Sunday, July 27, 2014

A Deacon Who Left His Comfort Zone




 Deacons share in Christ's 'mission and grace in a special way.
The sacrament of Holy Orders marks them with an imprint
( "character" ) which cannot be removed and which configures
them to Christ, who made himself  the "deacon" or servant of all.    
(Catechism of the Catholic Church  #1570 )

 By Robert R. Schwarz  


( This interview was originally posted Dec. 29, 2013 )


            On the office wall of Deacon Paul  Schmidt  hangs  a sketch  of a beached and battered rowboat which sole reason for being there is: The boat is empty. He looks at it is boat now and then to remind himself  of  those simple  fishermen who  were called by Jesus to be His disciples and who  immediately left  the "comfort zone " of  their boat to follow Him.
            "This empty boat reminded me  years ago to get out of my comfort zone and  do something for people, "  said the 71-year-old Catholic. During our recent interview, however,  it became clear that he had indeed left his boat. There was an alcoholic father given to rages when drunk,  a year of  fire fights endured as U.S. Marine  Corps  sergeant  in the Viet Nam war  ,  six months of  marriage counseling, and ,  year ago,  liver and kidney transplant so severe  that he was looking forward to dying.   
            Though still on the mend today, this deacon at the St. James Catholic church in Arlington Heights, Illinois , continues to baptize babies, counsel couples about to marry, and comfort people at funeral wakes—as well as working full time as  business manager of another church.    In that other church office,  Paul , wearing a red and blue plaid shirt and light brown pants,   talked candidly  about his life. He did not avoid negative   details.  He wears glasses, has hazel eyes, and said he stands five-foot-nine.  
            We started with that  childhood memory of his father , a  wound which  he indicated took  years to heal.  In his remarks at a  St. James  marriage encounter  at which he and his wife Paulette participated 22 years ago, Paul told the group: "  My family was Catholic , but we grew up in a volatile environment, never knowing when my father would express one of his alcoholic rages . We were always on edge. My mother , a soft-spoken Irish lady, always tried to keep peace in the house. It was nearly an impossible task. "
            Viet Nam came  next , which he really didn't want to talk about it—and didn't when  asked him about "body contact " with the enemy.  Paul was there a year as a platoon sergeant.  He was hit once in a fire fight  by an enemy bullet  which tore off a piece of the flak jacket he was wearing. Of the  eight leadership Marines in Paul's  infantry company, he  and a platoon lieutenant were the only two who returned alive.
     
