Church

The Ministry of an Orthodox Army Chaplain

Have Icon, Will Travel:

At 11:20 p.m. on April 3, 2010, a loud explosion broke the night silence around the main chapel on Bagram Air Field (BAF) in Afghanistan.

I was putting on my vestments in preparation for the midnight Paschal services. A few of the attendees rushed outside the wooden building to see what was happening. Then, two minutes later, a second shell landed so close that it rocked the chapel as if an earthquake had hit us.

At that point, the intrepid souls outside were summoned back inside the chapel to at least a modicum of safety under our wooden roof, which was better than open air. And I confronted my own mortality with a calm serenity that, frankly, surprised me. Was this a “creeping” rocket or mortar bombardment that would take out our chapel next—and those of us in it? If so, there was nothing we could do about it except continue to prepare for the Feast of Feasts: the situation was truly in God’s hands.

My first thought after the second shell exploded was of my family—the shock and grief they would have to endure if, in the next few minutes, I became a casualty of war.

My second thought was more hopeful. Here I was, vesting for the Divine Liturgy on the greatest night of the Christian year, putting on the “whole armor of God” as befits a priest, in the presence of U.S. and Coalition soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, who were in a God-forsaken corner of the world to restore justice and peace after the atrocities of 9/11. What better way to die than with our boots on, literally, and gathered together to celebrate the conquest of sin, death, and injustice by our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ?

Well, the third shell never arrived, praise God, and we proceeded to celebrate Pascha with a joy—and relief—that none of us had ever known.

That was my last night on my last 30-day tour in Afghanistan, after five years back on active duty as a U.S. Army chaplain for the express purpose of visiting Orthodox U.S. and Coalition forces in the combat areas two or three times each year. I retired from the Army, as planned, two months later, after 24 and a half years of service, delighted to be alive and thankful for the unique, unexpected opportunities with which I had been blessed.

A New Military Ministry

Now, I have a confession. On September 11, 2001, I did . . . nothing! Not by choice, to be sure, but owing to circumstances. When the second hijacked U.S. civilian airplane hit the World Trade Center in New York City at 9:03 a.m., I immediately donned my military uniform—the old “woodland” camouflage battle dress uniform—and waited for the inevitable phone call from Fort A.P. Hill. The armory of my Engineer Brigade, 28th Infantry Division (Mechanized), in the Virginia Army National Guard, for which I served part-time as chaplain, was the Emergency Operations Center for more than half of the great Commonwealth of Virginia. Surely, I thought, we’d be mobilized to prepare for possible attacks by the then unknown terrorists elsewhere in our country, perhaps even in Virginia.

Minutes after the third hijacked airplane crashed into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m., I called my brigade commander and learned to my dismay that we had received no alert, no mobilization—no nothin’!

So I sat by the silent phone in front of a television set, waiting in vain until evening, when I traveled to my Orthodox parish church in Falls Church, Virginia, to offer a panikhida memorial service for all the victims of that fateful day.

But it was precisely 9/11 that, a few years later in 2005, launched a new military ministry in the combat areas in southwest Asia.

Few but Demanding

The Eastern Orthodox demographics in the U.S. armed forces are rather paltry—only an estimated 0.3 percent (that’s point three) of our uniformed personnel. But along with the Roman Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus, we’re a major, historic, unique “faith group” with unique religious needs and obligations that only clergy of our faith identity and endorsement can serve. Thus, each of these faith groups is deemed HD/LD: a “high demand/low density” religion—in other words, at once too small and too unique for chaplains assigned at random to provide for their religious needs.

To meet the religious needs of our Eastern Orthodox personnel for the “Holy Mysteries”—the sacraments of Holy Communion, Confession, and Anointing of the Sick and Wounded—especially in combat areas, the U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains, a two-star general officer, decided to call me back to active-duty service upon the request of Metropolitan Herman (Swaiko), first hierarch and military chaplain endorser for the Orthodox Church in America. Though a recently promoted full-colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, I hardly expected this. Why fetch a chaplain who had served only part-time for most of his military career (after an initial tour of active duty in the 1980s) to serve in a senior, coveted colonel position, when there were plenty of regular Army colonels who had served their entire careers on active duty, with the multiple relocations and frequent uprooting of their families, including overseas assignments, that such service entailed?

