By S.L. Hansen
LINCOLN (SNR) - November 11 is Veterans Day, an occasion set aside to thank and honor all living people who served honorably in the military, either during war or peace. This includes several priests of the Diocese of Lincoln: those who served in the military before becoming priests, and those who have served as military chaplains.
Father John Zastrow, retired, is one of several diocesan priests who are military veterans. Born on a farm in Dakota County, he was in high school when World War II began. Rather than wait to be drafted, he decided to enlist in the Air Force. (Related item: Father Zastrow among priests celebrating anniversaries at Chrism Mass)
“We’re talking about 70 years ago,” Father Zastrow said. “Planes weren’t that common. And I think at the time, the idea of being a fighter pilot… it was a romantic kind of thing.”
The Air Force trained him to be a navigator on a base in Santa Anna, Calif. That’s where he met a military chaplain for the first time.
“There was Father Clasby, and Father Muldoon,” Father Zastrow said. “They got all of the Catholics together and sort of got us active in the Church…. They were excellent priests.”
He recalls Father (later Msgr.) William J. Clasby particularly well.
“He was just an excellent man,” Father Zastrow said.
Msgr. Clasby remained a military chaplain after the war. He was stationed in Anchorage, Alaska, and eventually promoted to colonel. He also succeeded Archbishop Fulton Sheen as featured speaker on the Catholic Hour radio show. Father Zastrow listened to him regularly.
Even after 70 years, it can be hard for Father Zastrow to look back on his military service.
“There was a lot of cruelty on both sides,” he sighed. “I’m not ashamed at what I did, but I am not sure I want to brag about it too much…. As a priest, I see it a little differently now.”
While stationed in Guam, flying missions with 10 other crewmates on a B-29 bomber, Father Zastrow had another Catholic chaplain to provide moral guidance. Only 21 at the time, and facing life and death every day, he can’t remember the chaplain’s name, but he remembered what that priest did for him and the other Catholic servicemen.
“He had Mass for us,” he recalled. “When we would be going out on a raid, we could go see the chaplain and he would give us general absolution so that if we didn’t get back, we might go to a good place.”
Father Zastrow thinks that military chaplains provide necessary help for personnel, whether on a base, at home, or in the theatre of war.
“It was comforting, yes…. I was happy to have the chaplain available,” he said. “They weren’t putting their lives on the line, but they were out there with us.”
A couple of years after the war ended, Father Zastrow realized his own calling to the priesthood. He can see some similarities to the role of soldier and priest.
“It’s kind of a life of service — service to others and service to a higher cause,” mused Father Zastrow. “Of course, the priesthood is a higher cause than the military.”
For that reason, Father Zastrow isn’t particularly interested in celebrating Veterans Day as a veteran himself.
“My priesthood has become more important than that service was,” he said.
He was never asked to serve as a military chaplain, but other priests in the diocese have. Today, priests from any diocese or religious order in the U.S. can be released by their bishops to serve in the Archdiocese for the Military Services (AMS). AMS was created by Pope Saint John Paul II to provide a full range of Catholic ministries and spiritual services to members of the U.S.
Armed Forces. According to the AMS website, chaplains now serve more than 1.8 million men, women and children in the U.S. and 134 other countries.
Living priests of the Diocese of Lincoln who have served include Fathers Barnhill, Gross, Kane, Panzer and Thomlison.
Father Robert Barnhill is pastor of Saint Joseph Parish in Beatrice. He retired from the military last June after many years of service as Air National Guard chaplain.
Father Gary Gross is a chaplain for the U.S. Army. Ranked a colonel, he is currently stationed at Fort Irwin in California.
Father Brian Kane is dean of men in the Theology Division at St. Charles Borromeo Serminary in Wynnewood, Pa. He is also a chaplain in the Nebraska Army National Guard with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Father Joel Panzer is stationed in Fayetteville, N.C., with the U.S. Army. Ranked a major, he is senior priest of the Catholic community at Fort Bragg.
Father Steven Thomlison, pastor of Saint Stephen Parish in Exeter, is chaplain for the Nebraska Army National Guard, as well as the Nebraska State Patrol.
Father Michael Zimmer, a teacher at Pius X High School in Lincoln and master of ceremonies for Bishop Conley, is currently in the application process to become a chaplain for the Air National Guard.
He is intended to take the place of Father Barnhill in serving local guardsmen and women and their families.