Sergeant Schmidt in Viet Nam 
    Somewhere between high school and Viet Nam , Paul lost touch with God despite his Catholic schooling  and altar boy experience.  Speaking at a marriage encounter which he and Paulette would later conduct at St. James,  he had said:  " I attended Mass in basic training , but once stationed at my regular unit, Mass and God were not part of my regular life. God was now on the sidelines. "
            He met a Marine  named John ,  who , though not Catholic, would ask Paul each week to attend Mass with him . John was not a Catholic.  Paul always replied , " not this   Sunday. "   To  get John off his back, Paul finally  agreed to go , and did so for several months.  After the two men were shipped out to  Viet Nam and had been separated  , a chaplain one day months later  told  Paul that a wounded Marine wanted to see him. It was John.  When  Paul went to his side,  John asked him to be his godfather.  "We did not speak another word to each other , "  Paul  would later tell his encounter group. "The chaplain baptized John, then off he went on a helicopter. "
            "  I was stunned ! " ,  Paul continued in our interview . "If he wasn't  Catholic, why did he  constantly ask me  to go to Mass with him ? ….I never got the answers ! I knew something incredibly amazing had just happened, but couldn't understand any of it—except to know that because of John , God was back into my life  big time ! ….I was ready to begin my new life ! "  
***
When Paul  returned stateside he was  totally confused,  he  said , and didn't speak of this experience   for 20 years. He enrolled in a community college  to study retail marketing and would have no thoughts of  becoming a deacon for at least 30 years.
Now living at home in Birmingham, Michigan, Paul one day asked his mother about the girl  living next door .  " There was something about her I found very attractive, other than her good looks , " Paul recalled.  " She was a soft, gentle , kind caring person  and willing to listen to this adventuresome ex-Marine.  Could she be a gift from God?   I asked myself.  "
Now Mr. and Mrs. Schmidt , 1967
In September , 1967 Paul and Paulette  were married .  Two children were born: , David , now 43, and Jennifer,  44. There are three grandsons .  Paul and Paulette will share with you—as they have at their marriage encounters they lead—that their own marriage has come through tough challenges and always  for that greater good for those who love God—as Holy Scripture says.  They'll add that they had to work out those inescapable  hang-ups  formed  in all childhoods ,  some caused by well-meaning but imperfect parents, some by the common flaws of  human nature.
Perhaps the  toughest challenge  came a year ago when Paul underwent a 16-hour surgery  to transplant a kidney and his liver The initial  medical problem was that the    portal  veins leading to his liver  were blocked ; but matters worsened , according to Paul,  when a dye injected into Paul to see if his heart could withstand both a liver and a kidney transplant  unexpectedly caused his kidneys to shut down .  For Paulette ( whom this reporter   often saw praying hard in a St. James pew ) ,  the challenge  was  the stress of  being a caregiver 24-7  during  the   long, often painful recovery of her husband—a recovery not over yet. " Throughout all of this, " Paul said,  " she   has been a real trooper. "
One of Paul's challenges was living through his many semi-conscious  days  immediately after  the surgery . Three teams of surgeons worked over Paul and inserted  84 staples across his abdomen ; six stints had been implanted during the last 18 years to keep his heart pumping. " I couldn't  pray . I couldn't concentrate , " he said.  Frightened about dying ?  " No. I was actually looking forward  to it. "  He estimates the operation and post-operative care cost the insurance company  at least  $ 1.2 million.
Becoming a deacon  was a four-year journey for both  Paul and  Paulette.
The catalyst  was ignited in the early  1990's after the couple had  participated in a marriage encounter weekend.  " Wonderful things can come from being able to  express your feelings in a safe environment, " Paul said.  " We were ' open' for other possibilities that God had in store for us as a couple. "   Fr. Bill Zavaski, the  recently retired pastor of St. James,  discerned  one of those possibilities  when he asked Paul to consider studying  for the diaconate.   Paul replied that he and his wife did not "feel gifted or 'holy' enough to serve others.  But a year later  , when asked again by Fr. Zavaski , Paul and Paulette  prayed and said yes .
That "comfort zone boat " the deacon left 
In the second year of Paul's diaconate, he and Paulette entered a 10-week internship at St. Francis hospital in Evanston, Illinois.  But during the third year , he  began to feel that he really didn't have the required gifts to be a good deacon. " I realized I was more task-oriented than people-oriented,"  he said.  When he shared this at a retreat for deacon candidates ,  a woman  classmate  promptly disagreed with him.  She told him that she had observed that he had a very important gift to be a good deacon: He was a good listener.   Then she told Paulette that her gifts were " hospitality" and "thoughtfulness. " 
 Paul still had doubts.  He excused himself from the group and took a long  walk alone.  " Out of nowhere came Bill, my classmate , to join me in the walk. " After listening to Paul's doubts, Bill  suggested that Paul simply trust in God's will for him and let Him reveal what He wanted Paul to do. And God apparently  did.
When  Paul , stepped up to the St. James altar for the first time as a deacon,  he possessed with other  skills besides listening well to people.  As project manager for various  businesses , he had developed  , he said, "pretty good instincts for business …and the ability to bring a project to completion and on budget. "  He was also able  to visualize the projects he embarked on . Eventually  he  was to "build" 500 buildings.  
In his Deerfield church office as business manager
While giving me a tour of the church in Deerfield , he referred to it as "my greatest achievement  ," taking particular pride in his role in raising funds for church's major addition and bringing  construction costs under budget by thousands of dollars .  He talked endearingly  about the church  as , let's say,  a father might about his  beloved child. But his life  goals, he said firmly, "are centered on Christ. "
In a moment of candor,  Paul's shared that his work in the St. James and  Holy Cross parishes  "has taught me how to love people. "  He admitted that at one time he  "didn't care what people thought of him as long as he got the job done. " But during the Holy Cross project, he said he saw firsthand how people interacted and took care of each other , and this, he said ,  "taught me how to  love  people. "  Naturally,  Paul wants his  tombstone epitaph to read : He loved people.   
            " The injustices of the world," he said, make him sad .  " Like when I see, for example , the way people treat other people in stores. "  He's made happy , he said ,  by all the signs and happenings in his daily life that tell him God is always with him and doing so much for him. He's reading the popular inspirational book, To Heaven and Back, by Dr. Mary C.  Neal , who , when helplessly drowning , surrendered peacefully to certain death with the words "Thy will be done. "
With Paulette in their Arlington Heights home 
Our interview shifted to his home, a cozy dwelling  whose walls are adorned with several water colors of barns and other pastoral scenes done by two  regional artists.  On Dec. 13, 2013 , the living room was filled with the cheerful conversation of  St. James' three priests and five of its deacons and wives who were celebrating  the one-year anniversary of  Paul's  recovery.  "It was a very meaningful  gathering ," Paulette said. "We had so many things in common  with  the many friends who have helped us through this ordeal,  like visiting Paul in  the hospital and driving us here and there."  Their son David, a professional  chef, prepared beef tenderloin.  


