During Operation Just Cause in Panama, Father Mike Biewend recalls being near conflict on Christmas day.

“We had to celebrate midnight Mass in the dark without any light,” remembered the priest. “The faith of the people was astonishing.”

Father Biewend, pastor of The Madeleine Parish in Northeast Portland, was ordained for the Archdiocese of Portland in 1980 and joined the U.S. Air Force in 1984. He was on active duty for 22 years before retiring as a lieutenant colonel. His entire time in the Air Force was spent ministering as a Catholic priest.

During his time in the Air Force, Father Biewend was assigned to work across the globe, from Panama to the Middle East to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

In some places, he would celebrate Mass for the underground Catholic Church. In these communities, local Catholics not only had to worship in secret but also wouldn’t have access to a priest for long periods.

Once, Father Biewend had to celebrate a funeral for a pilot who died after ejecting from an airplane during an emergency. He left behind a wife and six children.

It was working with young Air Force families that impacted Father Biewend’s faith life the most. While assigned to work at the Air Force Academy, he worked with soon-to-be officers who would become leaders in the military.

“To have the opportunity to  be part of their faith formation and leadership was phenomenal,” said Father Biewend, adding that he not only ministered to Catholics but to people outside the faith as well. “That deepened my own faith commitment.”

 

Naval priest

Father Terry O’Connell described standing outside of a chapel tent at his post at a refugee camp in Guantanamo Bay talking with passersby when a woman covered in blood grabbed hold of him. She had been stabbed multiple times. Guards at the nearby gate were able to get her first aid and an ambulance. Although he was a reserve officer, Father O’Connell was brought into active duty in 1994 to work in the refugee camps in Cuba. “It turned out that she was stabbed by her husband,” remembered Father O’Connell, pastor of St. Juan Diego Parish in Northwest Portland. The husband had stabbed his wife with the idea that she would have to be flown to a hospital in Miami, with her husband accompanying her. From there, the husband had thought they would escape the hospital into the American city. The woman was flown to a hospital in Miami but the husband was not allowed to accompany her.

“There’s a lot of desperation in those camps,” recalled Father O’Connell.

Father O’Connell joined the U.S. Navy in 1981. After five years as a line officer on active duty, he switched to reserve duty and attended seminary with the Archdiocese of Portland. He continued his service in the naval reserves until 2002, when he retired as a lieutenant commander. Having been ordained in 1992, he had spent the last half of his naval career in the chaplain corps.

Father O’Connell credits the Navy for his pursuit of the priesthood. As an officer aboard a destroyer, he was expected to take on additional duties. One of the duties he took on was as a Catholic lay leader. Ships as small as a destroyer aren’t big enough to have their own chaplains on board. So, he would hold Communion services at sea with consecrated hosts he picked up when the ship was in port. Sailors would also come to him with problems periodically. The experience was important for the young officer.

“I thought, maybe I could do that,” recalled Father O’Connell. After deciding that he didn’t want to make the Navy a full time career, he spent time in prayer asking God for direction on what his vocation should be. He decided on the seminary.

“Right at that time, that moment, it felt different. It felt right. I felt at peace with it,” said Father O’Connell.

 

Combat sacraments

Because of the unique sacramental importance of priests, Father Martin King has been asked to go places that other non-Catholic chaplains don’t usually go.

“If they’re in a war zone, you get helicoptered in to care for those people,” said Father King, pastor of St. Thomas More Parish in Southwest Portland. Catholic chaplains must be willing to go into areas that are remote and dangerous to get to those faithful who are in great need of sacramental care. Father King considers his deployment to Afghanistan to have been the most difficult, most dangerous but also most fulfilling of his experiences in the Air Force.

Father King enlisted in the Air Force in 1980. Ten years later, he transitioned to the reserves so that he could complete seminary studies. He was ordained in 1996. He returned to active duty as an officer and as a chaplain soon after and retired from the Air Force as a major in 2015.

Catholic chaplains in the Air Force have a routine similar to a parish priest’s. Outside of sacramental obligations, Catholic chaplains, however, also provide pastoral care for those who are not Catholic. They provide counseling for anyone seeking help from a chaplain. And as the military is so diverse, those under the chaplain’s pastoral care will be from all different backgrounds and walks of life.

“Experiences you get as a chaplain, you’d never get as a priest because you’re exposed to so many different things,” said Father King.

Unlike most priests, military chaplains have to help personnel deal with family tragedies while the person is thousands of miles from home. They have to help personnel who are in constant danger. They have to help personnel from varying religious and ethnic backgrounds.

Then there’s the travel. Father King has been to places where the Catholic communities are older than the Roman church. He’s celebrated Mass on the banks of the Euphrates River. He’s stood a stones-throw from Daniel’s den. He’s been to Abraham’s childhood homeland.

“You get to experience the Catholic Christian faith or Christianity on a global level rather than on a local level,” said Father King.

During 34 years in the Air Force, Father King has been stationed throughout the world, ministering not just to members of the Air Force, but members of the Army, Navy and Marines, as well.

“You recognize on a global level the importance of your role as a priest and what you bring sacramentally and pastorally to people who recognize that without you, they have very little hope,” concluded Father King.

sarahw@catholicsentinel.org

 

SIDEBAR

Military personnel serve either on active duty or reserve duty. The first is what most think of when they hear about the military. Active duty personnel work in the military full time, each and every day. Reserve personnel do not serve full time. Instead they spend one weekend a month and two weeks every year on duty. They are usually called up to serve in an active duty role at least once during their career.