But the Chief had already summoned a rabbi in the U.S. Army Reserve for the same purpose of going “downrange,” as we say, or into harm’s way, several times each year for the principal Jewish holy days. I would be Chaplain (Colonel) Ira Kronenberg’s Orthodox Christian counterpart.

When I first heard the news, I recalled the memorable line of Winston Churchill, one of my boyhood heroes, when he was summoned by King George VI to become Prime Minister of war-torn Great Britain in May 1940: “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”

Do read on here.

I certainly have enjoyed spending the last few minutes reading this well written presentation by Archpriest Alexander F. C. Webster. And from the conclusion:

Unchanging Truth

The atrocities of 9/11 have changed America and perhaps the world forever and in unexpected ways. Now that I have retired from active military service and reflect on my wartime experiences as a chaplain, I can appreciate more than ever the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin during a critical impasse at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787: “I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God governs in the affairs of men.” And I take even greater comfort in one truth that, for Christians, remains a steadfast hope in times of crisis and trouble: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”

 

Church

Pope Francis: The Internet Is A Gift From God

Pope Francis has said that we should be Good Samaritans on the internet (CNS)In the Catholic Herald today:

Pope Francis has said that the internet is “a gift from God” in his first World Communications Day message.

… Pope Francis said: “Media can help us greatly in this, especially nowadays, when the networks of human communication have made unprecedented advances.

“The internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity.  This is something truly good, a gift from God.”

… By means of the internet, the Christian message can reach “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  Keeping the doors of our churches open also means keeping them open in the digital environment so that people, whatever their situation in life, can enter, and so that the Gospel can go out to reach everyone.  We are called to show that the Church is the home of all…

The full text of Pope Francis’s message is here.

 

Church

Priest ‘Bullied’ Out of Parish

For challenging binge  drinking culture among worshippers.

Vicar fell foul of some of his flock after trying to enforce a ban on excessive alcohol consumption.

Priest 'bullied' out of parish for challenging binge drinking culture among worshippers

A liberal vicar dubbed ”The Cyber-Priest” was bullied out of his parish after just nine months in the job when he unearthed a culture of binge drinking among his congregation.

Newly appointed Fr Simon Tibbs, 41, fell foul of traditional elements of his flock after he tried to enforce a ban on excessive alcohol consumption by ”unchristian” worshippers who were said to be treating the church ”like a social club”.

Those enraged by the Church of England cleric’s crackdown, plus his sacking of a Sunday School teacher, began a whispering campaign against the vicar.

They called for others to demand Fr Simon quit as ”Priest-in-charge” of St Faith’s church in Crosby, in Liverpool where the late former Achbishop of Canterbury Dr Robert Runcie was a once member of the congregation.

One parishioner claimed Fr Simon was “not blessed with skills to develop relationships” and said the vicar “upset several parishioners” over his dismissal of the Sunday School teacher.

Last September Fr Simon stepped aside from his post and a retired bishop began an ”Episcopal Visitation” into claims of “serious relationship difficulties” between the vicar and his worshippers.

Today, a report by the Rt Rev Stephen Lowe blamed a mysterious unnamed ”inner circle” which turned against Fr Simon after he challenged their after-service drinking.

Bishop Stephen described its findings as “disturbing and distressing” and the report has now led to calls for a ”new fire to be kindled” at the church…

More here.

 

Culture

Israel Foils Al-Qaida Plan to Bomb US Embassy

Well done!

Israel has foiled an Al Qaeda plan to attack the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, Fox News confirmed.

According to a senior U.S. official who has been briefed on the intelligence shared by Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, about the plot,  “we have no reason to question the Israeli intelligence.”

“Details are still emerging,” he said.

The official described the plot as “audacious” and involving a “small cell.”

Shin Bet said Wednesday it arrested three Palestinians it accuses of plotting to carry out bombings, shootings, kidnappings and other attacks.

It said the men, two from Jerusalem and one from the West Bank, were recruited by an operative based in the Gaza Strip who worked for Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Shin Bet alleges the Palestinians planned on attacking a Jerusalem conference center with firearms and then killing rescue workers with a truck bomb.

It said Al Qaeda also planned to send foreign militants to attack the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv on the same day using explosives supplied by the Palestinians.