Army chaplain packs Jesus in his rucksack

LEAVEN PHOTO BY JOE BOLLIG Father Leo Moras grew up in India but has found a home since 2003 as a Catholic chaplain in the U.S. Army.
LEAVEN PHOTO BY JOE BOLLIG Father Leo Moras grew up in India but has found a home since 2003 as a Catholic chaplain in the U.S. Army.

By Joe Bollig
joe@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — In this age of marketing, every branch of the armed services uses recruiting slogans.

A few you probably remember include:

The Marines: “We’re looking for a few good men.”

The Army: “Be all you can be.”

The Navy: “Join the Navy and see the world.”

The Air Force: “Aim High.”

All the aforementioned are great slogans — and all could describe the vocation of Chaplain (Maj.) Leo Moras, now a student at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth.

Father Moras’ vocation has taken him far from his poor childhood in a small village in his native India to a life he could never have imagined on the prairies of Texas, the battlefields of Iraq, Korea’s DMZ and the U.S. Army War College in Leavenworth.

A humble seedbed of faith

Father Moras was born in the small village of Bantwal, India, located to the east of the coastal city of Mangalore. The nearest Catholic church was eight miles away, St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Nirkan.

“During those days, we used to walk to church,” he said. “Of course, we could not go to Mass every day.”

His parents, like all their neighbors, were farmers. They were very devout, gathering their six children for prayers every morning and evening.

The majority of their neighbors were Hindu, with a few Muslims. Christians were definitely a minority, although the roots of Indian Christianity are said to date back to St. Thomas the Apostle.

As he grew up, he began to consider his future.

“My basic concept was I wanted to serve, I wanted to do good for others,” said Father Moras. “But how do you do good for others? There are so many choices.”

He thought about a lot of things — even being a long-distance bus driver — but his inclinations and circumstances seemed to steer him to the priesthood.  Some of his relatives who were priests, and a great-uncle, who was a bishop, would occasionally visit the family and ask him if he was interested in becoming a priest. His family was a seedbed for vocations, as two of his sisters became nuns.

After graduating from high school in 1980, he entered St. Theresa Minor Seminary in Ajmer, in the state of Rajasthan. Next, he went to St. Charles Major Seminary in the Diocese of Nagpur, in the state of Maharashtra. Father Moras was ordained a priest on April 18, 1989, for the Diocese of Ajmer.

Hit the ground running

Father Moras immediately launched into a busy routine of ministry and administration.

His first assignment was as an assistant principal and associate pastor of St. Paul Senior Secondary School and St. Theresa Parish in Jodhpur, in the state of Rajasthan.

After two years, he became an associate pastor at Our Lady of Annunciation Parish and simultaneously oversaw the construction of St. Anselm Senior Secondary School and St. Thomas the Apostle church in Mansarovar, in Jaipur, in the state of Rajasthan. A year later, he became pastor of the parish and principal of the school.

During these first assignments, he also continued his education by earning a master of arts in English literature, a bachelor of education, and an associate degree in Hindi.

The daily grind of long hours and multiple demands took their toll, however.

“I was at a point I couldn’t do it,” said Father Moras. “I needed a little break.”

He needed a change, but his bishop didn’t have a replacement at the time. He was, however, allowed a vacation. Father Moras decided to accept the invitation to visit America, which he received from an American family of Indian origin.

A working vacation extended

Father Moras visited the American- Indian family that lived in Connecticut. It just so happened that the family was close to a priest in Lubbock, Texas.

“When I landed at [the family’s home] in Connecticut, [the father] called the priest in Texas and said, ‘The person who showed me places in India has come to visit us,’” said Father Moras.

This priest in Lubbock had health problems and needed a priest to help him out — immediately.  He invited Father Moras to come on down to Longhorn country, as his own diocese was unable to help.

So, armed with a sense of adventure and a willingness to help, Father Moras went to Texas. Eventually, with the approval of his own bishop in India and the bishop of the Diocese of Lubbock, Father Moras became pastor from 1998 to 2003 of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Snyder, Texas.

A change in direction

In the pile of mail Father Moras received at the parish — particularly after Sept. 11, 2001 — were recruiting letters from various branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Intrigued, he followed up and got the best response from the U.S. Army. He decided to look into the process, with the permission of his bishop in India, the bishop of Lubbock, and endorsement from the Archdiocese for the Military Services in Washington, D.C., although he didn’t really know what he was getting into.

“I didn’t know exactly what sort of life it would be in the Army,” said Father Moras. “I knew absolutely nothing — zero.”

Nevertheless, he wound up signing on the dotted line and was commissioned an army chaplain (captain) on Nov. 14, 2003, and entered active duty on Jan. 4, 2004, at Fort Jackson, S.C.

Those first couple of weeks gave him a crash course in military life.

When he saw the bulletin board that called them to “formation” in the parking lot at 0445, he had to ask someone what it meant. He didn’t know what “PT” was, or how to do a pushup or situp. When the officer called “About face,” someone behind him had to physically turn him in the right direction.

Father Moras asked himself a question new recruits have asked since time immortal: “Oh, my Jesus, what am I getting myself into?”

Survive and thrive

Eventually, however, Father Moras discovered that he actually thrived in the military environment. After his first assignment to Fort Carson, Colo., he was deployed for the first of two rotations to Iraq. The first deployment was 2005 to 2006, and the second 2007 to 2008.

Because of the shortage of Catholic chaplains in Iraq, he served widely and to a variety of communities — soldiers, contractors and various third-country nationals (some from South Asia). Father Moras had to learn four languages while he was growing up, so his linguistic abilities came in handy.

He went wherever the soldiers went, experienced the dangers and discomfort they experienced — although as a chaplain, he didn’t carry a weapon or fight. His chapel was in his rucksack, including consecrated hosts and holy oils.

“Jesus is there on my back wherever I move,” he said. “Just imagine going to FOB (forward operating base) after FOB to celebrate Mass. I wasn’t scared to encounter an IED (improvised explosive device) while in a convoy, or [of] something happening to the helicopter during a flight. . . . That is the closest encounter that I can have with Jesus. He is right there with me, so I enjoyed that ministry.”

“Where do you get such opportunity to carry Jesus on your back all the time?” he continued. “That was wonderful. So I was never afraid. It made me happy.”

Back to the books

After leaving Iraq, he was assigned to other places, including Korea. He was chosen to take part in the resident Intermediate Level Education Course at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth.

Father Moras entered the program in July 10 and will complete his studies on June 15, 2013. His area of study is Joint Operations — working with other branches of the U. S. Armed Forces, and even some military personnel from other countries.

As a student, he has no pastoral duties, although he assists as and when he is needed for the Catholic coverage. The demands on his time are hefty, so he hasn’t had many opportunities to venture far from Leavenworth.

Although he’s not sure where his next assignment or deployment will be, it really doesn’t matter. Wherever he goes, he’ll be needed.
As one of his soldiers once said, “We live by faith every day.”

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