- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2008

I first heard of Archbishop Timothy Broglio, the new head of the Catholic Archdiocese for Military Services, through all the letters he was sending me.

Well, not to me personally, but to me as a name on a Catholic mailing list. The letters talked about financial needs to counteract the severe shortage of priest-chaplains.

There are only 300 full-time clerics for 1.5 million Catholics in the armed services and their families in 29 countries.

Compare that with the Archdiocese of Detroit, which has 1.46 million Catholics served by 694 priests. And unlike other U.S. Catholic dioceses, the military archdiocese does not have endowments or funding from income-generating parishes for its annual $4 million budget.

The government does not chip in, and because of church/state regulations, chaplains can only solicit funds during Sunday services four times a year.

I next met the archbishop at a pre-papal-visit press conference, as he was one of the dignitaries welcoming Pope Benedict XVI on April 15 at Andrews Air Force Base.

We hit it off because 1) we both speak decent French and 2) he was ordained to the priesthood 31 years ago on May 19, my birthday.

I recently dropped by his headquarters near Catholic University, where he admitted he has never fought in the armed forces and he opposes the war in Iraq.

“I think it was a mistake,” he said. “I agreed with Pope John Paul II’s position that we should wait. But now it’s my role to minister to the people now fighting.”

The job - which includes confirmations, ministry to chaplains, recruitment and fundraising - requires being overseas for 60 percent of the time.

Before his Jan. 25 installation, Archbishop Broglio, 56, had been overseas for 29 years, beginning with a stint in Rome getting his doctorate in canon law. In developing countries, the Vatican Embassy is where people go for answers to questions about canon law.

He then worked as a papal diplomat in the Ivory Coast and Paraguay, as papal nuncio (ambassador) in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, and as chief of staff for the Vatican secretary of state.

But why was he given this latest job?

“Thirty percent of the military personnel are Spanish speaking,” he said. “The idea of a pastor speaking in their language was attractive.”

The Vatican, he added, wanted someone with diplomatic experience in a spot close to top military brass.

The latter is overwhelmingly Protestant. Of the six officers who are either chiefs of chaplains or their deputies, only one is a Roman Catholic, he said, even though one-quarter of the U.S. military is Catholic.

Proselytization of Catholic soldiers by evangelical Protestants is still an issue, he said, so “we have to make sure the Catholic faithful are instructed in their faith. Formation is the key.”

The archbishop has seen a lot during his travels but not war wounds of the sort he recently viewed at the bedsides of two soldiers at the Veterans Affairs hospital in the District.

“One was able to talk somewhat, the other could only hold my hand,” he said. “Here was a strapping, healthy person who now was unable to speak. And all I could do was hold his hand and pray for him.”

The youngest of five children, he heard the call to the priesthood at age 14. He still misses Cleveland, his hometown.

“It’s where my priestly vocation manifested itself,” he said a bit wistfully. “After the death of the pastor in my home parish, I wanted to fill in somehow.”

  • Julia Duin’s column “Stairway to Heaven” appears Thursdays and Sundays. She can be contacted at www.juliaduin.com.
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