THE END
                                                                                                      comments welcome
                                                                           rrschwarz7@wowway.com                                                                                                       
                                                                                                                                 ©  2014  Robert R. Schwarz




Sunday, July 20, 2014

Outspoken CPA : What Catholics Should Know about Their Faith

By Robert R. Schwarz

"If a man  loves God, his
children will love him. "

                                                                          " There's a lot of confusion
                                                                          in  the church  as to the basic
                                                                          precepts we as Catholics are
                                                                          obligated to follow ."


 (Note: This interview was posted originally
Dec. 1, 2013. )
 

            Sunday mass attendance at St. James since 1997 has decreased by approximately 1,800   regular Sunday worshipers , and according to a recent Pew Research Center analysis,  "the share of all Catholics who say they attend Mass at least once a week has dropped from 47% in 1974 to 24% in 2012." One cause—a battle cry of the Catholic hierarchy— is that Catholics  do not know their faith very  well and are confused about what to believe.   One Catholic standing in the gap for the church is Donald Knorr,  a 59-year-old certified public accountant and active  member of  the St. James Catholic church in Arlington Heights, Illinois.  We recently met in his office next to a Dunkin' Donuts and talked about his faith life and role with Opus Dei  (  a personal prelature of the Catholic Church) . His apostolate is seemingly inseparable from his office work , family, and championing of a balanced   education   for one's children.  He says that a long day of work and the people he meets are  his fun in life . 


Our interview required several requests. "I like to work behind the scene," Knorr once again reminded me with a skeptical eye on my camera.  After a few minutes  of warm-up conversation, it was obvious that Knorr is a man on a mission , has an amazing memory of facts and figures he gleans from religious books and financial reports ,  and has the boundless energy of a teenager. Oh, and he loves to expound on answers to peoples' questions.  
            Knorr faced me across a large desk smothered with papers. He wore a blue button-down shirt, possesses salt-pepper  hair cut short, and , when asked, sized himself at 210 pounds and six-feet in height. When Marcia, his  part-time office manager and  wife of 30 years , was exiting the office she teased:   "  Maybe I should stay ,Donald, to make sure you tell  it straight. "
His Day Begins with
Roman Missal in Hand

            We started with Knorr's typical work  day:  He begins  it with his  Roman Missal and in a rear  pew at St. James, sometimes arriving  early for private prayer but always remaining after mass for prayers for friends, family , and anyone else  in his life whom he knows needs a special touch of God's grace.   Sometimes Marcia  is with him, sometimes it  might  be one of his three daughters or  a granddaughter . Sitting with either of these pew mates  makes him beam, I've observed. Before day's end, his prayer time will usually  total more than two hours, he told me.
          
