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Sacraments can be a challenge for troops, says Pilot reporter

Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley wishes Sgt. Neil W. McCabe well as McCabe prepares to return to Iraq after a two week leave in late September. Pilot photo/ Gregory L. Tracy

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While Sgt. Neil W. McCabe was prepared for the blazing temperatures and the dusty, dry conditions which are part of the arid desert climate in Iraq, deployment has brought him an unexpected challenge -- the struggle to receive the sacraments.

McCabe, a Pilot reporter on active duty with the Army military leave, has gone from suburban Massachusetts, where it is easy to receive the sacraments, to Iraq, where attending Sunday Mass and receiving other sacraments has been a challenge at times.

Though sometimes travel and other obligations keep service members from participating in the sacraments, many times the problem is that there are simply too few priests to go around.

“As a Catholic soldier in Iraq, it’s very painful when you arrive at the chapel to realize that there is no priest because the priest is somewhere else,” said McCabe, speaking to The Pilot while home on leave in late September.

For McCabe, it’s quite a change from life in the Boston area, with its large Catholic population.

“I’ve never in my life had to deal with a situation where there are no priests. It’s something you hear about in missionary countries,” he said.

“It’s something you would read about in a history book,” he said.

Chaplains are responsible for meeting the spiritual needs of military personnel, ministering to those within and out of their own respective denominations. Catholic chaplains perform the same ministries that any priest does in serving his congregation, including saying Mass, hearing confessions, administering the anointing of the sick, and counseling.

McCabe said sometimes senior officers may lead liturgies of the word when a priest is not available. Other times, Catholic service members have to settle for attending Mass whenever they can, even if it is not Sunday.

He recalled a time when he was at a base on the Iranian border. He and a group of Catholic military personnel attended a Mass on Tuesday, which they counted toward their previous Sunday’s obligation; then the following day they attended an “anticipatory Mass” for the following Sunday. The priest who offered the Masses was available only for those two days before flying on to another base.

At division headquarters, according to McCabe, a priest is more often available, so while he is there, McCabe said he could typically engage in what he called his “Sunday ritual,” running, attending Mass, and then taking a bus to a neighboring camp to enjoy a cinnamon bun.

“It was an important part of my Sunday routine.”

Vicar General Father Richard Erikson, a colonel and chaplain in the Air Force Reserve, concurred with McCabe’s experience of a scarcity of Catholic chaplains in the military.

“There’s an enormous shortage,” Father Erikson said.

“Right now, there are 20 Air Force bases without chaplains. There are ships in the Navy going out without chaplains. The army is depleted as well.”

Father Erikson spoke of the dedication of the existing chaplains who often go back on successive tours of duty.

“It would not be unusual to have an active duty Catholic chaplain who has been to Iraq five or six times.”

According to Father Erikson, the lack of Catholic chaplains in the armed services results from a shortage of vocations to the priesthood in the United States. Priests are needed at home, so bishops are less willing to send them abroad.

In 2007, the Archdiocese of Boston stipulated that 3-percent of its active priests would be eligible to serve as chaplains, second only to the Archdiocese of Newark, according to Father Robert Deehan, the archdiocese’s director of clergy personnel.

Father Deehan said that 15 priests from the archdiocese are currently serving as chaplains in the armed services -- 13 in the Army, Navy, and Air Force combined, with one serving at a local Veterans’ Affairs hospital and another as the director of vocations for the Archdiocese of Military Services.

However, despite the hardships, service in Iraq has provided the Pilot reporter with unforgettable spiritual memories.

Just prior to returning to the Boston area for a two-week leave, McCabe recalled a unique Rite of Sprinkling. At Mass, the priest put some salt in a bottle of water, blessed it, and walked among the congregation sprinkling the water from his palm.

“He didn’t stop until he was sure every single one of us had been hit,” McCabe recalled.

“There was something tactile about the water coming directly from his own hand. It was so unceremonial. It was pure, actual,” McCabe added. “It was the love and protection he felt for us.”

At another time, the Bishop of Bosra offered a Mass in Aramaic, the language Christ spoke, at McCabe’s base. There, a seminarian offered responses on behalf of the congregation, similar to the altar boy’s role in the Tridentine rite, the norm before Vatican II.

“It’s pre-Tridentine,” McCabe said. “We participated in a Mass that was said in the same language as the first Mass in the land of Abraham.”

“In military life, there are unique sacrifices and hardships and literally life threatening dangers, yet you also have opportunities to witness things and participate in things you could never have dreamed you would be a part of,” he said.

“For all my experiences so far, this is the highlight of my deployment -- to have been in that chapel for that Mass.”

McCabe is currently deployed as a military historian, documenting the field experiences of soldiers in his division.

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