Military chaplains serve God and country
by Jenny Schweyer
In a secular society where even the slightest references to God have been stripped from most public institutions, there remains one significant organization in Canada where the gospel is allowed to be proclaimed. Not only is it allowed, it is encouraged, to the point that leaders of faith are actively being recruited to serve within the organization: the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).
Canadians are often surprised to hear that spiritual wellbeing is one of the CAF’s core values, along with physical, mental and social wellbeing. “The CAF, as an organization, recognizes the value of its members having a spiritual life, because it gives them a sense of purpose and meaning,” says Capt. Rob Schweyer, an army chaplain working out of CFB Petawawa (Ontario). Because of this, chaplains play a pivotal role within the Armed Forces.
The CAF consists of the Canadian Army and Army Reserve, the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Canadian Air Force. Each of the 25 CAF bases across Canada has at least one chaplain. Most have more than one, and some, like CFB Petawawa (Canada’s most populous military base), have dozens of chaplains serving its members.
CAF chaplains, who are referred to as “Padres,” come from all different faith backgrounds, including Protestant/evangelical denominations as well as Catholic. Each base offers at least one weekly Protestant chapel service and a Catholic mass. Depending on the size and makeup of the base, there may be other spiritual practices and services taking place for First Nations, Jewish or Muslim members as well as members of other faiths.
Because spiritual wellbeing is one of the pillars of the overall health of CAF members, it is obligated to ensure that every single member has access to a chaplain of his or her own faith or spiritual practice. Even overseas, where there may only be a single chaplain for an entire group of deployed soldiers on a base, chaplains are responsible to connect a member to someone from his or her own faith from within the local community, or even via the web if necessary.
However, chaplains’ influence isn’t limited to the confines of the base chapel building. As CAF officers, they have duties within their respective branches. They are part of the chain of command in situations of crisis or emergency. For instance, if someone in a member’s family is ill or passes away, the member must seek permission for leave to attend to the situation by first going through the chaplain in his or her unit. In this way, chaplains are the ‘first stop’ when a member must navigate the chain of command.
Because of this, chaplains like Schweyer often have the opportunity to minister to members during some of the saddest and darkest parts of their lives. In fact, it is during such times that members can be most open to having a chaplain pray over them, share a passage of Scripture with them or even delve into the gospel message. For a member in crisis, a Padre may be the first person to offer him or her a glimmer of hope in a time of adversity.
Padres are highly respected within all branches of the CAF, which gives them unique opportunities to connect with members on a level that members are unable to with other CAF officers. “Every member knows that the Padres are concerned with their spiritual welfare,” Schweyer stated. This culture of respect, balanced with a sense that Padres are approachable, gives members the confidence and freedom to seek out a Padre during times of need, whether it’s a tragedy, personal crisis, or they’re simply seeking answers to spiritual questions.
Another responsibility that is often tasked to chaplains is death notifications. Although deaths as a direct result of military service are rare during peace times, they do occasionally occur. A chaplain will often be one of the two or three officers who show up to inform a family member that a loved one has been killed in action. Although it is one of the most difficult aspects of a chaplain’s job, it is another avenue by which a chaplain is able to minister during a time of crisis.
“Being a chaplain is unlike any other role in the military,” Schweyer maintains. Because every chaplain must be commissioned and accredited through his or her own denomination’s governing body, chaplains are answerable, spiritually and in practice, to their own denominations. The CAF respects the autonomy of each denomination/faith represented by its chaplains, and allows each chaplain to practice accordingly.
“A Baptist chaplain will never be required to pronounce last rites. A Catholic chaplain will never be asked to conduct an immersion baptism,” Schweyer relates. “In this way, as chaplains, we kind of have a foot in both worlds: the military and the church.”
It’s this unique authority structure that allows a chaplain to form relationships of trust with its members because, at the end of the day, members know that their words will not only be welcomed and respected, but they will also be held in confidence. According to Schweyer, “It opens up doors that would otherwise would remain closed.”