COLUMBIA—Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, celebrated Mass in a gymnasium at Fort Jackson early on the morning of July 31. Bleachers on both sides of the gym were packed with more than 700 men and women in camouflage uniforms, some who arrived carrying equipment they would use in training exercises later in the day. Before the Mass, five priests offered the sacrament of reconciliation to young soldiers who waited patiently in line. After the Mass, soldiers crowded around the archbishop and asked him to bless devotional items or simply to pray for them.
These large crowds are a regular occurrence at the weekly soldiers’ Mass at Fort Jackson, which provides basic training to half of the men and women who enter the U.S. Army each year. It is estimated that one in four soldiers is Catholic.
The crowds, Archbishop Broglio said in an interview with The Miscellany, are symbolic of the huge numbers of Catholics in the military who desperately need the church’s outreach during a time when the United States is fighting two wars and the strain on military personnel and their families nears the breaking point in many cases.
Archbishop Broglio visited Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter July 30 and Fort Jackson July 31 to Aug. 1. He said it was his first visit to Fort Jackson, which is also home to the Chaplaincy Center and School that provides training in all branches of the U.S. military. During his visit, he met with commandants from the school and with Catholic chaplains who serve on the base and work at the school about the growing need for priests in the military.
“The big problem is the overall drop in vocations in general,” he said. “Dioceses around the country are hard-pressed with their own needs, and the reduced numbers are also a big problem for the military archdiocese.”
How drastic is the shortage? Archbishop Broglio said about 800 chaplains are needed to fully serve the needs of all Catholics in the U.S. military. Currently, 285 are on active duty in all four branches.
As archbishop, Broglio deals with the implications of the chaplain shortage on a daily basis.
The Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, is responsible for providing pastoral care to more than 1.5 million Catholic men and women and their families. According to its website, www.milarch.org, the archdiocese’s jurisdiction includes 220 installations in 29 countries, the U.S. military academies, patients in 153 V.A. medical centers, and federal employees serving overseas in 134 countries.
Pope John Paul II created the archdiocese to provide the church’s full range of pastoral and spiritual care to the military. Its first leader was Archbishop Joseph T. Ryan, who took office in 1985. The archdiocese headquarters are in Washington, D.C.
Archbishop Broglio, from the Diocese of Cleveland, was appointed in 2007 and installed in 2008.
The archbishop said one strategy to attract more priests to the armed forces is the co-sponsorship program offered by the military archdiocese.
Through co-sponsorship, the archdiocese agrees to pay half of the education costs for a seminarian with the understanding that he will come on active duty in the military after serving three years in a parish in his home diocese. He said the military has 30 men in the program.
Catholic chaplains serve a vital role for military personnel deployed overseas because, especially in combat situations, they don’t have the comfort of a home parish, he said.
Catholic chaplains must not only bring the sacraments to the faithful, he said, but also help them deal with emotional and mental stress caused by the challenges of combat and repeat deployments.
“A major concern right now, especially in the Army, is the increased suicide rate among soldiers,” Archbishop Broglio said. “It’s a tremendous burden. Many young people today are more fragile than they were in previous times. Some come from fractured homes or more pampered lives, and neither of those things prepares you for war.”
He said the drawn-out wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have forced many personnel to serve two or three tours of duty, have contributed to the mental stress of service members and their families. Broken marriages and homes are on the rise in some military communities.
“The highest price we’ll pay for these wars is what is happening to the families,” he said. “They’re dealing with loneliness, hardship, members returning from duty with post-traumatic stress disorder. We have got to respond to this by helping military personnel to build strong families.”
Archbishop Broglio said civilians could help their fellow believers by supporting service members and their families, offering help when possible and remembering them in prayer.
“Our constant desire at the archdiocese is for people to pray for more priests to serve the troops, and to pray for our faithful in harms way,” he said.
The stark reality of the sacrifices made by Catholics in uniform is always in Archbishop Broglio’s mind, he said. It was evident at the soldiers’ Mass at Fort Jackson.
“After Mass they asked me to bless rosaries or medals attached to dog tags,” he said. “That was very touching. After each one, I then said a silent prayer that the next time someone prayed over this young person, it wouldn’t be because they had been killed in combat.”