The CPA at work...so, what else is new ?
   " I do all sorts of things, like income tax planning, financial reporting , and giving general business advice. "  He's been doing this work for 35 years.  Now and then he hops on a jet to Washington, D.C. , to   help a company with its  retirement plan.  He was "just drawn  to accounting " while attending his alma mater, Illinois State  University.
            People with bothersome theological questions and other spiritual  issues sometimes come to his office for answers.  Knorr doesn't mince words when giving these  answers any less than when advising on complex finance  problems. He quickly pointed out, though, " I am not a spiritual director. "   For that kind of  help, there is an adjacent room set aside for a priest, when available,  who will hear any and all questions as well as a confession.
            At times, Knorr will encourage a lapsed  or new Catholic to drive with him to Maryville, a nearby  Catholic campus for underprivileged  teenagers , where the two will walk near a Marianne shrine while praying the Rosary . Other times, he'll invite friends or recent converts to the faith to a three-day Opus Dei retreat  in  Valparaiso ,  Indiana . He'll also invite them to monthly  evenings of spiritual recollection held in another suburb  and to  the monthly talks he or  a guest speaker  gives  in his home on topics ranging from  the Crusades and the Inquisition to federal banking policy.  Knorr generously and freely gives books and other religious materials to those he mentors—at his expense.
            These  people with whom he links arms are , he explains, " a whole array of people I've met  throughout the course of my life, all from different backgrounds. " He described them as "restless men who are  searching and who were created to know , love, and serve  God. With many , there's a level of trust already built through my  business relationship with them ," he explained .   " What I try to do , especially for the Catholic, is to sit with them, away from the busyness  of things going on . It helps to  get a man to step back from the hectic environment that we all operate in, especially those men who have  children and careers ."  As they grow spiritually, Knorr  encourages them to then get spiritual  direction. " 
            All of this is his "daily plan of life "  as advocated by Opus Dei , of which Knorr is a member.   This prelature  describes itself as : " a Catholic institution founded by Saint Josemaria Escrivá . Its  mission is to help people turn their work and daily activities into occasions for growing closer to God , for serving others, and for improving society."  It is part of the Catholic church hierarchical structure and   does not attempt to replicate any function of a  Catholic church, but rather  to complement that  church's work.   
            "Our work [ with Opus Dei ] becomes a sacrifice we make to God each day on  behalf of those who are struggling with any particular problem. "  His wife, whom he describes as "the heart of his family ",  is also an Opus Dei member
            Where does Knorr find time to manage his CPA work and his "daily plan of life " as well as being a responsible family man ?   " I don't," he flatly said.  " I rely on God's grace. "  When he's concerned about  getting everything done on his daily should- do  list, he recalls words of the late Fr. Fred Piegl, who once manned that  private room in Knorr's office:  If you take time for God, God will show you how to expand time in your day to get things done you need to get done.   "I can't explain how that happens, but I believe it with all my heart,  " Knorr said.  He saw proof of this  13 years ago when his father was dying of cancer in the midst of Knorr's  busy work  season and  questioned how he would ever find time for  his commitments to  clients, family, and  Opus Dei-- and still care for his father.  But he did.
            "It's often hectic," he said. And then, reflecting on how he has seen his children develop spiritually and professionally, he said with a sigh, "It's all worth it. " As expected when asked what makes him happy, the CPA replied, " my faith, my wife and my children." 
His children are: Kelly, 22, employed by a  Chicago tax specialty company ; Caroline,  25, an attorney with a global law firm in Chicago; Katlyn 27, a physical therapist ( with a PhD ) in St. Louis; and Donald, 29, now studying law enforcement at American Military University in Panama City, Florida. He recently completed six years of active duty with the Air Force, being deployed  for a year in Iraq and then in Afghanistan, earning three commendation medals.  All four children were married within a 27-month period. 
[ Update: In closing the email Don sent friends last June, he wrote: " So to quickly recap again and, for the moment, the final time, we have two granddaughters and three more grandchildren on the way before the end of the year ! "  ]
       " They have learned to defend their faith and to share it with others. They know the things that are right and wrong and , most importantly, they know how to discuss these issues with others. " Knorr then quoted from the Old Testament : " If a man loves God, his children will love him. "
            What particularly made him happy was seeing so many people at the marriage Mass of daughter Kelly. "They were smiling and happy, and when you see that, that's generally an indication that they're doing the right things. "
The  then younger Knorrs at Glacier National Park 

