“It is a mistake, even heresy,” warned St. Francis de Sales, to “banish the devout life from the company of soldiers.” But the Biden administration did just that and turned Holy Week into Hell Week for Catholic servicemembers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
The issue, as announced by the Archdiocese for Military Services, is by now well-known. As Holy Week began, Franciscan priests from Holy Name College, who ministered to patients at the hospital, were told their contract to provide pastoral care had ended and it was time for them to hit the bricks.
A spokesman for the Defense Health Agency (DHA), the bureaucracy at the heart of the matter, explained to Fox News that the Holy Name contract “was NOT terminated” on March 31, two days before Palm Sunday. Rather, that was the “contract end date.” In other words, precise vocabulary is the problem, not the Easter eviction of the priests.
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Holy Week is a curious time for Walter Reed to jettison clergy. It’s a time rich in meaning: the Lenten season of fasting and almsgiving winds down, Christ’s suffering is mourned, and the Resurrection of our Lord is celebrated. As a practical matter, it’s a busy week for the faithful and one that “require[s] the presence of validly ordained priests,” as Senator Marco Rubio pointed out.
In a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Rubio stressed the importance of the sacred events and the need for ordained priests to preside over them. “On Holy Thursday,” the Florida senator wrote,
the Catholic Church celebrates the institution of both the priesthood and the Most Holy Eucharist, which Catholics believe to be the true presence of Jesus Christ in body, blood, soul, and divinity. Depriving service members and veterans, who are receiving care, of the ability to enter into the Paschal Mystery with priests is utterly unconscionable.
It seems to matter little to the Defense Health Agency that patients were denied an adequate number of priests to offer sacraments, including the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, Reconciliation, the Eucharist, or Last Rights.
The DHA was content that, on April 1, pastoral care responsibilities at Walter Reed fell to a secular, for-profit entity, Mack Global, which provides “telework consulting services, administrative and religious staffing, transportation and roadway services, [and] professional development and training.” Impressive as that may be, Mack Global can’t perform the sacred duties of an ordained priest.
Unimpressed with this transition is Archbishop Timothy Broglio, who leads the Archdiocese for Military Services. “[It’s like] hiring a brain surgeon who didn’t go to medical school,” he said. Broglio wants committed clergy overseeing the spiritual care of America’s warriors and their religious needs given proper attention. Put another way, Christ did not enlist a temp agency when making the first hires for His Church. Our Lord personally selected His disciples and onboarded them Himself. He wasn’t looking for remote workers. He required disciples who were willing to drop everything to follow Him.
The fired Franciscans displayed that kind of devotion. When their contract ended on March 31, the priests became volunteers and their ministry continued. Their devotion to duty irritated the DHA, who demanded they stop practicing their faith.
“The previous contractor [the Franciscans] continued to provide services after April 1st,” a DHA spokesman said. For that reason, “a cease and desist letter was sent stating the former contractor could not perform services since they were not under contract.”
The cease and desist order violates the religious liberty of both priest and patient. It is a government lockdown of the priest’s sacred office, and it enjoins the lay person from the free exercise of his religion. On the civility scale, it doesn’t even register. It’s a cold heart that issues an injunction to the Savior’s servants. The cease and desist order violates the religious liberty of both priest and patient. It is a government lockdown of the priest’s sacred office, and it enjoins the lay person from the free exercise of his religion.Tweet This
There’s also the contract with Holy Name College. Why wasn’t it renewed? The priests offered pastoral care at Walter Reed for nearly 20 years—since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq filled the hospital with young Americans who were physically and emotionally wounded. The priests comforted troops during the most difficult days and provided spiritual care to those most in need. As Archbishop Broglio said, “if it is not broken, do not fix it.”
But perhaps the most dishonorable aspect of the priests’ discharge from Walter Reed is the silence from the chain of command. In the early days of his presidency, the commander in chief said his Catholic faith will “serve as my anchor.” Mr. Biden routinely notes how important his faith is to him and how it helps him endure difficult times. The president routinely ends his speeches with the words, “may God protect our troops,” but in this case he has failed to exercise his own authority to protect the troops.
Nor have we heard from Army Secretary Christine Wormuth, who is presiding over a historic recruiting failure. She should offer some damage control and reassure the Catholic demographic that comprises 25 percent of the military that they are still welcome in the ranks. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and General Mark Milley have yet to explain this priestly purge.
Over the years, Christians have increasingly encountered obstacles to practicing their faith while serving in America’s armed forces. Most recently, thousands were kicked out of the military because they requested a religious exemption to the Austin-mandated Covid vaccine.
But those who serve in the military and risk their lives for our defense are people who require a special ministry and a robust outreach. That need was addressed by Pope John Paul II, who created the Military Archdiocese. In a 1986 speech in Rome, the pontiff outlined the importance of a military ministry, saying,
Those who serve their countries in the armed forces have special conditions of life, which call for a suitable apostolate…This applies to professional soldiers, whose lifestyle, obligations and special responsibilities in matters of defence require specific understanding and pastoral care.
In my work at Freedom Alliance, a military support organization that cares for wounded troops and military families, I’ve seen the effects of moral injury, especially on those who deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq. It is a wound to the soul that causes the veteran to carry feelings of sin, remorse, or guilt for events they witnessed in theater. In combat, our troops encountered evil, and the memories that visit them years later are what veterans refer to as their “demons.” They can defeat those demons with the help of a trusted priest or counselor.
The injuries of combat veterans are as much spiritual as they are physical. Government employees need to understand that the ministry of the Church is vital to the moral and emotional rehabilitation of America’s military heroes.