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Fall Ministries - Chaplains

Learning what it is to be ‘Father’ in the Navy

Special Report Writer

About two miles onto the Autostrada in Italy, Lt. Cmdr. Thomas P. Hall noticed a fire truck and a hearse. He had just eaten dinner with a few other military chaplains and a couple of “visiting padres” on the Island of Sicily one night this summer. He’d wanted to drive up Mount Etna to reach his quarters, but a festival was blocking the traffic.

“I was ticked having to change routes.” Seconds later he was reaching into his glove compartment for his oils, rehearsing in his head how to do the Sacrament of the Infirm in Italian. When the Sicilian police found out that Hall was a priest and the chaplain at the U.S. Naval Station in Sicily, they ushered him to the victim -- a sailor, age 19, from Nebraska who’d been thrown from his jeep. No seat belt.

It was the most gruesome accident Hall had seen in his 23 years as a Paulist priest, including the last decade as a Navy chaplain. When he anointed the sailor’s hands, they were still warm. “As I touched his back during the prayer of final committal, I thought of his parents in Nebraska who would soon learn of their son’s fate.”

When the authorities went to remove the body, the other sailors present -- mostly guys in their late teens and early 20s -- formed a human wall to block the site from gawking motorists. Hall called it “a noble effort to preserve a bit of personal dignity,” as the victim’s injuries were so severe that the head had fallen off the corpse.

Hall returned to base to do a Critical Incident Stress Debrief with the witnesses, the first stage in the process of integrating such an experience into one’s memory bank without being paralyzed by the process. He got to bed at 2 a.m.

Early the next day during his indoctrination talk to the newly arrived sailors on Sicily, Hall looked into their young faces and realized it was no accident that he’d ended up on the Autostrada. The previous night had taught him what it means to be called Father, he said. “That poor sailor’s dad would have wanted to be with him in that most critical moment of his short life. But, he was not. Instead, I was there to anoint his body and to touch his back and to pray: ‘May the angels lead you to paradise; may the martyrs come to welcome you and take you to the holy city, the new and eternal Jerusalem.’ ”

Not every day is as dramatic as that night. But being a Navy chaplain brings with it “the most demanding schedule of all the services,” Hall wrote in numerous e-mails from Sicily and onboard ship with the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, where he serves as deputy force chaplain off the coast of Saudi Arabia.

Sailors and deployable Marines frequently draw lengthy assignments in remote settings away from their families. These assignments take a toll on family life and on the spirit of the young sailor that is “unrivaled” in U.S. society, he said. “To be effective, the chaplain must be wherever the sailor or marine is in pain.”

Sometimes sailors are called to a task for which they’ve received no training, as happened last April when the crew of the USNS Saturn retrieved 32 corpses and two additional partial remains from waters in the Gulf of Aden. The badly decomposed bodies were some of the 180 passengers who had perished when a Somali refugee ship had capsized a week earlier, leaving just eight survivors. As it was thought that most of the victims were Muslims, Hall arranged to have two Yemeni imams from Aden go with him to the ship.

The State Department ordered Saturn’s crew to provide burial rights appropriate to the victims. Hall found that the world press gave “scant” coverage to the incident. Still, he said, he will never forget the men and women aboard Saturn “and the dignity with which they executed the task before them.”

The next two weeks found Hall riding three different ships through the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden and observing sailors as they celebrated Passover, Good Friday and Easter. “Each night as I went onto the bridge-wing to pray, I would remember the thousands of families who take to the sea as refugees … searching for promised lands. It is sobering to learn that most don’t survive.”

In port at Bahrain in July, the pastor of Bahrain’s only Catholic church asked Hall to join him on a mission of mercy to 60 Filipino women and youngsters who do not feel welcome at the parish church. For an hour in two small bedrooms of a dirty, crowded apartment, the priests heard the confessions of penitents while their companions prayed the rosary, the Litany of Loretto and the Novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help in the hall.

Later the two said Mass while an older woman recited for 15 minutes in Spanish and Tagalog the names of the many deceased people for whom the Mass was being offered. Hall later learned why only a few took Communion. He was told that most of the women, having fled the Philippines because of the exigencies of survival and having few employment skills, work as mistresses to Bahraini men.

When the priests left, they were showered with expensive floral bouquets and enough food to feed 50 people. The women took the priests’ hands and pressed them to their foreheads and lips. “I will remember the flowers, the food and the kisses to my hands. I will remember what they did to feed their children … and that they were too humble to receive the Body of Christ or to enter the big church downtown.”

Hall enrolled as a Navy ROTC midshipman at Marquette University in Milwaukee in 1966, but deferred his commission as a naval officer to attend seminary. “I did so with the hope that I would someday serve as a Navy chaplain.”

Hall has always considered the Paulist Fathers to be the consummate public relations men for the Catholic church in America. “I believe I’m at my best as a priest when I’m serving in a secular environment,” he said. “The military is the most secular of U.S. institutions. It’s the greatest melting pot on earth.”

Many in the military have “little or no exposure to ethical principles, much less organized religion.” For Hall, naval chaplaincy provides the best place to live out his Paulist vocation of ecumenism, reconciliation and evangelizing the unchurched.

Part of his decade in the Navy came at the time of U.S. air strikes against Iraq, Afghanistan and the Sudan. Hall was “edified by the concern and sensitivity” of his commanding officers. Their task was to destroy weapons and materials that threatened U.S. interests in the region. But “they were individuals with moral and religious convictions who strove to accomplish their mission with a minimal loss of life. It was a time when people’s faith was most evident and when my own faith was most alive.”

Last month Hall and many in the Navy prayed frequently for the Russian sailors locked inside the sunken submarine, Kursk. Currently there are no chaplains with the Russian fleet, but the Russian navy and the fleets of the Baltic States are in the process of establishing chaplaincy corps. In November Hall will travel to Latvia to provide information on U.S. naval chaplaincies.

Hall has been passed over for promotion to the rank of commander five times -- a situation that has felt like “a kick in the teeth” to someone who had rarely failed at anything. But this setback has taught him that the people he serves are oblivious to his rank. “They all call me ‘Father.’ I’ve come to realize that the most important things I accomplish every day have nothing to do with my rank, but everything to do with the priesthood. Promotion would not have taught me the same lesson.”

National Catholic Reporter, September 15, 2000