Archbishop Edward O’Brien: Shepherd-in-Chief

On a Sunday afternoon at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien, the shepherd of all Catholics in the U.S. military, administers the sacrament of confirmation to a group of young people and readies to make his plea.

Before him, in the chapel, is an opportunity to replenish the armed forces’s diminishing ranks of Catholic chaplains. O’Brien views the military, with its large concentration of youth, as an untapped pool for the priesthood. Not many archdioceses have the chance to address so many young people still deciding what to do with their lives.

“Wherever the United States is represented, we have a pastoral concern,” begins the military archbishop, who leads one of the largest ecclesiastical jurisdictions in the world. He continues, “Our greatest need is for people to serve you.”

The Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, includes the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard. It also encompasses veteran hospitals and any government services operations overseas. Altogether, O’Brien is responsible for the care of approximately 1.4 million Catholics. To fulfill that obligation, the archdiocese needs hundreds more chaplains. The Army, for instance, has 100 priests; it could use 325. The Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard combined should have 300 Catholic chaplains, but the sea services are well below 200 priests. To make matters worse, the Catholic chaplains the military does have are growing older.

O’Brien, speaking to his audience, starts out with a simple enough request: “I ask you to please pray for priests.” Then comes the challenge: What about a religious vocation in the military for yourself? Your family members? Your youngsters?, he inquires.

“Anywhere I go, I preach, I pray, I exhort,” O’Brien says. He constantly travels. His confirmation schedule alone took him to more than 30 bases in April, May, and June, from West Point, New York, to Fort Knox, Kentucky.

He concludes with a cyberspace invitation: Interested in becoming a military chaplain or know someone who might be? Then, e-mail him at [email protected].

O’Brien doesn’t reserve his appeals for Mass. On a March afternoon, he assembles a small group of donors at the new archdiocese offices in Washington, D.C., for an open house, cocktails, and hors d’oeuvres. Today, he is raising money to cover the costs of such projects as a new chapel for his head-quarters. Fundraising, he says, is the least attractive part of his job. Looking crisp, O’Brien smiles and pulls out chairs for his guests and shows them a video used to recruit chaplains. Before he gives a pitch for funds, he asks for something else that consumes him. “Pray for vocations,” he implores them. “Without prayer, we’re not going to get them.”

In every talk he gives, O’Brien brings up the need for chaplains, says Msgr. Aloysius Callaghan, who handles the day-to-day operations for the archdiocese as vicar general. “We’re all working in that direction.”

The Military’s Bishop

O’Brien, 61, an Irish Catholic from the Bronx, left his job as auxiliary bishop of New York to move into the military post. In April 1997, he was named coadjutor archbishop under then Military Archbishop Joseph Dimino. Four months later, Dimino retired, and O’Brien succeeded him.

O’Brien talks proudly of his chaplains, whom he calls shepherds. He also speaks compassionately of those in the armed forces, whom he says should have access to priests and the sacraments. “It’s a vulnerable time in their lives,” O’Brien says, adding that many recruits are away from home for the periods and need religious support. “The presence of a priest is so critical,” O’Brien says.

Because of the chaplain shortage, the military must spread out its priests creatively, explains Msgr. Joseph La-Monde, who is the 13th to hold the office of the chaplain of the Marine Corps. “Rather than have them on base, we send them to forward-deployed units, foreign shores, ships at seas, Bosnia, Somalia, where you can’t really walk out the door and find a parish.” The down side? A priest who is always on the move can burn out quickly.

LaMonde, in the military more than 20 years, came from the Pittsburgh diocese, which has ten priests on active duty and seven in the reserves. In fact, the military archdiocese relies on the generosity of bishops across the nation to help build its troops. This past November, O’Brien made a request for priests at the annual fall assembly of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB). Other times, his high-ranking men will recruit chaplains to minister to military Catholics.

“Someone’s priests have to take care of them,” says Msgr. Philip Hill, executive officer for the army chaplaincy. “All the bishops in the U.S. are targets…. I just pick up the phone and call their offices.” The Army is the largest branch in the military and the division most in need of priests.