  Tongue in cheek, Knorr summed up his life's milestones this way: " You spend the first third of your life accumulating things like education and a home; the second third taking care of what you've accumulated; and the last third trying to get rid of what you've accumulated. "  He got more serious about his milestones and mentioned  attending a Catholic grammar school and a culturally-mixed high school ( New Trier West ) where  he learned about other cultures and religious beliefs of the many Protestant and Jewish students there.  In college, there was the "temptation  to go out with the boys for a beer instead of doing homework.  Then came  his first job, then marrying Marcia and seeing his first child born . The birthing of that child,  he said,  profoundly affected him for life . 
At age 33 and holding an important position with a multi-national company ,  Knorr began to sense something important was missing from his high-salaried job and that  he "wasn't being the kind of man and father that God wanted me to be ."   At the time he couldn't put what he felt into words .  Knorr quit his job and started his own accounting firm. " God doesn't force you to do things but He gives us the circumstances to exercise our free will. "   
He admits to one thing he had to learn the hard way :   that, despite the enormous energy with which he had been blessed  ( which since has diminished little ), a man or woman  has to keep a balance with work and  family . But, he added,  " work itself should not have a higher priority than taking care of one's family. I can see vividly today the effect that the absence of a father has on the family.  A family suffers when Dad's job takes away quality time his children. "  As his  children grew, Knorr said he then gave  quality time to coach his four children   in various recreational activities and by  taking the entire family on vacations, such as  letting them experience cabin life in the woods.     
Twenty-eight years ago the Knorr couple joined St. James . He became  president of the social activity committee and  later, with Marcia, began teaching baptismal preparation to parents expecting their first child.  Yet Knorr  desired something more   structured and tangible in his faith life.  " Parish work was fine but it did not create the opportunity to go deeper into my faith. "  He made friends with that  Opus Dei priest, Fr. Piegl , who had helped Knorr better understand what Knorr's dying father was going through. The priest had asked if Knorr had lately been to confession.  Knorr said it had been several years , and  the priest told  him: " Don, you're going to confession ."   A  few days later, Don did.
With daughter Kelly at her
        7th grade basketball game
Born Catholic and the oldest of seven children  , Knorr was raised in Glenview, Illinois , his father in  Chicago's Jackson Park, and his mother in the  Chicago Irish neighborhood  of "Canaryville,  also known  as "Back of the  Yards "  for its proximity to the famous—or infamous—Union Stock Yards that closed in 1971.  His  father owned a tree planting and landscape maintenance company, which employed the young  Knorr during high school and college. " At one time I was going to follow my father in his work but he encouraged me to get an education. "  
A Surprise Honeymoon for Marcia
He met Marcia through a friend and courted her for two years . During that time  he was playing all positions on a softball "team"  five nights a week ; it was a sport he played until age 50 . (He was on a "six-feet-and-under" basketball team until age 38. )  When honeymoon plans were being made,  Marcia asked where they were going.   Knorr replied, "I'm not going to tell you because I want it to be a surprise. "   Marcia wanted to know what she should pack.  " Pack a little of this  and a little of that, "  he said.
When their airplane touched down at the small  Canada airport of Calgary, Marcia was still wondering where she was honeymooning to.  Not until they had driven for 2 ½  hours over  British Columbia's farmland and approached  the Rocky Mountains at Banff National Park , did Mrs. Knorr know  where her honeymoon would be. " Yes, "  Knorr said leaning over his desk with a child-like grin,  ” she was absolutely surprised." 
Nowadays , one thing truly saddens Knorr : It's "seeing Catholics  who have left their faith, " he said.  " And it all stems from the same thing: they do not have a good interior life nor do they understand the God-given gift of their Catholic faith . They put their trust in the things of the world instead of God. "  To an admonition of St. John Vianney, patron saint of priests, that the more you sin in your life the harder to see what God wants you to see, Knorr added: " Sin makes you deaf, dumb, and blind ."
Asked if he would  like to see any changes in the Catholic church or his own parish church,   " No, " he replied . " I'm not an anarchist. My role in the church is to carry out the obligation God put in my heart when I was baptized . " He did, however, stress the importance of Catholics learning what their faith is all about, primarily by reading Sacred Scripture and studying the catechism . " This was the call, he said, put out by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2007  because of the kind of  culture we have today.
" There's a lot of confusion in  the church as to the basic precepts we as Catholics are obligated to follow ," Knorr said .  The more than  50 per cent drop in Sunday Mass attendance since 1997  at his own church stems from this confusion about the teachings of the faith,  he asserted. "It's sad."  He hopes that though the church has had  heresies since its beginning,  church leaders, particularly  bishops, will continue to sit down collectively and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, explain clearly and convincingly to the laity and some  priests  what their church really teaches and why. " And I hope we Catholics  will heed  what is said. "
THE END
                                                                                                   comments welcome
                                                                                                 rrschwarz7@wowway.com                                                                                                                  
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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Fr. Foley at the ' General's Mass ' in Afghanistan; Enemy Only Miles Away





