Military chaplain returns to the archdiocese
by Jill Ragar Esfeld
Shawnee — After traveling the world as a chaplain for the U.S. Air Force, through 15 assignments and five deployments, Father James Ludwikowski has finally come home.
Telling his new parishioners at Good Shepherd in Shawnee, “My first name is ‘Father’ and my last name is ‘Jim,’” the retired lieutenant colonel officially began serving again in the archdiocese that so generously gave him to the military 30 years ago.
And he’s glad to be here.
“I promised the archbishop I would return,” he said. “But, even more so, I wanted to. And I’m just delighted to come home because of our wonderful archbishop and priests; we have a great presbytery.”
Good Shepherd pastoral associate Debbie Carmody has a special reason to say her parish is fortunate to have its new pastor.
One of Father Jim’s first duties was the funeral service for Carmody’s infant grandson.
“[Even] not knowing us, he said so many beautiful, kind words,” she said.
In the days that followed, Father Jim often looked in on Carmody at work, asking her how she was doing and if she needed to talk.
“That tells me he’s pastoral,” she said. “And it tells me he knows how to reach out to people who are hurting.”
Parish life, however, is not new to Father Jim. In the Air Force, he was in charge of not only his own parish, but all other chaplains as well.
“So, in essence, I had the Protestant parish, I had the Buddhists, I had the Jewish, I had the Wiccans — whatever were the religious needs of the area,” he said.
Being responsible for such diverse religious needs gave Father Jim a unique opportunity to experience and discuss faith issues from different perspectives. But after retirement, he was happy to immerse himself in Catholicism.
Before taking up his duties at Good Shepherd, Archbishop Naumann gave Father Jim a three-month sabbatical in Rome for continuing education.
“It was a very positive experience because we had four hours of lectures every day,” he said.
The lectures, given by top Catholic scholars, brought participants up-to-date on the most current thinking of the church.
The sabbatical also included a professionally guided tour of the major Roman basilicas and a trip to the Holy Land.
“It was an incredible experience going to the Holy Land for 11 days and renewing our sense there of the sacred, of the archeological history of the Old and New Testament, and to walk in the steps of Jesus,” he said.
Former pastor Father Francis Hund was transferred from Good Shepherd in July 2009. Monsignor Gary Applegate took over as parochial administrator until Father Jim returned from his sabbatical.
“So this is actually our third priest,” said Steve Lemons, director of administrative services at Good Shepherd. “And actually it was good with the whole transition — different personalities, but all great men to work with.”
In February, Father Jim was honored when Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann came to Good Shepherd to formally install him as pastor.
“I think the transition has been very easy and very smooth because everyone has been so welcoming,” he said.
Good Shepherd parishioners found it easy to welcome their new pastor. Years of military service have not given Father Jim a military demeanor. To the contrary, he is warm, friendly, cheerful and relaxed.
The only indication of military training that Good Shepherd staff has noticed is Father Jim’s organization and planning skills.
“I find that he’s very organized and I think coming from the military he has more of a business focus than the typical pastor,” said Lemons.
“Father [Jim] connects with budgets and scheduling and planning and strategic development,” he noted. “I see more of what I’d call a traditional business focus than from a typical pastor. It’s not too surprising, and it’s a good trait.”
Good Shepherd office secretary Kathi Oppold maintains the parish calendar. Father Jim’s first six months have been full of activity, and she’s glad to see he has had no trouble keeping up.
“I think he brings a lot of energy to Good Shepherd,” she said. “He has jumped in and wanted to know everything — what’s this committee, and who’s this, and who’s in charge of this?”
“He likes to be well-informed, he wants to totally understand; and he’s very engaging with all the children and adults,” she continued. “He wants to meet people and get to know people.”
Father Jim praised former pastors of Good Shepherd for helping form a vibrant parish.
“They all want to be active and contribute,” he said. “Involvement and outreach are the two things that I see so powerful here.
“That is driven by their great joy and involvement in liturgy and their sense of desire for prayer and spirituality.”
Though his new parish has an active schedule, Father Jim said the transition from military to civilian pastor is more of a simplification than an adjustment.
“In the military, I would say my chain of command is God, then the president of the United States, then the secretary of defense, then the chief of chaplains of the Air Force, then my base commander,” he explained.
“And what I’ve done is drop all that and have God and the archbishop . . . and that’s it,” he said. “Alleluia, my life is simpler.”
Simpler, too, are his religious responsibilities.
“I can just be Catholic,” he said. “I don’t have to make this space neutral and have to recreate it for the environment of [a different] religion every time I have to do something.
“I can just go in and enjoy the Stations of the Cross. And they’re up all the time instead of being covered.”
Though he’s happy to be home, Father Jim’s memories of his military life are rich and exciting. He hopes over time to be able to share them with his new parishioners.
“Physically, the most breathtaking place I’ve seen was Iceland,” he said. “The ruggedness of the land is just incredible — walking under glaciers and looking through the icy shelf to see the beautiful sun.
“The black volcanic beaches, the beautiful aurora borealis, the natural beauty and ruggedness were breathtaking. I’ll remember it forever.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Father Jim recalls the burning airfields of Kuwait.
“I had a base right next to that,” he said. “I’ve driven through those fields and I can drive the eight rings of Kuwait and know things and places I never thought I would know.
“That starkness and destruction also is something that will stick in my mind forever.”
Father Jim is happy to have his civilian parish now, but treasures his military experience and would encourage young people called to a vocation to consider military service.
“We need chaplains in all the services,” he said. “The lifestyle is interesting, challenging and fun.
“What’s even more important, though, is there are so many Catholic military people who are just thirsting for the sacraments and, without a priest, they will not receive them.”
As for the future of Good Shepherd, Father Jim said he wants to see a whole year cycle before he thinks about any new directions.
But there is one hope he always has for his parishioners.
“I always want them to fall in love with the church more,” he said. “And the way to do that is to drink in Scripture so that your heart is saturated with it.”