COLUMBIA, S.C. (CNS) — Father Mikolaj L. Scibior had a curious journey to the U.S. Army chaplain training school at Fort Jackson in Columbia.
The 36-year-old Polish immigrant from Pulawy, who was ordained in 2005 in his native country, met Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services in 2013 while serving as a priest in Poland, learned about the chaplain shortage in the American armed forces and decided it was a sign from God that he help fill the void.
There would be some hoops to jump through to become a chaplain in the U.S. military.
First, Archbishop Broglio had to find a U.S. diocesan bishop to sponsor Father Scibior to satisfy the immigration requirements.
He also needed to serve as a priest in that diocese for a time to immerse himself in the language and culture of the U.S. Catholic Church before permission would be granted for him to join the Army.
It was an unorthodox approach to recruit a sorely needed Catholic military chaplain and a method that wasn’t necessarily the most efficient, Archbishop Broglio told Catholic News Service during a June interview.
“Yes, it’s different and I have looked to Poland from time to time because they have had an abundance of vocations and our military is in need of a stronger Catholic chaplaincy,” he said. “If someone has other ideas with how to recruit more priests to the (military) chaplaincy corps, I’m ready to listen.”
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.
However, there are only 214 priests on active duty serving in the U.S. military, about 8 percent of the chaplain corps. That’s about 500 fewer priests than the armed forces needs, Archbishop Broglio said.
There has been a steady decline in the number of Catholic military chaplains since the turn of the 21st century, from around 400 to the current 214, he said.
There is a priest shortage nationwide, diocesan bishops are sometimes reluctant to release clergy to serve in the military and the newly ordained tend to be older than their Protestant counterparts, sometimes making them ineligible to meet the armed forces age requirements, Archbishop Broglio said.
Numerous recruiting efforts have been employed to bring more priests into the military chaplaincy corps.
The Archdiocese for the Military Services began holding biannual discernment retreats for interested eligible clergy and the number of priests who have attended has encouraged the archbishop.
Ten priests attended one of the retreats held last fall in Washington.
The retreat included an overview of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, a look at life in the five branches of the U.S. armed forces through chaplains’ presentations and remarks by military officers, as well as visits to several military installations, including the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland; the Air Force’s Joint Base Andrews, just outside Washington in Maryland; and Arlington Cemetery, the Pentagon and the Army’s Fort Myer post, all of which are in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac from Washington.
Father Ben Garrett, who was ordained for the Washington Archdiocese in 2006 and joined the U.S. Navy in 2009, told the retreat attendees that unlike a parish priest, military chaplains are with their flock 24/7.
“We live with them, we eat with them, we share the same facilities with them, we keep the same schedule, we run with them, we work out with them, we deploy with them, we’re with them all the time — much more than in a parish setting, and there’s something very beautiful about that.”
To help out with recruiting efforts, the Archdiocese for the Military Services now has a full-time vocations director.
“That’s made a big difference,” Archbishop Broglio said. “Having that one person to devote all of his time to recruiting priests is starting to bear fruit.”
Active duty Catholic military chaplains make their own recruiting efforts while performing their regular duties.
Father Michael A. Mikstay, a Navy chaplain currently serving at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, meets with a different group of young Catholic Marines each Sunday as they prepare to graduate from basic training and routinely urges them to consider the priesthood as they deliberate on their future.
“The qualities you need to be a good Marine are similar to the qualities you need to be a good priest,” Father Mikstay told CNS during a May interview. “I want these young men to think about the priesthood. Perhaps that will motivate them to go to seminary and eventually come back and serve as a chaplain in the military.”
Sometimes it’s just exposure to a military chaplain that inspires a priest to give the chaplaincy corps a look.
That’s what happened with Father Lukasz J. Willenberg, who now 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.
When he was a parish priest in the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island, Father Willenberg had a chance encounter with a military chaplain who told him how his ministry worked.
“While I was listening to him talk about how his ministry went so far beyond a church, it came to me that this is where I needed to be,” he told CNS during a March interview. “God was telling me, through this chaplain, that I was most needed in the military, for these men and women who were risking their own lives for their country.”