PROVIDENCE, R.I. (CNS) — Father Lukasz J. Willenberg was seen as an extraordinary priest by parishioners at St. Luke’s Catholic Church in Barrington, Rhode Island, and his future looked bright within the Diocese of Providence.
Providence Bishop Thomas J. Tobin took notice of the charismatic young Polish immigrant who seemed to excite young Catholics at his parish while endearing himself to the older parishioners.
Father Willenberg was given the honor of serving as Bishop Tobin’s master of ceremonies, in which he helped direct the clergy and laity when the leader of his diocese participated in special events.
So, when this gifted priest asked his bishop to be released from the diocese to serve in the U.S. Army, the prelate had a difficult decision to make and one that he admittedly struggled with.
Bishop Tobin said the answer was not yes the first time Father Willenberg made the request.
How will losing the “ministry of a fine young priest like Father Luke” impact Catholics in the state of Rhode Island, the bishop said he asked himself. “We have a priest shortage for sure. That had to be considered.”
Father Willenberg was not deterred.
It took persistence and prayer, he told Catholic News Service, but his bishop eventually granted his release from the diocese to serve a three-year tour of duty as a military chaplain. The priest currently serves as a captain and second battalion chaplain of the 3rd Brigade in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division’s 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment located at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Bishop Tobin’s struggle is a familiar one for bishops and archbishops throughout the U.S. and not all of them come to the same conclusion, said Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services in Washington.
“I’m always in the situation of being a beggar,” Archbishop Broglio told CNS during a June interview. “I’m a little bit like Mother Cabrini, going around asking the poor to sacrifice a little bit of coal so that someone that doesn’t have any can at least be warm during the winter.”
The archbishop acknowledged there is a priest shortage nationwide and that most U.S. dioceses do need to be scrupulous when deciding if they can spare a priest who requests to serve in the military chaplaincy corps.
But, the Catholic chaplain shortage in the U.S. armed forces is massive.
The U.S. Department of Defense estimates there are 1.3 million active duty and 811,000 reserve men and women serving in all five branches of the U.S. military, about 25 percent of whom are Catholic.
Yet, there are only 214 priests on active duty serving in the U.S. military, accounting for about 8 percent of the chaplain corps. It’s about 500 priests fewer than Archbishop Broglio said he needs to meet the pastoral needs of the people serving in the armed forces and their families.
He addresses his brother bishops and archbishops frequently about the problem and some of them have been quite generous with their priests.
Currently the four biggest contributors of priests to the military chaplaincy are the archdioceses of Newark, New Jersey; New York; Chicago; and Boston, Archbishop Broglio said.
However, there are still a few bishops who routinely decline requests from priests to serve as military chaplains, he said.
But, the biggest obstacle appears to be in “middle management” in diocesan chanceries who tell priests preparing to request release to serve in the military, “Don’t talk to the bishop about that, he’ll say no,” Archbishop Broglio said. “I’ve subtly addressed my brother bishops on that issue. Every priest really has a right to manifest that, what we would call a vocation within a vocation, to his bishop and shouldn’t be dissuaded by a vicar for clergy or a vocations director or whomever might be between the individual priest and his bishop.”
When Bishop Tobin made his final decision, he rationalized that there are many Rhode Island Catholics serving in the U.S. armed forces and by permitting Father Willenberg to serve as a military chaplain he was, in essence, helping to meet their pastoral needs.
When Father Andrew Lawrence, a major in the Army, returned to the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa, last year to ask Archbishop Michael O. Jackels if he could serve another three years as a military chaplain, the prelate expressed some reservations.
Archbishop Jackels didn’t mind providing the armed forces with a priest, Father Lawrence said, “but he told me that it did concern him that I was rising in the ranks and didn’t spend as much of my time with the soldiers.”
The priest told his archbishop that it was important for priests to be in military leadership roles to provide the brass in the Army with a Catholic voice, so Archbishop Jackels granted Father Lawrence’s request.
It’s also important for priests to be in leadership roles to provide a moral compass to high-ranking commanders making life and death decisions, especially when it comes to military force, Archbishop Broglio said.
“If we don’t have someone at a certain level, he’s not going to be able to enter into those discussions,” he said.
“I realize these are hard decisions for my brother bishops,” Archbishop Broglio said, “but I’m always asking them to be men of vision.”