By Robert R. Schwarz
( last of  two parts ) 


( Note: This interview was posted originally
on Oct. 27, 2013 , a few months after 
his arrival at St. James.  )

       The priest is a man anointed by tradition to shed   blood , not as  soldier, through courage, not as  the magistrate, through justice, but as Jesus  Christ , through love. The priest is a man of sacrifice; by it, each day , reconciling heaven and earth , and by it, each day, announcing to  every soul the primordial truths of life , of   death, and of resurrection.... Fr. Henri-Dominique,  O.P. , ( died  1861),  French  preacher  and journalist who re-established the Dominican order in post-Revolutionary France 

It's 48 degrees on this November night in  northeastern Pakistan . Patches of snow on the 4,800-foot mountain tops have  survived the 100 degree-plus heat from last August . This is  a war zone at the Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military base in this country.  Weekly deaths from Taliban rockets, road mines, mortars , small arms fire , and suicide attacks of terrorists  have been common since the 1980's  Soviet war  in Afghanistan and   since the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001.
A few minutes before 9  p.m. , both enlisted men and women  and officers of our Army and Airforce begin entering a large conference room in an undisclosed location . Among them is a two-star general,  Jim C. McConville, commander of this region. There are  about 30 soldiers and airmen; a few might have had  dinner a few hours ago either  in a Burger King, Popeye's,  Pizza Hut,  or Subway . The  base  can house at least 10,000 military personnel.  
In a minute, a  Catholic mass will  be celebrated by Captain   Fr. Matt Foley, a chaplain ( one of 16 priests in this country ) now in his fourth deployment and soon to go  stateside as pastor of the St. James Catholic Church in Arlington  Heights, Illinois.
The worshippers, including Gen. McConville,  take seats at one large table and  wait for Fr. Foley .  No  one knows when and where  the next rocket will hit or if a Taliban suicide bomber at this moment is trying to  breech security …
An American soldier during prayers at Bagram ( photo
by John Moore / Getty Images )
"It  was beautiful ,"  is how Fr. Matt remembered  any of the five masses he normally celebrated on weekends   at Bagram.  " We would have singing and  great prayer, " he added during my recent interview with him.
…The mass continues on schedule . The men sing "Amazing Grace " , then receive the  blessing by Fr. Foley , who wears a traditional  Catholic vestment. Any of the world's estimated ( in a 2010 survey of the  Pew Research Center ) 1.2 billion  Catholics , including  the two-star general sitting here,  know what words come next—"I  confess to almighty God…". Then their faith's  kyrie and  Gloria, followed by the  opening prayer .  This mass , largely for the benefit for those on 24-hour shifts,  is Bagram's  "Sunday " mass "  and will last  half the usual 60 minutes…
                             " We were obviously aware that there was a general among us," Fr. Matt said, "but he didn't  draw any attention to himself.  He was just going to mass.  "  Gen. McConville is Catholic and  hails from Quincy , Massachusetts.   After graduating from West Point in 1981, he earned a degree in aerospace engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology and in 2002 he was a National Security Fellow at Harvard  University.                  "He's a very humble   guy , " Fr. Matt said  . " Senior officers and senior NCOs (sergeant majors and warrant officers ) have great influence on the younger soldiers, "  Fr. Matt said.  He  related the time he brought a PFC and a captain to mass.  " They were very inspired by the fact that general was there. It was wonderful to see that influence. "
                              Now comes  the Liturgy of the Word, the same being read on this day in  most  Catholic churches around the world. The  lector  reads a passage from the Old Testament, then one  from the New Testament. Both the lector, altar server and members of the military choir are wearing combat-ready gear. Fr. Matt  rises  from a folding  chair , proclaims  the Gospel message, and  begins his homily.  He is not unaware that each man facing him wears  a .45  Colt automatic , if  an officer, or has at  his side an  M4 rifle, if a lower ranked enlisted man or woman…
   " Bad and Good People Die "
 
