When Father Jeremy Theis turned 17, he joined the U.S. Army Reserves and served in an infantry unit and combat engineer unit. Later, when he was discerning the priesthood, he considered the idea of becoming a military chaplain after hearing of the extreme shortage.
“It’s a real problem that our troops on the front lines do not have regular access to the sacraments of confession or the Eucharist,” said Father Theis, who was ordained a priest in 2014.
“It is hard that those who are willing to sacrifice so much are so neglected spiritually,” he said. “I am very pleased that both Bishop Donald Kettler and Bishop Emeritus John Kinney support our men and women in uniform by offering the services of priests from the Diocese of St. Cloud.”
Because there is a shortage of priests, it can be difficult for a diocese to find coverage in parishes for those priests who also want to serve as military chaplains. Most military chaplains are required to report one weekend a month and two weeks a year and some are called out on lengthier deployments.
Bishop Kettler said he grew up knowing the importance of spiritual care in the military. His father served in the U.S. Army during World War II and his brother was in the U.S. Navy, his sisters were Army nurses and his brothers-in-law and many nieces and nephews have been active military members. He feels that military chaplaincy is an important ministry, one that meets a real and sometimes forgotten need.
“The men and women in the military are as much a part of the church as anybody,” he said. “There’s a tremendous shortage of Catholic chaplains so I want to promote the care of our military. Every diocese ought to try to help as best we can.”
He encouraged Father Theis, currently pastor of the parishes of St. Mary in Upsala, St. Edward in Elmdale and St. Francis of Assisi in St. Francis, to begin the application process this spring.
Father Theis is waiting to be accepted as a chaplain candidate by the Archdiocese for the Military Services. Once a priest receives the endorsement and the subsequent faculties of the archdiocese, he becomes a commissioned military officer.
Father Theis hopes he can begin serving the 1.8 million Catholics in need of spiritual care as soon as a year from now.
In the field
There are different options for chaplains to serve their time — some bank their hours of commitment to serve a longer term, helping relieve active duty priests who need a substitute. Others who are attached to reserve units report for weekend duty each month with additional training throughout the year.
Father Leo Moenkedick, pastor of St. Elizabeth in Brennyville, St. Joseph in Morrill and Sts. Peter and Paul in Gilman, is the only priest from the St. Cloud Diocese currently serving as a military chaplain, traveling to Fargo Air Base monthly and other times throughout the year.
After entering the U.S. Air Force in 1975, he served four years of a six-year term before receiving an early release to enter the seminary. He was ordained in 1986 and wanted to re-enter the military as a chaplain immediately. But because he was needed to serve in parishes in the diocese, he didn’t become a chaplain until August 2001. After completing his officer training, he was settling back into parish routine when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks happened. He was immediately activated for two years.
During that time, Father Moenkedick was deployed twice to Langley Air Force Base in Langley, Virginia. He also has been on tours to Bahrain and Oman and forward-deployed to Saudi Arabia. He had assignments in Alaska, California, Ghana and Germany.
Much of his time in Germany was spent directly on the flight lines — meeting planes at Ramstein Air Base that were bringing injured soldiers to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the largest military hospital outside the continental United States. Most of their patients are wounded soldiers coming primarily from Iraq and Afghanistan as well as military personnel and their families stationed in Europe.
Father Moenkedick was often among the first to board the planes when they landed. He prayed with the wounded if they requested it, but mostly his job was to listen.
“It’s a lot like a counselor. You let them talk through their issues, respond and encourage them to talk,” he said.
Though he often directed his immediate attention to the wounded, his main responsibility was to offer support to the pilots and aircrew.
“Their stories were just unbelievable. They flew back and forth from Ramstein to Afghanistan and Iraq to pick up casualties, a lot of times flying into war zones, and that was their job for about six months straight,” he said.
The high level of stress can take its toll.
“For the military, their central interest is to have as many men and women as possible combat-ready at any given time. In a combat zone, to do that, they need to deal with the stress they’ve got going on. To keep those soldiers combat-ready, they need a chaplain,” he said.
At Landstuhl, his job was similar to the work most hospital chaplains provide.
“In the hospital, it is primarily door to door. I had Mass there every day and the ones who were unable to go to Mass because of their condition, I would make rounds in the hospital and bring Communion,” he said.
In Fargo, Father Moenkedick, who has earned the rank of lieutenant colonel, must complete the same training as other officers — such as using gas masks and chemical gear and taking computer courses. He also performs chaplain duties which, he said, include “anything priests normally do to take care of the spiritual needs of others.”
“Because there are no families on the base, I mostly visit units on base and see how everybody’s doing. If they have any problems or issues they want to address, we do our best to help with those issues,” he said.
The military allows him to come to the base on Fridays and Saturdays so he can be back at his parishes for weekend liturgies.
He also has developed an appreciation for the core values of the Air Force: “Integrity first. Service before self. Excellence in all you do.”
“These values are something I have tried to be cognizant of in my parish life as well as in the military,” he said. “They have served me well and, to some degree, shaped my ministry.”
Because of the extreme shortage of military chaplains, another way to fill the gap is through contract priests — those who are hired by the military to serve in military communities. They are not officers but work closely with the military in providing spiritual care for the soldiers and their families.
Once when retired Father Ron Schmelzer, who became a priest later in life, was visiting his son, an Army nurse in Landstuhl, he chatted with the only Catholic priest working in the chaplain’s area at the hospital.
Father Schmelzer felt drawn to the ministry and told the priest he’d like to help out but didn’t think anything would come of it. When he returned to his Minnesota parishes in St. Francis and St. Anthony, he received a call from the Army chief of chaplains asking him to come and work in a military community, U.S. Army Garrison Kaiserslautern.
Kaiserslautern is the largest American military community outside the United States with more than 50,000 U.S. citizens. Landstuhl is located in the Kaiserslautern community.
“It turned out he was a friend of Bishop Kinney and he spoke with him about my going there. It was an amazing opportunity,” Father Schmelzer said.
As a contract priest, his job was very similar to running a parish. He provided spiritual care, celebrated Mass and the sacraments, and was responsible for providing religious education.
“What was really wonderful was that I got to work with the military families,” he said. “You become engaged with them.
It’s a real family.”
Father Schmelzer, who served in the Navy during the Vietnam War, was also a licensed psychologist as well as a full professor with almost 30 years experience before his ordination to the priesthood. That background, he said, was very helpful in working with military families.
“PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] was really raising its face there,” he said. “People were getting bombed, rocketed or shot at. When they came back, they didn’t show any wounds but a good percentage of those returning from Afghanistan and Iraq were psychologically wounded. It was clear to me that it was going to be a much bigger problem than anticipated.”
Since Landstuhl hospital was part of the community he served, he also spent time there. That’s when he realized he also needed to minister to the doctors and nurses.
“The trauma they see day after day takes a toll,” he said. “I just wanted to be with them, to care for them. The fact was I loved those people and I wanted to be there for all of them.”
Father Schmelzer served in Kaiserslautern from 2007 to 2009, then returned to ministry in the St. Cloud Diocese before retiring in 2012. He now lives in Kentucky to be close to family. He spends his days providing spiritual direction, celebrating Mass at area churches and finding joy in prison ministry.
“I’m grateful to have had that opportunity to serve the military families,” Father Schmelzer said. “The sacrifices they make every day made it easy for me to want to walk alongside them and do my part to help.”