A priest is permitted by his bishop or religious superior to serve as a military chaplain. Some U.S. dioceses will pair up with the military archdiocese and cosponsor men through seminary training. After the men are ordained priests, they remain in the diocese for about three years, learning important pastoral skills, before leaving to serve as chaplains. Once in the military, they are not subjected to basic training, but they do take an indoctrination course, which teaches them how to march, salute, and dress correctly.

Some large archdioceses—such as Boston and New York—willingly loan O’Brien priests for a few years. Others, which grapple with staffing issues of their own, can’t spare the chaplains. Many times, though, the thought to share priests with the military never occurs to them. “There’s a tremendous ignorance on chaplain positions,” O’Brien explains.

The people who best understand that need are the Catholics within his own military community. They depend on chaplains to say their Masses, absolve them from sin, marry them, and baptize their children. So late last year, O’Brien sent out a chaplain recruitment video called Never Far from Home to all U.S. military installations. The video captures the intensity of the Army’s “Be All That You Can Be” campaign with a slightly more religious audience in mind. The camera scans across a series of uniformed Navy, Army, and Air Force men who reveal that they are, indeed, Catholic priests. These chaplains not only say Mass in camouflage but travel to foreign countries, run with the troops, and participate in airborne operations (including leading the prayer before the jump).

The response to the tape was not as great as the arch-bishop had envisioned. “I had hoped we would be flooded,” O’Brien says a bit disappointedly. He received about 40 leads and wrote to every one of them personally. Nevertheless, next year, he will have 13 seminarians studying to be chaplains, an improvement from 10 this year.

Attracted to the Military

O’Brien’s own devotion to the military began shortly after his ordination as a priest for the New York archdiocese in 1965. He had planned on leaving St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, New York, to study Spanish in Puerto Rico, but instead he was sent to the United States Military Academy at West Point in New York, which was in need of another priest. His assignment coincided with the Vietnam War. “In June, we would be marrying cadets every half hour, and within a year, we were burying them.”

O’Brien felt called to help these courageous soldiers going off to war. He asked permission from New York’s Francis Cardinal Spellman to join the Army as a chaplain, and Spellman obliged. “I just felt that I owed more to my country,” O’Brien says. “That was a constant goad in my life—a push to do more.”

Tom O’Brien, the archbishop’s younger sibling, was amazed at his brother’s decision. The lifestyle seemed like such a contradiction to the spiritual brother he knew. “Ed can seem very removed and deep into his vocation and kind of other-worldly,” he explains. In fact, Tom remembers his brother Ed teasing him mercilessly when he himself went to military school. “He thought my going to military school was kind of silly…. That’s what rich kids did.”

O’Brien’s West Point experience evidently changed his mind. In 1970, he enrolled in the Army and entered jump school at Fort Benning, Georgia. At the time, he was 33, and the soldiers were about 19. For three weeks, the Army ran them weary, beginning their days at 4:30 a.m. Then came the first jump. “You were just happy to get out of the plane and get it over with,” O’Brien says. He remembers plunging into the air, the roaring of the engines, the hollering of the troops, and the peace and beauty of the blue sky. Throughout his Army tenure, he made that dive 16 times, all of them training jumps.

“I said, ‘You’re crazy,’” recalls Msgr. John Woolsey, pastor of St. John the Martyr in Manhattan, after hearing that his good friend from seminary was jumping out of planes. He considered O’Brien athletic—a particularly good baseball and handball player—but this was something new.

Soon O’Brien was off to Vietnam. From a base of operations in the middle of a jungle, he and a Protestant minister flew by helicopter to defensive outposts. They brought the soldiers mail and the one hot meal they received each week. O’Brien said Mass; the minister had a service. “It was a very strong reminder of home,” O’Brien says. It’s true, he says, that there are no atheists in foxholes. “People needed values to sustain them.”

After all, they didn’t have the support of many at home, despite what O’Brien calls a great sense of purpose. “South Vietnam saw us as their only hope to freedom of religion,” he says. Meanwhile, Jane Fonda made her infamous visit to Vietnam, denouncing America’s role in the war. “There was a tremendous sense of desolation,” O’Brien says. “These fellows were still out there experiencing [the war]. Drugs were the downfall of so many.”