A wounded soldier at the hospital at Bagram
plays his guitar for a wounded comrade
( AP Photo / Rafiq Maqabool )
His homilies at Bagram , said the St. James pastor,  " try to integrate the liturgy with what we were dealing with in our everyday existence in Afghanistan. "   Asked if his homilies ever talked about death or killing the enemy, he pondered the question before replying:  "I didn't go into a lot of a ' just war theory that [ Saint ]  Augustine would talk about. "  He mentioned  a captain at Bagram whom Fr. Foley first met when celebrating mass at Camp McCoy in North Carolina while this  captain was in special forces  ( Green Beret ) training. The captain  was later  shot and killed at an outlying forward operating base ( FOB ) by a Taliban infiltrator. " That was a very sad day," Fr. Matt recalled. "He was a West Point grad, a Catholic, an outstanding soldier and loved my many. This was evil,  and bad and good people die, just like the sun rises and sets on the good and bad alike. " 
                 Did he hate the enemy ?  " No, " he quickly said . "I don't like  evil. I don’t like those who perpetrate it. But I'm not one to cast into Hell all the evil spirits. That's up to Jesus.  "    To deal more effectively with the religious faith of Islam that  motivates  Afghan terrorists to kill innocent people,  Fr. Foley and his  commander ,  a lieutenant colonel,  went regularly during Fr. Foley's prior deployments to regional villages and  meet with Islamic  leaders .
     He remained reserved  with any opinion about the Islamic faith .  " There are extremists in any faith …I believe that religions get abused by political agendas.  People, including Americans, he thought,  confuse their religious faith with  their political  agenda .
       Our conversation turned to conversions to the Christian faith at Bagram.  Yes, he said,  there were conversions ; some men became Catholic , like an officer in his 30s,  a non-denominational Christian who told Fr. Foley he had been drawn to the Catholic faith throughout  his life . As he and Fr. Foley took a walk, the officer said he had been looking for more depth to his faith, a better understanding of Holy Scripture, and a closer relationship with Jesus.  Soon after that walk, the officer made a profession of faith to Fr. Matt.    Some soldiers were baptized while Fr. Foley was there.
                  The  " ministry of presence " is taken  seriously by  military chaplains .  "You go  where your soldiers are, " Fr. Matt explained. " They like to see their chaplain. You have an influence on morale also moral behavior.  "   How did  he as a chaplain react when he was in earshot of profanity or a  dirty joke ?  " If they saw me then, they usually apologized and were very respectful. Some of that  respect  might have been influenced because I was older than the other chaplains [ he is 50 ] and because many knew of my past experience as a pastor in  Chicago. "
     Neither   drinking nor drugs, of course, were allowed on base, and there were no traditional military weekend passes , no R & R for the  G.I.s to go into town and let off some steam.  " Nothing like that, " the chaplain said.    Fr. Matt's last deployment was for nine months—without any leave—though the men on their first deployment get a  home  leave.   " That's why you lift a lot of weights and run and read books , " the priest said grinning about his two favorite pastimes.
             
