Jesuits Serve as Military Chaplains Around the Globe
There are 1.4 million Catholic men and women in the US military today. The need for chaplains in just as great as it was in the 1940s and Jesuits from the New England Province continue to respond. We had the opportunity to talk with two chaplains, Fr. John C. Monahan, SJ, and Fr. Robert L. Keane, SJ, from the New England Province about their experiences serving the men and women in today’s military.
Fr. John C. Monahan, SJ
Fr. John Monahan served in the Air Force for 17½ years before entering the Society of Jesus in 1991, but his vocation story began much earlier. In 1988, Fr. John learned that “happiness and fulfillment would come out of service to others.” His decision to join the Society of Jesus came when the mother of his lifelong friend, Chuck, died. At her memorial Mass, John spoke with Chuck’s uncle, Fr. Hubert Cunniff, SJ. Fr. Cunniff gave John’s address to the vocation director at the time. When John received the letter accepting him into the novitiate, he requested and was granted a release from active duty. During an 8-day retreat at Eastern Point Retreat House, Fr. Monahan said “my heart was leaping and God seemed to be saying, ‘I didn’t bring you this far to let you go.’” From that moment, John’s Jesuit career blossomed.
As the Iraq war began, Fr. John was drawn back to serving his brothers and sisters in the military. After discerning with the provincial, Fr. Regan missioned him to be a Navy Chaplain. “There are so many opportunities to find God during our day-to day activities. On board ship, the Ignatian principle of hospitality is tangible. We pay attention to each other, care for those who are having challenges at home, care for the safety and wellbeing of our brother and sister shipmates. It is while walking through their work spaces that sailors approach me with situations and concerns. I’m often greeted with “Hey Chaps” and pulled aside to chat by those who may not feel comfortable coming into my office. I’ve been blessed to be able to administer the sacraments as well as daily and Sunday liturgies on board ship.” Fr. Monahan is serving as Navy Chaplain aboard the USS Enterprise.
Fr. Robert L. Keane, SJ
Commander Robert L. Keane entered the Jesuits 1965 and was ordained a priest on June 4, 1978. He enjoyed various assignments both studying and teaching, but it was while he was working in campus ministry at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Mass. that he also served as chaplain to the naval ROTC unit on campus. Because of that experience, he entered the United States Navy in 1989. Father Keane explains, “The most grace-filled dimension of these 18 years has been the relationships, professional and personal, that have come my way. The young men and women of our armed forces are truly inspiring. Every day they challenge me to stay young and in fairly good physical shape (for an old guy).”
His assignments have included postings in Operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm and Desert Saber and more recently, Director of Training at the Naval Chaplains School in Newport, RI. Fr. Keane’s decorations include among others: two Meritorious Service Medals, four Navy Commendation Medals and the Navy Achievement Medal.
“I am blessed to be able to minister to the military,” he says. “Many of our men and women in the military do not know their Catholic faith very well, so there is an opportunity for evangelizing. The religious affiliation of those in the military reflects American society, with 25% of the population Catholic. Many in the military have never met a Catholic, so there is an opportunity to have a presence and build an understanding of our Catholic faith. I can reach out to and guide young people and help them develop character through their growing years.”
“In 1989 there were 260 priests in the Navy; today there are 110 of which 16 are Jesuits. When I was a chaplain at Holy Cross and working with the ROTC unit, the commanding officer suggested I become a Navy Chaplain. Eighteen years later, I still agree with his suggestion.”
PHOTO: Weston College played host for a homecoming ceremony to welcome some fifty Jesuit Chaplains recently returned from the service on August 21, 1946. (A special thank you to Alice Howe, Curator of Collections, New England Jesuit Archives at the College of the Holy Cross for providing the photos and images from the collection of the Archives of the Society of Jesus of New England.)