20-Year Naval Chaplain Serves Church, Country
Published: October 25, 2012
PANAMA CITY, Fla.—From the war zone of Afghanistan to the Pacific high seas, Father Patrick McCormick, a priest of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, transcended religious barriers as an active duty military chaplain in his ministry of care over two decades to those in spiritual need.
And while the majority of military members aren’t affiliated with a particular religion—a major change in recent decades—he has found them to be especially open to seeking God as they experience the violence of war and deaths of loved ones back home.
“You’re exposed to a more broad cross section of society. I would help as many Protestants and nonreligious people as I would Catholics. You’re expected to take care of everyone. … You have a great opportunity to influence people and help them in times of need and crisis in life,” Father McCormick said. “They may have been agnostic the day before, but people in crisis don’t have a lot of trouble reaching out to God. … Prayer was very, very important.”
And Jesus’ call for Christian unity resounds throughout the chaplaincy corps.
Father Patrick McCormick ministers in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2009, where he talks to a young girl.
“With three Protestants and myself, it gave me a different perspective on the church and ecumenism and working with other people. You have to work harder to make sure everybody is loving and cooperative in a chapel community,” Father McCormick said.
A native of Erie, Pa., Father McCormick earned his bachelor’s degree as an ROTC student at the University of Notre Dame and was accepted to law school there but thought he’d first try seminary. So after acceptance by the Atlanta Archdiocese, he headed to Rome and studied at Gregorian University, where he was ordained in 1968 at St. Peter’s Basilica to live “happily ever after,” he reflected. Coming back to Georgia, he served at Holy Spirit, Atlanta; St. John the Evangelist, Hapeville; Corpus Christi, Stone Mountain; St. Mary, Toccoa; and Sacred Heart, Hartwell. He also taught at the North American College in Rome.
His first request to the archdiocese to enter the U.S. Army Reserves was declined, but by 1990 he set sail on active duty for the U.S. Navy to alleviate an acute shortage of priests in the military chaplaincy.
“Once this ministry to church and country gets into your blood, it is very hard to leave it,” he said.
Father McCormick, 70, retired from active duty in the Navy in April 2010 at the Marine Corps Base in Kaneohe, Hawaii. He served 21 years with the Navy and Marine Corps, reaching the naval rank of commander. Those years included two at-sea periods aboard the aircraft carriers USS Constellation and USS Ronald Reagan, assignments with the Marine Corps in Japan and Hawaii, and 17 months assigned to the Army in Kabul, Afghanistan, for which he received the Bronze Star Medal. Since his retirement two years ago, he was asked by the Archdiocese for the Military Services to serve as a civilian priest with the U.S. Air Force for a year. As soon as a replacement is located, he will retire again.
Father McCormick served in 2008-09 as the only military priest in Kabul. There he celebrated Mass every weekend at the main base and also traveled by convoy to four other coalition bases where vehicles couldn’t stop or separate to reduce the constant risk of ambush. He also led an RCIA class from which about 50 were confirmed at the Italian embassy.
The first pastor of Sacred Heart Church, Hartwell, Father McCormick returned in 2002 for the 25th anniversary celebration at the church. He holds 3-month-old Camden Doker, a descendent of one of the two founding families of the parish. (Photo by Michael Alexander)
And celebrating daily Mass in Afghanistan strengthened him to serve others.
“When living for a long period of time in a dangerous environment, you become more deeply aware of your dependence on God,” he said.
Additionally, he directed a community relations project where some 40 volunteers every Friday sorted American church donations of clothing, toys and food and participated in the “delicate operation” to distribute goods to a poor neighborhood, refugee camp, hospital or school. Interacting with locals, he was heartened to hear of their greater sense of stability since the ouster of the Taliban who terrorized through such measures as executing adulterous women at soccer matches.
