by Gordon Nary
Gordon: When and where did you decide to become a Paulist?
Father Thomas: After graduating from MarquetteUniversity, I decide to become a Jesuit. I joined the California Province, because my family lived there. I only knew Jesuits in the Wisconsin Province. The formation programs of the two provinces could not have been more different. It was not what I’d expected. So my Jesuit career ended during novitiate. The following year I was teaching in a parochial school in Los Angeles, and my pastor suggested that I attend Sunday mass at the UCLA Newman Center, to find more social life with Catholics my age.
The minute I walked into the Newman Center, I felt at home. The Paulists were “real men” rather than clerics. They wore the clothes of the academic community of SoCal rather than clerical attire. They used their first names. And, they encouraged students to ask provocative questions.
The following year I was a Paulist novice.
In the early 70s, the Paulist novitiate was in rural New Jersey. But, two days per week, we drove into Manhattan to volunteer in a psychiatric outreach program to the SRO hotels of the Upper Westside sponsored by Roosevelt Hospital. It was the greatest challenge I’d experienced at that point in my life.
The following year I began studies of Theology at the University of Toronto. I lived in a row house with five other students and two Paulist priests. I loved the Oxford style tutorial system of the university. It was the best educational experience of my life.
The next year, the Paulists pulled out of the University of Toronto, and I was transferred to St. Paul’s College on the campus of Catholic University of America in DC.
I did not much like the academic or living environment of Washington. But, I realized that I was given a vocation to the priesthood, not the seminary. My favorite part of seminary was summer assignment. My three assignments included: Distributing religious tapes to radio stations in the Georgia Bible Belt; Studying French at University of Montreal, and doing a pastoral internship at a state psychiatric hospital in SoCal.
I had been a Navy ROTC midshipman during my undergraduate years at Marquette. The US Navy paid for my college education. At the conclusion of my degree program, the Navy was giving people the opportunity to delay their commissioning, due to the disengagement from Vietnam. I opted to dis-enroll, my senior year. And, my petition was accepted.
In 1984, I was living at the Paulist Mother House in NYC, and working as Vocation Director. I wondered what the US Navy was doing to recruit chaplains, because that type of man was my own target audience. When I contacted the Chaplain Recruiter in NY, he showed up at my office in his dress blue uniform. He talked my leg off about how great I would be as a Navy Chaplain. So, I signed on the dotted line. I joined the reserves. But, six years later, the US became involved in the gulf war to liberate Kuwait, and I was recalled to active duty.
Challenge of Military Chaplaincy.
The Paulist Fathers define their mission in terms of three strategic goals: Ecumenism, Evangelization, and Reconciliation.
From the instant I began my military chaplaincy, I was thrown into a world that mandated those goals on a daily basis. The majority of my fellow chaplains were not Catholic chaplains, and only once was my senior chaplain a Catholic.
My experience of ecumenism was a daily lived dialogue with non-Catholic chaplains with whom I was sharing limited space and resources. I learned, early on, that my role as a chaplain was to enable and facilitate the exercise of religious conscience of every sailor and Marine committed to my care. I expended as much energy and time facilitating the religious practice of non-Catholic personnel as I did providing sacraments, education, and worship for Catholic personnel. Rare is the Catholic priest in the civilian world who spends any time at all facilitating the religious practices of non-Catholics. But, the military chaplain is tasked with the responsibility of enabling the religious practices of all military personnel and their family members.
When a Protestant chaplain and a Catholic chaplain both want the 1000 time slot for their respective Sunday worship communities, it requires the wisdom of Solomon to accommodate both without favoring one. That is the ultimate test of Reconciliation and Ecumenism.
In the modern world of secularism, it is common to encounter people who disdain organized religion while claiming to be “spiritual.” This attitude seems to irritate a fair number of religionists. I have found that embracing my own spirituality and using it, rather than my religion, to dialogue with people who claim to be spiritual, is the best first step in evangelization. It is far more important that I, as a Catholic, live my spirituality rather I preach my religion. I will always be judged more by the way I live my life than by the words that come out of my mouth.
Military chaplaincy has made me a better man. I have learned that my best sermon is the one I preach with my actions rather than my words.
Most Catholic priests work in parishes where 90% of their weekly encounters are with church-going Catholics. This, unfortunately, brings about the un-intended consequence of considering those outside the tribe as different or even suspect. The military chaplain is forced to see all members of the military community, (warriors and their family members), as co-equals, regardless of their faith or lack there-of.
The best military chaplains I met along the way are those who bent over backwards to ensure that I was able to provide the best services to my Catholic flock. Their example taught me to do the same for my non-Catholic fellow chaplains.
I recall working at a Marine base in Southern California where the Protestant chaplain was horrified to learn that the Wiccan community was requesting space in the Protestant chapel to hold services. He would not hear of it. I suggested that he send representatives of the Wiccan community to me. The representatives explained that they had found a religion that celebrated their “pre-Christian” spirituality. Their services involved venerating the basic elements of nature as a manifestation of the benevolence of God. They used water, candles, incense. They sang and they danced. I told them that they would be most welcome to use the conference room of the Catholic chapel for their services. They never did. Instead, I noticed that two of them began to attend Sunday mass. They were both fallen-away Irish American Catholics who found Wiccanism as a way of asserting their independence from their family history. Ecumenism-Evangelism-Reconciliation: The trifecta of Paulist mission. Military chaplaincy provided me the absolute best opportunity to exercise my Paulist vocation.