Gen. Jim McConville, Fr. Foley's commander
  
Confessions, sacraments  of penance and reconciliation  ?   Of course.  Both enlisted personnel and officers saw their priest.  Did that general go , I asked  ?  " If he did, " Fr. Matt said,  " I  wouldn't tell you . "  We exchanged grins .
   
                  As Fr. Matt and the  altar server   prepare for the communion rite, some  men and women  in this room are likely  wondering about  tomorrow, when  the first  helicopter  will come in  carrying the wounded from somewhere within this bomb-  and rocket-scarred  warzone that extends 60 miles in all directions…  
                 Fr. Matt described that  scene: " There are a lot of moving parts, and you watch not to get in the way. If they are Catholic, you pray, you anoint them and they are off to the operating room .  Everyone is trying to do their best. You know exactly what your role is .      There' s no time to get overwhelmed.  " Many of the wounded as they are carried by Fr.Matt, ask him when they'll  be able to return to their unit.     His experience as   a parish priest on the southwest side of Chicago who  ministered to youth gangs and made several trips to hospital emergency rooms  had  prepared Fr. Matt for the worst scenario.    
     That same day he visits the base mortuary to bless bodies. As he looks at the  bodies  he  is disturbed  most by "the evil of violence that has been perpetrated upon them. "  Later he blesses another  body in a  " ramp ceremony"  as the fallen soldier or airman is being loaded onto a plane.  Another plane is standing by to fly  the stabilized wounded  to a military hospital in Germany...
Prayers and Fear
               
Bagram Airfield   in Afghanistan
 
" There is always an opportunity for prayers, "  Fr. Matt  said. He told me about one young soldier  whose vehicle  on a night patrol was ambushed . A rocket went through the windshield , sending glass fragments into his head. He and his comrades lived but,  later on the operating table , this solder feared he might lose his eyesight. Fr. Matt prayed with him. " He happened to be Catholic and recovered.
      I asked Fr. Matt if he had a special prayer for himself, especially when he was  alone. " I echo the words of Jesus at  His cross : ' Into your hands I commend my spirit. '  I find comfort in that ."  
     Was Fr. Matt ever fearful  while in this 24-7 warzone ? " There are times when people shoot at you and you'd better be scared—'cause it helps you move a little bit faster.  Anytime people are surprising you [ with an attack ] your adrenaline rush goes from zero  to one hundred. When you hear rockets overhead, it's pretty disconcerting.  "
                             Reminded of  news reports about the high suicide rate among the military , Fr. Matt said : " The army takes better statistics than the public. I  don't think we have any higher rate of suicide than the public. We try  much in preventative care and mental health  and in knowing the signs  [ of suicidal tendencies ]  . " Everyone  throughout the military, he explained, is required to carry  an ACE card, which reminds them  to  ask, care, and escort the troubled G.I. to some place for help.  
            


Fr. Foley: chaplain and U.S. Army captain
   Still, there are the many battle  casualties of PTSD, or  post-traumatic stress disorder . Its causes are different for different people, Fr. Matt said , acknowledging he was no expert  about this.  He added, however, that the better a  veteran  "processes difficult situations ", the healthier he'll probably be.  " The key to this , whether a Christian or not, is "telling your story  to certain people. "
   One by one now, the men come up to the altar and take the host—the " Body of Christ"— from Fr. Matt and then turn to a comrade holding  the cup of wine—the " Blood of Christ"— and sip from it.  Then each returns  to his or her  chair and  makes  the sign of the cross with Fr. Matt. As mass ends with voices   singing  "On Eagle's Wings," Fr. Matt can't help thinking about whom among these worshippers he has blessed tonight  might not be alive at the next mass.  Before leaving   "church" tonight, he will likely pray—if he hasn't already—the prayer of the Airborne  archangel, St. Michael: 
St. Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen..

THE END                                                       
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©  2013, 2014  Robert R. Schwarz