By Father Joel Panzer
Chrism Homily 2019: Sacrificial Service
I’m Fr. Joel Panzer, an Army chaplain presently stationed at Ft Knox, KY. For the past 11 years I’ve served outside our Diocese in several locations around the world and stateside. Encountering such a diverse Army flock has widened my eyes and heart to the unique spiritual challenges of our military families. But it’s great whenever I can take some leave time from the Army, and return home to our Diocese of Lincoln. And it’s truly an honor to represent our class as we mark 25 years of priestly service.
At today’s Chrism Mass your priests will renew our sacred ordination promises. Then in three days on Holy Thursday we’ll be visibly reminded just where the essential nature of the priesthood is found: in the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass, and in humble service to the people of God, as signified by the washing of feet. And on Good Friday we’ll commemorate “no greater love” in Christ’s ultimate priestly sacrifice for the salvation of the world.
What we might term “sacrificial service” in the priesthood, for Soldiers it’s called Selfless Service. It’s is one of the seven Army Values: loyalty, respect, duty, selfless service honor, integrity, and personal courage. Selfless Service means that a Soldier will put the welfare of the nation, the Army and his subordinates above his own good. If we cherish freedom and its manifold blessings, then we must be willing to sacrifice in order to preserve it. Freedom is never free.
As Christians, we find our freedom how? By freely submitting ourselves to live under the law of Christ. Authentic freedom is found not by living apart from laws, but by freely abiding by the New Law of Christ. Not freedom from, but freedom for. Freedom for loving God and neighbor, as God has first loved us.
By analogy, the exceptional liberties we enjoy as Americans require some citizens – less than 1% - to freely bind themselves in military service. They are bound by a sacred oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies. Perhaps it’s a bit ironic, but to foster peace in the world we need a strong military presence, both at home & abroad.
The volunteer Soldiers who deploy are part of America’s warrior class. And in some families military service goes back several generations. Soldiers are currently deployed around the world in more than 150 countries. They’ve seen what much of the rest of the world is like, and wish to defend those gifts of faith, freedom and economic opportunity we enjoy here at home.
America remains a beacon of light and liberty in a rather dark and confused world. After 17 long years of war, isolationism may sound attractive. We hear the refrain: bring the troops home! But if we truly care about home, we’ll recognize that disengagement from the world scene is bad foreign policy in this small and interconnected modern world. Soldiers know firsthand that about the only things our enemies & rivals respect are military strength and political resolve.
The one constant I hear from Catholic Soldiers and fellow priest chaplains wherever I go, at least from those in the know, is how truly blest the Church is in Lincoln, Nebraska. They’ve heard of the zeal and faithfulness of our bishops. The caliber and abundance of our priestly and religious vocations. Our commitment to Catholic education. And the families whose prayer, work and sacrifice make it all possible. I love all of these blessings that go to the very heart of our Diocese.
The heart of a diocese normally is considered to be its seminary. And now we have a thriving St Gregory’s Seminary! But to me, the heart of the Diocese of Lincoln has always been the Newman Center at the University of Nebraska. After all, like a heart, Newman draws in college students, even from other Dioceses like it did for me over 30 years ago. Newman then invigorates those young souls with grace, love, direction and a vocational calling to go out and serve somewhere in the greater Church. In that way, Newman pumps forth the oxygenated lifeblood of faith-filled lay graduates, priests and religious to serve in this Diocese and beyond.
So I love our Diocese, and the Newman Center, which was also my first priestly assignment. But I love this country as well, and I love the Army that made our nation free. The Continental Congress established the Army on June 16th 1775. And the birthday of the Army Chaplain Corps is just six weeks later, on July 29, 1775.
Another date, one never to be forgotten: September 11, 2001 - our own generation’s Pearl Harbor. 2,997 Americans died on 9/11. And deaths from 9/11-related illnesses will soon surpass that initial toll. Amazingly, our newest Army recruits weren’t even born when this war started over 17 years ago. Basic training now requires that recruits receive training on the history and purpose of the Global War on Terrorism in which they are volunteering to serve.
Since 9/11, nearly 5,500 military personnel have been killed in action, and 53,000 have been wounded. Those who are willing to risk life and limb for their country deserve to have a priest-chaplain available to them. As do their family members, who attend Mass in the installation chapels. And that’s why I love serving for some 13 years now as a Catholic Army chaplain.
There are 1,360 Army chaplains of various denominations serving on active duty. 23% of the Army is Catholic; that’s 112,000 active duty Soldiers, plus their family members. When I first joined the Army in 2006 there were 120 priests on active duty. Today, just 13 years later, we have only 75 active duty priests. With retirements due to age, health and years of service, over the next four years we anticipate dropping down to 60 active priests. Imagine that: 60 priests out of 1360 chaplains! (Yes, the Army has a whole lot of Baptist chaplains!)
But there is also some good news out there. Recruiting trends, and the number of married priest-chaplains coming over from the Anglican traditions, tell us that in 4 years we’ll then stabilize at around 60 Catholic chaplains. Church studies show the Military itself has become the strongest source of U.S. priestly vocations. Between 4 & 10 percent of priests ordained each year served previously in Armed Forces. And as many as 20 percent or more come from military families. Thus, the Archdiocese for the Military Services is building a robust chaplain candidate program to ensure that future military chaplains will come from the current ranks of seminarians.
Serving in the Army has been both immensely challenging and personally fulfilling at every conceivable level. I also view American history with a greater appreciation, after learning all that it takes to equip, train, sustain and employ an army at war. I follow the world news with a greater interest, since I’ve served in many of those places that make the news, or very soon just might be. I see Soldiers of other denominations in a new light. And I view myself differently as well, as I’ve grown in professional military knowledge, leadership skills and personal resiliency.
How then can I capture service as an Army chaplain? In some ways I suppose it’s akin to serving as a missionary priest, leaving my home diocese behind to go out and serve in remote locations, with few other priests near you. Learning a little about the culture and language of those places. And all the while, learning a whole lot about the culture and language of the US Army, which can seem pretty foreign at first to a parish priest who grew up in rural Nebraska!
Or perhaps it’s like the parable of Lost Sheep. A long-serving Army chaplain of the Diocese of Arlington, VA told me that leaving his large urban parish ministry for the Army felt like “leaving the 99 to go out in search of the one.” But that’s what Jesus the Good Shepherd has done for many of us. And those are kind of good shepherds our Soldiers deserve as well.
The greatest existential threat to the entire Army Chaplain Corps is the lack of Catholic chaplains. If the Army can’t provide religious support to Catholic Soldiers, who are the largest denomination with the greatest religious needs - needs that only a priest can provide - then we’re just one lawsuit away from ending taxpayer-funded military chaplains altogether. And then, for our parish priests, it becomes morally difficult to support parishioners who wish to serve in the military, but who would not have access to the Sacraments.
So as you pray for vocations to the priesthood and religious life, pray for military chaplains, for current and future priests to discern a calling within the calling. A call to render selfless service out of love for the Soldiers who serve our nation. The motto of the Army Chaplain Corps is, after all, Pro Deo et Patria – For God, and For Country. And we even have a patron saint for all Army chaplains, St Martin of Tours.
Like our Diocese of Lincoln, the US Army relies on young men who will answer that call in the spirit of Isaiah the Prophet. God asks: “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” Here am I Lord, send me.