Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Fairchild’s Catholic chaplain: ‘My personal growth happens when I come in contact with people of different faiths’
by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the May 18, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)
Father George George serves the Catholic community at Fairchild Air Force Base, near Spokane. (IR file photo)
U.S. Air Force chaplain Father (Captain) George C. George can still smile politely when people rib him about his first and last names being identical. At the very least, it provides a convenient way to break the ice with new acquaintances.
The one-and-only Catholic chaplain at Spokane’s Fairchild Air Force Base since September 2005, Father George is a native of India and a graduate of St. Joseph College, Kerala, India. In 1986, he received a Master of Divinity degree from the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas, and soon thereafter he was ordained for the Diocese of Austin, Texas. Father George served in parishes in the Diocese of Austin for 12 years, then in 1998 he received permission from his bishop to join the Air Force as a chaplain.
Subsequent to Officer Training School, Father George completed the Air Force’s Chaplain Orientation Course, Combat Trauma Ministry Training (2001), Squadron Officer School (2002), Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (2003), and a course titled Global War on Terrorism Ministry Issues (2005).
Prior to his assignment to Fairchild Air Force Base, Father George was stationed in Mississippi, Alaska, and Okinawa, Japan. Along the way, Father George has had many deployments – that is, times when he is sent from his main base assignment to a place where Air Force personnel are assigned to duty in either war zones or places where the families of Air Force men and women cannot go.
“It can be very stressful, for both those who are deployed and family members who must remain behind,” said Father George. “Chaplains are there with those who are deployed and with those who stay, doing what we can to help them cope with the stress and crises that come up. But you have to bring the church where the people are. That’s why we go where people conduct combat operations.”
One of the facts of life today is that the shortage of priests in the U.S. affects the military services, too, perhaps even more so than regular dioceses. Bishops already have fewer priests than they need, so they are understandably reluctant to release a priest for military duty. Catholics in the military need the sacraments and a priestly presence at least as much as do Catholic civilians, however. It’s not unusual for troops in a “hot spot” to applaud when Father George arrives by helicopter, armored car, or another appropriate form of transportation.
These days, Catholic Air Force chaplains sometimes also fly to U.S. Army outposts to minister to Catholic troops, because the Army has so few Catholic chaplains. The Air Force has about 120 Catholic chaplains to serve about 84,000 Catholic personnel, and the Army has only about 90 priests to serve more than 99,000 Catholics. Add to these individual military personnel the families many of them have and you’re talking about Catholic chaplains who are stretched very thin, indeed.
When on deployment, Father George hardly knows from one day to the next where he will be. He may end up saying Mass for British troops and/or family members from American, English, German, French and other embassies. “I enjoy putting in 16 hours a day,” Father George told Airman magazine during an interview. “I don’t seem to take a day off, but I enjoy being with the troops.”
When a visitor arrived to visit with Father George recently, in his office at Fairchild Air Force Base’s thoroughly modern chapel complex, the visitor had to wait a few minutes. An airman had dropped in unexpectedly to talk with the priest, so first things first. Walking down the hall to wait in an unoccupied office, the visitor passed the chapel complex’s small Blessed Sacrament chapel, its door open and inviting for anyone who might want to spend a few minutes in prayer.
Father George explains that his Air Force “parish” at Fairchild is in many ways like a civilian parish. Sunday Masses are scheduled at typical times; there are typical parish groups and committees, including a Knights of Columbus Council, and a civilian employee serves as Director of Religious Education. The biggest difference is how frequently families and single men and women move from one base to another. “Still,” Father George says, “the Air Force is comparatively small. When I came here, I met people I had known before at other bases, so it was good to see them again.”
There are, of course, significant differences between the average day in the life of a military chaplain and that of the average civilian parish priest. Most parish priests don’t find themselves flying in helicopters to get to their “parishioners,” and their parishioners hardly ever – as happened on at least one occasion for Father George – give the priest rides over desert sand dunes in tanks. “First we had confessions,” Father George recalls of that day, “and we drove tanks at the camp. That was my way of being down-to-earth with them.”
Military chaplains wear uniforms like the other members of their particular service. When necessary, a chaplain wears a chemical suit, helmet, and/or flight vest. An Air Force chaplain’s only distinguishing mark is a cross on the helmet or uniform for Catholic and Protestant chaplains, a symbolic tablet (think Ten Commandments) for Jewish chaplains, and a crescent for Muslim chaplains. No chaplain ever carries a gun. In high risk areas, a chaplain’s assistant may carry a weapon, but never the chaplain.
The chaplain is the only person in the military that soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines know they can talk to with complete confidentiality, with no need to worry about possible unpleasant consequences. “They know they have a place to come and share what is going on and work through things and not have repercussions,” Father George says.
A chaplain must learn to help not only members of his own religious tradition, but anyone who comes to him or whose path he crosses. No matter what religious tradition a military chaplain belongs to, he may find himself locating verses in the Qur’an for Islamic airmen or soldiers, or handing out yarmulkes or Bibles covered in desert camouflage. “My personal growth happens,” says Father George, “when I come in contact with people of different faiths. I learn to share the hopes, desires and aspirations of other people. That’s one of the beautiful things about doing ministry in a (diverse) society.”
Father George uses whatever high tech tools he can to help him carry out his ministry in sometimes difficult situations. For example, when on deployment, not only does he bring the usual resources he’ll need, including everything for Mass, but he carries a laptop computer with all the Lectionary readings for Masses in the field during the time of his deployment, plus other resources he can download that might benefit the troops.
One thing a military chaplain like Father George gets in abundance is appreciation. Airman magazine quoted an army private first class who had escorted Father George on a visit to soldiers on duty in Southwest Asia: “When we went from tank to tank with the chaplain, it was the first time I’d seen morale in the field that high.”
No wonder in U.S. Air Force circles they sometimes call chaplains “the visible presence of the holy.”