities with other chaplain candidates in seminaries across the country.

Three seminarians at Sacred Heart Major Seminary are currently enrolled in the Co-Sponsored Seminarian Program.

Matthew Kurt, a third-year theology seminarian, is a chaplain candidate with the AMS and the Archdiocese of Detroit. He began to consider military service at a young age when he told his aunt he wanted to be the president of the United States; she responded by saying she would never vote for a president without military experience. 

His desire to serve the country grew, and he attended Michigan State University on an ROTC scholarship. There, a second and higher yearning—to serve God as a priest—became clear to him. In May 2018 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army, and he entered Sacred Heart that fall.

“There’s such a great need for chaplains. By far, the largest religious denomination in the Army is Catholic,” said Kurt. “I like the idea of being a servant to those who serve. These men and women are in real danger and they need the sacraments.”

In addition to his studies at Sacred Heart, Kurt serves one weekend per month in the Army Reserves, shadowing military chaplains at units in Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana. While the time spent training with the military is essential to chaplain candidates, their formation as priests is paramount.

Father Matthew Gray, AMS Vocations Director and liaison between all branches of the military and the dioceses, has been an Air Force chaplain for seven years. He tells men discerning chaplaincy they must first discern if they’re being called as a priest and then discern where they’re being called within that vocation.

“The military needs chaplain priests who are in love with Jesus Christ in their own life, whose identity is priest above all,” said Father Gray. “St. Teresa of Calcutta said that the world doesn’t need more priests, the world needs holy priests. I would add to that and say that the military doesn’t need more chaplains; the military needs holy chaplains.”

Being a military chaplain felt natural to first-year theology student Mark Wagner from the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin. He wanted to be a priest since he started altar serving in third grade, and his father serves full-time with the Wisconsin Air National Guard in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His mother is an Air Force veteran. 

“When I started the process of looking more intentionally at military chaplaincy, I focused on the idea of always retaining that priestly identity first and foremost. The priestly heart will serve me in the parish, and the priestly heart will serve me in the military,” Wagner said. “Sacred Heart’s formation program encourages me to enter deeply into the spiritual life and form that identity.”

First-year theology seminarians volunteer together in hospital ministry, going into patients’ rooms to talk and pray with them. Wagner believes he’ll draw from this experience as a military chaplain.

“This has allowed me to break down those barriers with people I don’t know and might never see again,” said Wagner. “In the military, the chaplains are there ultimately to provide ministry and sacraments to people. But another duty is to counsel and walk with military members in their sufferings and joys, including those of different backgrounds.”

Father Gray emphasizes the urgent need for Catholic military chaplains. There are 194 chaplains deployed across all branches of the military around the world. This number falls short of the need, causing service men and women in some units to go for months without a priest. Thirty-eight seminarians are currently in formation from 33 dioceses around the U.S. 

Zachary Glick is a third-year theology student from the Diocese of Gary, Indiana. As a mechanical engineering student in the ROTC program at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana, he had been accepted to the Air Force Pilot Training Program during his junior year. Then, at the beginning of his senior year, he experienced a reversion to his Catholic faith. The more he got to know the priests through his campus ministry, the more he saw their great joy and wanted that for himself.

“I was doing well on a worldly level with academics and sports, but I didn’t feel a sense of peace. I felt like I was running [on] a hamster wheel. When I came back to church, I found that peace,” Glick said. 

He prayed about what to do next, asking for God’s will instead of his own, and learned that he could be a chaplain for the Air Force. Glick realized that this was what his heart had been seeking. 

“I have a strong desire to bring sacraments to airmen and women and their families to places in the world where they might not otherwise have access, and to bring Christ to people who haven’t had that experience yet,” Glick said. “I want to be able to share the same grace that was poured out on me through the Eucharist in my senior year with others—to show those in the military how much God loves them and how much he has already worked in their life.”

Glick, Kurt, and Wagner share a bond as military brothers that will last beyond their days at Sacred Heart. For now, within the halls of seminary, they proudly wear the t-shirt touting the Archdiocese for Military Services. 

“The other seminarians know we’re around. We all have the same swag, and we all have the same haircut,” Kurt said. 

Upon ordination, a priest serves pastorally in his civilian diocese for three years before being assigned to a post as an active-duty military chaplain. As part of the agreement with the AMS and the civilian dioceses, chaplains are required to serve five years in active duty, after which time they may consult with their bishop and possibly serve additional time. Priests who are deployed as chaplains are considered “on loan” from their home dioceses with permission from their bishops.

All three seminarians look forward to the day when they can minister in a parish and then in the line of duty.

“Sacred Heart is preparing us for chaplaincy by grounding us in our identity as beloved sons of God,” said Glick. “And that’s important because as a military chaplain, if you’re not grounded in a relationship with Christ, you’re not going to be able to serve the people as they need it.” 

by Karla Dorweiler

Karla Dorweiler

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Sacred Heart Major Seminary is a Christ-centered Catholic community of faith and higher learning committed to forming leaders who will proclaim the good news of Christ to the people of our time. As a leading center of the New Evangelization, Sacred Heart serves the needs of the Archdiocese of Detroit and contributes to the mission of the universal Church.