Changes Over the Years

O’Brien, who earned the rank of captain in the Army, felt hostility personally while at a Fourth of July concert in Boston. He showed up in military dress, not having had the opportunity to change, and was greeted with hissing. “You would hesitate to wear a uniform,” he remembers.

He has seen that attitude fade throughout the years. Instead, he sees that people are generally unfamiliar with the armed forces, perhaps because there is no longer a draft— something he thinks should be reinstated. A military experience, or a similar public service, brings people to the same level, where there are no special privileges. People work hard for very little; the trial creates a kind of selflessness.

O’Brien has seen other changes as well. With fewer men and women entering the military, there is more of a burden on those who serve. Soldiers are separated from their families for long periods of time, which requires resilience, a moral strength, and an inner faith. He sees less support for the defense budget, because Americans don’t realize that this money is needed to provide decent living wages for military families. On a positive note, he says that today’s military is more aware of its role as peacekeeper, a view he says reflects the consciences of many of its soldiers.

O’Brien wasn’t in the military to witness the evolution of the armed forces since Vietnam. He left the Army in 1973. The majority of his life actually has been spent in New York. He grew up in the Bronx, born April 8, 1939, to Edwin Frederick O’Brien Sr., an accountant for a chemical company, and Mary Winifred O’Brien. He had two brothers, Ken, four years older, and Tom, two years younger. The family lived a working-class lifestyle, where at the best of times, they shared a two-bedroom apartment.

Their faith, sports, social life, and education—a whole culture—revolved around the Church, though the family was not especially religious. Their mother had faith and went to Mass every Sunday, but their father infrequently went to church, Tom recalls.

Their father died of lung cancer in his early 40s. Tom says the death was traumatic for their mother, who was not prepared to handle a household on her own. To support her family, she went to work as a secretary. The boys gained responsibilities around the house.

“You could always count that Ed’s chores were done first and very well,” Tom remembers. “He was kind of the supervisor.”

He describes his brother as always calm, “the rock of Gibraltar.” Their brother Ken, who died of cancer five years ago, was an extrovert, almost a comedian.

Younger Days

Tom and Ed were chronologically close in age, but Tom says they were in different places. He remembers seeing hints of his older brother’s vocation early on.

“We were walking back from grammar school,” Tom says. “All of the sudden, he stopped. He dipped his fingers in a puddle and was blessing something. He was blessing a pigeon that had died. He was giving it last rites.”

At the time, Tom didn’t realize how telling that moment was. “I thought pretty much every other brother did the same goofy stuff.”

Tom adds that his brother also put in extra time as an altar boy. While most boys performed their duty once a week, the future archbishop would be there four additional days.

O’Brien says he doesn’t remember a time when he was not thinking about the priesthood. While at his co-ed high school, though, he wavered a little. “I had a great social life,” he recalls. He says he could have just as easily gone to college and gotten married. He expressed his feelings to a priest, who made him promise to at least give seminary a try when he finished high school. Once there, O’Brien realized he still had the call.

After O’Brien completed seminary and left the Army, he decided to continue his studies. While preparing for his doctorate in sacred theology, the archbishop was a graduate student at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. He studied moral theology and completed his doctoral dissertation in 1976 at the Angelicum in Rome. He wrote his dissertation on Paul Ramsey, a Protestant who shared many conclusions with Catholic thinkers on the role of natural law in the origin and development of morals.

On his return to New York, he was appointed vice chancellor for the archdiocese and associate pastor of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Over the proceeding 20 years, O’Brien held numerous positions within the New York archdiocese and spent some time in Rome. Before his elevation as archbishop of the military, he served as one of John Cardinal O’Connor’s auxiliary bishops for the archdiocese.

Always a New Yorker

“Archbishop O’Brien is still very comfortably considered one of our own,” says Joseph Zwilling, the New York archdiocese’s communication director. “He hasn’t been gone from us for too long. He is still, I think, in our minds and hearts very much a New Yorker.”

