Story by Reagan Scott
(SNR) – Last month, Father Michael Zimmer, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Sutton and St. Helena Parish in Grafton, was commissioned as a chaplain for the Nebraska Air National Guard.
After working through the process for two years, Father Zimmer is excited to serve the service members and their families.
Following Father Robert Barnhill’s retirement from the position after 20 years of service, Bishop James Conley asked Father Zimmer if he would be willing to fill Father Barnhill’s spot. For Father Zimmer, the decision to say yes was an easy one.
“I’d had a love for the military for a long time, even before the seminary,” he said. “It was a good fit.”
For the past two years, Father Zimmer would go on base once a month to celebrate Mass, but now that he has been commissioned, his role has been expanded. Once a month, Father Zimmer will spend a weekend on base to celebrate Mass and be available for the people there and will spend an additional two weeks performing extra duties throughout the year.
Father Brian Kane, a priest of the Diocese of Lincoln serving as dean of men at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary near Philadelphia, and deputy state chaplain for the Army National Guard, said a chaplain has two main roles.
“The first is to provide spiritual and pastoral care to service members and their families,” he said, “and the second is to advise commanders on issues pertaining to morals, morale and policy both in combat and in peacetime.”
Father Kane also noted that the chaplain has a duty to provide support to not only Catholic service members and their families, but non-Catholics as well.
“The military is a very high-stress environment for many people,” Father Zimmer said. “Any chaplain in the military can be a venting board – it’s a non-disclosure position.”
Having a chaplain available for counseling is a valuable resource, especially as the rates of mental disorders can be higher for soldiers than civilians, as studies have shown.
“Being a chaplain is another opportunity to exercise the priesthood in a very positive way and to serve the military in a way that is helpful,” Father Zimmer said. “I get to serve those who are serving.”
Even with this new position, Father Zimmer still retains his role as pastor in Sutton and Grafton. He is very appreciative of his parishioners’ support of his work as a chaplain.
“This has been a sacrifice on their part, but it’s a very patriotic community, and we have a number of veterans and active military,” he said.
As the Deputy State Chaplain for the Army National Guard, Father Kane serves in a slightly different capacity than Father Zimmer.
“I mentor and provide support to the other chaplains in the state of Nebraska and ensure that they have all of the resources they need,” he said.
Back in 2002, when Father Kane was assistant pastor of the UNL Newman Center, several students in the National Guard approached him and asked if he would consider becoming a chaplain.
With the blessing of Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, Father Kane was sworn in as an officer in 2003 and spent two year-long deployments in Iraq in 2005 and 2010. He said that it is especially important for servicemembers to have chaplains while deployed.
“My experience has been life-changing. I get to bring Jesus into the lives of service members when they are deployed,” Father Kane said. “It’s a gift to be able to help them and their family members.”
Father Kane is grateful to Bishop Conley for his support of the military, especially with the current shortage of priests in the armed services that keeps Catholic service members from getting the sacraments.
Father Zimmer said, “There are a large number of Catholics in the Air National Guard, and I am very grateful that the bishop has allowed me to do this and fill this need.”
Father Kane is excited about Father Zimmer’s new role as chaplain and is looking forward to seeing the positive impact that he will have on base.
“Father Zimmer’s presence will be a great gift to those in the Air National Guard,” he said.