A Ministry Of Presence In Iraq
Published: January 1, 2004
It is hard to get people’s attention at luncheon meetings. Usually they are more interested in talking to the person next to them or signaling the waiter for another cup of coffee.
But a young Army officer recently reduced a well-fed crowd of Washington “swells” to silence when he got up to speak at the downtown Washington, D.C., chapter of the Serra Club. (Serrans are Catholic lay men and women who promote vocations to the priesthood and religious life by prayer and witness.)
Father Michael Heninger got our attention by telling his story. He is a chaplain in the U.S. Army, just returned from Iraq.
Father Heninger is one of a small cadre of Catholic priests who serve in the U.S. military. Of the 1,200 chaplains in the Army, only 100 are Catholic priests, while 25 percent of the Army’s enlisted personnel are Catholics and nearly one-third of the officer corps. In all, there are fewer than 900 Catholic chaplains serving 1.4 million Catholics in uniform.
Father Heninger found his vocation in the military. Just out of high school, he joined the Air Force as an enlisted man and served 12 years.
Like many soldiers he stopped going to Mass and fell away from the faith. But gradually he sensed he was being called to another duty. God called to him to service.
After leaving the military and going to college, he answered God’s call to duty, this time as a priest. He was ordained in 2000 and 2 years later began his Army chaplaincy ministry at Fort Stewart, Ga.
An Army chaplain has a “ministry of presence,” says Father Heninger. He supports the living, comforts the dying and honors the dead. There is no shortage of work.
He is one of only two priests for a whole Army division (10,000 to 15,000 soldiers). His flock is spread out all over central Iraq. His parish is young, many just a few months out of high school. They are away from home for the first time—lonely, tired and afraid.
They also must face the big spiritual questions of life and death in a way most people never confront. Not only do they see their friends die, but at times they are asked to kill. It is a situation made for spiritual anguish.
In such a situation people are looking for faith. They want the sacraments. They want to know that they are not forgotten by God or by their church. The chaplain is an important presence. Father Heninger represents something of home, faith and family, not just to Catholics but to all faiths.
At times he has five Masses in a day. After Mass he opens the religious “gift shop” on the hood of his Humvee, setting out Bibles, rosaries, medals and prayer cards sent by folks back home.
There are a lot of conversions. One young man he baptized proudly showed off his “dog tags” on which he had scratched out the line where it said “no religion” and etched in “Catholic.”
Sometimes his work is to try to remind the soldiers of their own call to compassion as Christians. He organized soldiers to visit the orphanages in Baghdad run by the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa’s order).
It is transforming for a tough “warrior” in a kevlar vest to pick up a little handicapped baby and start singing a lullaby. Pretty soon the toughness of combat falls away to tenderness.
Father Heninger brought a crowd of talkers to silence and reminded us of the need for the ministry of presence.
Before his service in the military, Father Michael Heninger was a parochial vicar at St. Pius X, Conyers. He was recently granted an extension of his assignment in the Archdiocese for the Military Services by Archbishop John F. Donoghue, until July 1, 2007.