I was engaged in a Google image search search earlier today simply inserting the word, "Catholic." Naturally, all sorts of images began to appear. On page one of the results, the picture above caught my eye -- a picture of my Norbertine Confrere of Saint Norbert Abbey, Michael Weber, O. Praem. was quick to surface.
I think I can speak for my brothers in stating that the members of Saint Norbert Abbey are very proud of Mike's work in the Air Force -- as well as the faithful contributions of Father Steven Vanden Boogard, O. Praem. who serves in the US Navy.
I've heard many reports about Steve's self-less ministry in the Navy, and I actually had two opportunities to see Mike in action. The first event was close to 20 years ago when I was a seminarian completing my hospital chaplaincy at the Penrose-St. Francis Health Care System in Colorado Springs. Mike was serving just to my north in Aurora, just outside of Denver. I was able to attend one of his Masses at the base -- I surely felt a home when he not only mentioned the name of the Military Archdiocesan Ordinary in the Eucharistic Prayer, but also "Benjamin, my Abbot." It was Mike's way of connecting the Order to his work in the military.
A more recent visit with Mike witnessed my engagement in a Day of Reflection for the troops in Grand Forks, North Dakota where Mike seemed to walk on water -- he was so well respected by the troops there. Not to take anything away from his ministry, but given it was nearly 50 degrees below zero those days, it was pretty easy to walk on water up north, just shy of the Canadian border -- the US "Northern Front!"
Here's the article from Military Services that accompanied the picture of Father Mike hard at work... ... ...
By Patrick Winn - Staff writer Posted : Monday Oct 29, 2007 7:21:14 EDT
Catholic chaplains — among the Air Force’s most difficult recruits — are flocking to the service in record numbers.
Though more than one-fourth of Americans and airmen are Catholic, chaplain priests have only dribbled into the Air Force in recent years; just one joined in 2005. But during the 2007 recruiting cycle that ended Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, 11 Catholics signed up for active duty, and six joined the Air Force Reserve.
That would be quite a haul even for a nonmilitary Roman Catholic Church diocese. Air Force recruiting leaders credit this banner year to the patient courtship of priests, already in short supply within the Roman Catholic Church. Persuading priests to join the service and securing the blessing of their diocese can require years of negotiation.
Of the Air Force’s current corps of 591 chaplains, two are Muslim, five are Christian Orthodox, eight are Jewish and 84 are Catholic. The overwhelming majority, 492 chaplains, are Protestant, as are 52 percent of Americans, according to the CIA World Fact Book.
As with all faiths, a potential Protestant chaplain recruit’s credentials must be validated by a Defense Department specialist. But Catholic priests, obedient to a vast church hierarchy, must also receive clearance from their local bishop.
Bishops “not only have to nominate them and say, ‘Yes, this person is a Catholic priest’ and validate that,” said Brig. Gen. Suzanne Vautrinot, commander of the Air Force Recruiting Service. “They also have to say, ‘I am willing to release [him] to the military diocese.‘“ This hurdle was a major contributor to dwindling recruit figures, down to an average of 2.8 priests accessed in the Air Force each year from 1999 to 2005.
But the recruitment of priests hit a turning point with “Come Be With Us,” a three-day familiarization tour held twice a year in Colorado Springs, Colo., that ushers potential recruits through the Air Force Academy and the space-focused Peterson and Schriever Air Force bases. Starting two years ago, recruiters mailed out 14,000 postcards to priests, inviting them to the event in hopes of generating interest in the chaplain corps.
The handful that responded were flown to the Air Force facilities and introduced to the day-to-day life of an Air Force Catholic chaplain. They’re shown parish activities, the singles and family ministries and on-base chaplain housing. They meet one-on-one with airmen, as well as cadets, commanders and sergeants. They even get rides in a C-130 Hercules cargo plane or a two-seat glider.
Eight tours later, recruiters claim about 75 percent of participating priests have signed up. “For most, it’s been a lack of exposure,” said retired Chaplain (Col.) John Kurzak, the Air Force Recruiting Service’s director of chaplain accessions. Counting Kurzak, four Air Force recruiters are devoted to priests. They describe the process as a “journey.”
“That journey could be one or five years. But without sustaining that journey, we lose people,” Kurzak said. “They’ve never understood that this type of ministry exists. We’re offering a providential way for them to discern if this is a calling.”
Chaplain recruiters in the Air Force can’t offer bonuses. But they often allow a priest to continue ministering to his local diocese, a huge selling point for the Roman Catholic Church. According to the Roman Catholic Church, since 1980, the number of priests in the U.S. has shrunk by more than 25 percent, a trend that shows no signs of reversing. “From a ministry point of view, it’s difficult for [the church] to give up a body when they have a requirement in their own dioceses,” Kurzak said. Still, he said, priests have joined partly to do work in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they feel they’re needed most.
The Air Force’s struggle to attract Catholic priests, though, is not unique among the military services. There are only 140 priests in the Navy and 105 in the Army, though 40 percent of sailors and 28 percent of soldiers are Catholic, according to the Archdiocese for the Military Services.