Diocesan News

Chaplains an Important Part of Nation’s Military, Church

CHAPLAIN - Father Brian Kane (right), a priest of the Diocese of Lincoln currently serving as a brigade chaplain for the U.S. Army in southern Iraq, is pictured at a base where the ancient city of Ur once existed, home of the prophet Abraham. Excavations have revealed the ziggurat, a pagan temple at the site, as well as the foundations of the home believed to belong to Abraham’s family. Father Kane is pictured with his Chaplain Assistant, SGT Devin Lovgren on top of the ziggurat. (Photo courtesy Father Kane)


(SNR) - Because of the stresses associated with war and other forms of military action – which are present even in times of peace as troops train and prepare to defend our nation – chaplains are an important part of the structure of the U.S. military.

Several priests of the Diocese of Lincoln take time to serve our men and women in uniform as military chaplains.

Father Gary Gross, who has more than 20 years of military chaplain service to his credit, is currently serving multiple bases in Kuwait and Iraq.

Father Robert Barnhill, while tending to his pastoral duties at St. John Parish in Cambridge and St. Germanus Parish in Arapahoe, also serves as chaplain for the Nebraska Air National Guard, based in Lincoln.

Father Brian Kane has been serving as a brigade chaplain for the U.S. Army in southern Iraq at the Contingency Operating Base (COB) since last August.

Father Joel Panzer is a chaplain at Schofield Barracks, a U.S. Army post in Honolulu, Hawaii.

The work of a military chaplain is much like the work of a parish priest, with a few significant differences.

Father Kane serves the 67th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, a Nebraska Army National Guard unit that includes soldiers from across the state as well as from Utah, Connecticut and Montana.

"Approximately 25% of them are Catholic, the average across the Army," he said.

However, he is there to serve all soldiers of all faith backgrounds.

"All chaplains are responsible for the spiritual well-being of the soldiers in our unit, regardless of religion," Father Kane noted. "If there is something I can’t perform it is my job to refer them to a chaplain who can."

Though Father Kane is in Iraq, Father Panzer is at a stateside Army post, and Father Barnhill is interacting with reserve troops on weekends, they share some similar duties. Each provides pastoral and religious care to soldiers (and their families, as applicable).

Father Barnhill summarized the core duties: "pastoral counseling, visitation of unit members in their workplaces, attending staff meetings, leading prayer at official ceremonies."

In Father Kane’s case, he’s also responsible for understanding the local religions and morals of the area so he can advise his commanding officers as needed. Meanwhile, he’s charged with making sure that each soldier’s freedom of religion is protected.

Plus, he has to travel to other bases in Iraq that are without military chaplains so that he can offer the sacraments to Catholic troops who must live without them much of the time.

"When I arrived," he said, "I was visiting bases in September that hadn’t had a priest since May."

Father Kane noted what is possibly one of his most sobering duties: suicide awareness. Soldiers serving in Iraq have shown an alarmingly high rate of suicide, and chaplains are often in a position to identify symptoms and offer much-needed help.

Each of these priests are there for the troops for all the tough stuff: state demobilization and family readiness (coming home to the States isn’t as easy as one might think), casualty notification, and so on.

But there are always positive events for a military chaplain as well.

"I am also going to be teaching an RCIA class starting this month," Father Kane said. "The interest is high. I probably have 10 people who have said they would like to attend."

Father Kane also supervises four other chaplains who are serving the same brigade in various locations across Iraq, helping each of them provide pastoral care as necessary.

Both Father Barnhill and Father Kane encouraged people to support the troops in prayer as well as in practical ways.

"Some send specific care packages with toiletries, candies, magazines, and so on," said Father Barnhill.

Father Kane agreed on the necessity of care packages.

"I am amazed at the generosity of people at home. We also receive letters and cards of support and thanks," he said. "Although the offer of prayer is less tangible, I believe that it is even more appreciated."

Father Kane is quick to point out to struggling soldiers that they have the prayerful support of so many people back in the U.S.

"I know it is contributing to our physical and spiritual safety," he said. "Offering Masses, rosaries and other prayers are a blessing to us."

Surrounded by brown desert and unable to leave base most of the time for safety reasons, Father Kane said he misses "Nebraska’s natural beauty."

Father Barnhill remembers feeling that longing for home, having deployed overseas the last three Christmas seasons. Though he will remain at home this year, he recalled, "I missed the family and parish holiday gatherings."

Father Kane also revealed how much he misses his brother priests as he faces the challenges of serving in Iraq.

"Often priests are assigned to bases where there are no other priests," he said. "It is not until you are without another priest that you realize how much you take them for granted at home."

He covets prayer most of all.

"Knowing that others are praying that each day we have ‘loving hearts to do what God asks of us’ is a powerful support," he said.

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