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Military chaplains of the archdiocese: Accompanying those who serve in the U.S. military

November 12, 2015
Valerie Schmalz

Holy Angels pastor Father Alex Legaspi is one of five brothers, and service in the military is what each of them did – so joining up as a Marine Corps chaplain was a natural for him. His uncles fought in the Philippines in World War II. Three of them were in the Bataan Death March, one escaped and all three survived it.

“For me it’s being close to the young people and making them understand that there is a God who will always protect them and who always is there to answer their prayers,” said Father Legaspi, a Navy commander, who loves “the esprit de corps.” With an estimated 40 percent of Marines and Navy military Catholic, the need and the respect for the priests is great, Father Legaspi said. He noted that even women Protestant chaplains get called “Padre.”

“I would say Mass in the field for the Marines. I would say, ‘The Lord be with you,’” said Father Legaspi, who was 11 years a Marine Corps chaplain and is now in his 12th year as a Navy chaplain, and the response would be ‘And also with you, sir!’”

A handful of priests in the archdiocese are or were military chaplains, serving the men and women in uniform who defend our country in a “vocation within a vocation.”

In a series of Catholic San Francisco interviews timed to coincide with Veterans Day Nov. 11, the priests said military chaplains are uniquely situated to accompany the young adults who make up most of the armed forces. “We’re dealing with young people during a critical time in their lives,” said Msgr. Edward P. McTaggart, a retired U.S. Army colonel now living at Serra Clergy House in San Mateo.

Msgr. C. Michael Padazinski thought enlisting as a second lieutenant with the Air Force in 1984 was a short-term commitment, a summer job to make money while he was in the seminary. Thirty-two years later, the tall priest with the silver brush cut is a colonel in the Air Force Reserve and continues to fly to remote air bases, saying Mass and hearing confessions in the Arctic and in other remote locations at Christmas and over the Holy Week and Easter holidays. “Because of the great need,” said Msgr. Padazinski, who is chancellor for the archdiocese and judicial vicar of the canon law tribunal. “It’s gotten more critical as the years have gone on.”

The Archdiocese for the Military Services serves the spiritual and sacramental needs of an estimated 1.8 million Catholics worldwide. A “chronic shortage” of Catholic chaplains is accelerating as more priests reach mandatory retirement age of 62. Even though there has been a big uptick in interest and seminary enrollments in the past few years, the number of active-duty chaplains throughout the U.S. military has fallen from more than 400 to 225 since 9/11, according to the AMS.

Msgr. McTaggart spent 15 years in the National Guard and 13 in the Army Reserves. “All of my cousins and classmates went to World War II or Korea,“ he said. It was the 1960s. The Cold War was in full swing, “the draft was on and guys were getting drafted right out of our parishes.”

While Msgr. McTaggart never went overseas, he saw action – as chaplain of a National Guard unit deployed for 21 days to handle the student demonstrations at UC Berkeley in 1969. “You didn’t know what could happen from one minute to the next,” said Msgr. McTaggart who celebrated Mass in People’s Park in the middle of the chaos, and heard a lot of confessions. He retired at 60 in 1989.

It was Msgr. McTaggart’s encouragement and advice that helped Father Legaspi sign up as a chaplain, the pastor of Holy Angels said.

Dominican Father Steven Maekawa, now at St. Dominic Parish, served in Afghanistan. St. Denis pastor Father Paul O’Dell served in Iraq.

“I was activated and deployed to Afghanistan with the Army, assigned to the 25th infantry division,” said Father Maekawa. “A really great ministry. The people work was high and the paperwork was low and that’s about as good as it gets.”

“One of the great challenges is you are really there to minister to everybody—everybody needs Christ in their life,” Father Maekawa said, noting “of course, there is sadness and loss when people get killed or hurt. That was a part of my education, seeing the effect of evil on another scale, another part of the world. It drives home the message we’re not in control. There’s a real futility of human endeavor if it is not raised up to God.”

Father O’Dell was called to active duty after 9/11 and sent to Iraq, attached to a Marine unit, part of the first wave. A Navy reserve chaplain, Father O’Dell spent about three months celebrating Mass, hearing confessions. Both his parents served in World War II, Father O’Dell said. He calls his service, “being a typical priest.”

Father John. J “Jack” O’Neill, a retired captain in the Navy who now lives at Nazareth House in San Rafael, enlisted as a Navy reserve chaplain at 38 and competed physically, flying around the world including to the Arctic and to the South Pole, Central America, Japan, the Philippines–doing pushups and rappelling down cliffs until he retired from the military at age 60.

The men and women in uniform, “need an advocate. Somebody to say hello, just as simple as that,” Father O’Neill said.

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