Zwilling runs down a list of O’Brien’s most memorable accomplishments in New York. O’Brien is remembered as both secretary for Terence Cardinal Cooke in his final days and for O’Connor in his first days, a crucial transition period. Under Cooke’s guidance, he aided in the founding of Courage, a group that helps Catholics with same-sex attractions live a chaste lifestyle. He coordinated the pope’s visit to New York in 1979 when he was vice chancellor. When he was communications director for O’Connor, O’Brien helped start Catholic New York, the archdiocese’s newspaper. Later, he became rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, New York.

O’Brien still has attachments to New York. In his office, he keeps an encyclopedia of New York City on his desk. His crosier, an instrument that looks similar to a shepherd’s staff, has a windmill within the curved section. The windmill is a symbol for the Dutch, early settlers in present-day New York City; it also is a secret display of faith under terms of persecution—a furtive sign of the cross.

The military archdiocese itself has a special link to New York. It was part of the New York archdiocese until 1985, when by order of Rome, it was made its own archdiocese.

Recently, O’Brien was talked about as a successor to O’Connor, who had a brain tumor removed last summer, remained sick, and passed away May 3. After the cardinal’s 80th birthday party at New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, media outlets—USA Today, the Associated Press, and CNN—speculated that O’Brien, who was present for the party, could be a candidate for the position, along with several others also named.

In speaking of the archbishopric of New York, O’Brien likened it to martyrdom: “Your life is ended. The rest of your life is planned. You’re scrutinized, videotaped, and scrutinized. I just don’t know who would want it.”

Not that he didn’t admire O’Connor, who himself spent 27 years as a chaplain with the Navy and Marine Corps. On leaving the military, O’Connor was ordained a bishop for the armed forces. O’Brien called him very positive, very joyful, a man of great accomplishments.

The ring and pectoral cross O’Brien wears—formerly Cardinal Cooke’s—were given to him by O’Connor on his appointment as auxiliary bishop in New York. The two were close, according to Tom. “There was a really strong bond there.”

Looking to the Future

Tom says his brother is completely dedicated to what he is doing now. “He is throwing everything he has into this assignment. He burrows deeply into whatever he is involved in.”

Incidentally, Tom is Episcopalian. He converted years ago, at a time when he was drifting away from the Roman Catholic Church. The brothers say their religious differences don’t cause problems between them. Tom, however, can’t dismiss the Catholic link: “If you’re brought up a Catholic, you never cease being that.”

Sometimes the two brothers even work together. Tom’s consumer marketing background was an asset to his big brother, who taps his talents to better recruit priests.

No doubt O’Brien was mentioned as a possible successor to O’Connor because of his visibility in the New York archdiocese and Rome. He spent more than four years guiding the formation of priests at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, a position entrusted to him by the Vatican. As the rector, he instituted 11:30p.m. curfews, compulsory morning and evening prayers, and the availability of three Masses a day, changes he said were needed at the seminary, which had too many freedoms after Vatican II.

Msgr. Woolsey says O’Brien has a certain leadership quality about him that people notice. “He’s got a great deal of common sense; he’s savvy. He’s really at ease with people,” says Woolsey, who still vacations with O’Brien. “People place a lot of confidence in him; they just do. Even in the group we travel in, his answers are more definitive.”

O’Brien is still settling into his relocated headquarters at the Catholic University of America, across the street from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. His departure from what he calls a “strip mall” in Hyattsville, Maryland, is another step toward more visibility for his archdiocese. Plus, he is working on getting his new residence, an on-campus apartment, in order.

On O’Brien’s couch sits a needlepoint pillow with the military archbishop’s coat of arms that his brother made for him. A copy of L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s newspaper, lies on the coffee table. Nearby he keeps a collection of pipes, which he smokes to relax. He has a picture of himself and the pope from when the Holy Father visited Dunwoodie and presented him with a chalice.

He faithfully uses his treadmill. A fit archbishop can be more effective on pastoral visits, which can include very full days and obstacles such as steep submarine stairs. Last September, he led 400 paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division on a three-mile run.

“Archbishop O’Brien has a vision and the energy to truly bolster our number of priests,” LaMonde says. “I believe that without any question in my heart or mind.”

On a more spiritual note, LaMonde says, God doesn’t leave His children unattended. He will provide, and He will work through O’Brien, the military’s “chief shepherd.”


tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...