His most unusual job was serving as the head American mentor to the Afghan National Army’s Religious and Cultural Affairs Department where he monitored the development of the 160 Islamic mullah chaplains to the Afghan Army. He trained them in counseling and other techniques, introducing the concept of ministering without weapons. Interfaith dialogue was limited in a nation where only Islam can be practiced, but the mullahs were very respectful and interested in him, he said.
Counseling was central to his ministry, whether supporting a soldier injured in an ambush or just sharing coffee with soldiers after dinner. And as he helped the suffering find healing he rarely asked their religion, which usually came out naturally.
“Most people who go through life are never listened to. After we listen to people they (often) self heal,” Father McCormick said.
He also ministered to many exhausted soldiers on third tours of duty.
“War is an awful thing and wears people down. … It’s very difficult to have a 10-year war,” he said.
A consequence for some soldiers is post-traumatic stress syndrome, where “a person becomes so identified with the trauma of war that you just can’t get it out of your system, that sense of hopelessness and danger,” he observed.
A ministry highlight in 2007 was his service aboard the USS Ronald Reagan that carried over 5,000 people and was deployed in the western Pacific during the troop buildup in Iraq. To celebrate Catholic services, he also flew via the “holy helo” helicopter on Sundays to two smaller ships nearby. A fellow passenger once remarked, “No problem, there’s a chaplain on board,” while the chaplain was thinking “if they only knew how nervous I was.”
He drew 30 participants to his RCIA classes aboard the carrier and enjoyed 100 percent attendance.
“One man said, ‘I’ve gone through this twice and now I’m ready to become a Catholic.’ … It’s a serious environment and people have time to think about serious things,” he said, plus “there was not a lot else to do on Tuesday and Thursday nights when out to sea.”
Now he gladly fills in as a civilian Air Force chaplain at the request of the military archbishop at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Fla., enabling active duty priests to be deployed. He enjoys a lighter workload—still 80 hours over two weeks—running the base chapel. And as the military has a close relationship with its chaplaincy corps, he regularly offers prayers at public events or for units preparing for deployment.
Two priests of the Atlanta Archdiocese serving in military chaplaincy in June 1991 meet with Atlanta Archbishop James P. Lyke, OFM, in Rome, Italy, where the archbishop received the pallium. Father Patrick McCormick, left, was a U.S. Navy chaplain in Sardinia and Father Paul Berny, right, was a U.S. Air Force chaplain in Frankfurt, Germany.
He also returns yearly to Sacred Heart, Hartwell, where he recalls his small town pastorate and its many active volunteers and strong ecumenical community. Sacred Heart member and friend Linda Doker recalled how he and the Presbyterian and Baptist ministers, known together as the “mod squad,” helped establish a community food pantry and clothes outreach.
“He really pushed (ecumenism) forward,” she said.
And he encouraged her, a convert, to take on parish leadership roles.
“Father Pat has always inspired me with all of his good works. He is just a good person and he takes up time with all types of people, the elderly, the young,” the rich and the poor, she added. “I was always in church, but I didn’t have the confidence in myself and the faith I needed to have the confidence to participate more fully.”
He’s also “very orthodox” in advising on church teaching, said friend Pat Hamilton of St. Mark Church, Clarkesville, who has also maintained regular contact with Father McCormick. And he lightens the spirit with his witty demeanor. “He’s outgoing and very humorous. You spend an evening with him and you’re in stitches laughing.”
“I always got the feeling he really enjoyed military life,” she added. “He likes to travel. It seems he’s really enjoyed living in Japan, Hawaii, the Middle East … the different cultures.”
Father McCormick admitted, “I may have wanted to change my assignment” a time or two, but affirmed that the priesthood has been “very fulfilling.”
“It can help priests in their own spiritual life to be able to see the Spirit of God in the lives of other people,” he said. “When you’re permitted to do your work, you help people spiritually and you have a sense that it’s an extremely profound vocation.”
And having traveled to over 50 countries, Father McCormick is proud to remain grounded in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
“The Atlanta presbyterate has got a lot of sense of unity and works well together, particularly in such a multicultural environment,” he said. “It’s a forward-looking diocese.”