Military chaplain finds life overseas challenging, but rewarding

Father Brian Klingele, an archdiocesan priest serving as a military chaplain, has found that practicing Catholicism in the military has many unique challenges. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JOE BOLLIG

by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — As a military chaplain, Father Brian Klingele has gone to some very interesting places and seen some very interesting things.

But he can’t talk about them.

“Sadly, some of the things I’ve seen and done, I can’t share,” he said.

Having enjoyed the blessings of liberty for hundreds of years, Americans are often blissfully unaware of how difficult are the lives of Christians living in some corners of the world.

The American military, for the sake of America’s vital interests and for the support of its allies, must go to these regions. And when they do, they bring along chaplains for American troops.

Sometimes, “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” so to speak, for the sake of security and international relations.

But Father Klingele did speak about a couple of experiences while on a visit to Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann in April. He is the only active duty archdiocesan military chaplain.

Once, he was celebrating Ash Wednesday for Catholic military on a base in an unnamed country when some Catholic nonmilitary civilian contractors showed up. Because Christianity is illegal in these countries — and a hint of Christianity could cause one to be beaten or arrested — the civilians rolled up their shirtsleeves and received ashes on their arms.

In another instance, he ended up at a place that had no hosts or wine for the Mass. Father Klingele teamed up with kitchen personnel to make his own hosts, using a Gatorade cap and a paper clip as tools. He procured a bottle of wine from a discreet civilian contractor, since alcohol of any kind was illegal in that country.

Father Klingele, who was ordained for the archdiocese in 2002, was given permission by Archbishop Naumann to enter the chaplain program of the U.S. Air Force in 2012.

He trained at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2012, and then at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina, in 2013.

Although he holds the rank of captain, making reference to oneself or others in the chaplain corps is frowned upon. The practice is to refer to military clergy as “chaplain” or the title common in one’s faith, i.e., Father, Rabbi, Pastor, Imam and so on.

His longer-term assignments, called a “permanent change of station,” have included Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska, and Ramstein Air Base near Kaiserslautern, Germany.

“Besides those, I’ve had two deployments in the Middle East, each of those a little over half a year,” said Father Klingele. “And I also had six missions, called TDY, or temporary duty. Those were to Africa.”

Sometimes American military chaplains serve Catholics in foreign militaries. For example, he once celebrated a baptism in Italian.

“I studied in Rome at the North American College,” he said. “I picked up enough Italian to get by.”

How many languages does he know?

“I don’t know any of them well,” he said with a laugh. “English, maybe, but that’s debatable.”

All chaplains belong to a specific unit. He is expected to serve the personnel in his unit, but with limitations. He cannot “sub” for the rabbi or imam, for example. He cannot offer Catholic sacraments to non-Catholics. He can, however, offer counseling and referrals to other faiths’ chaplains.

Likewise, chaplains of other faiths refer Catholics to Father Klingele.

“I take care of all the pastoral needs of Catholics — the sacraments and education,” he said. “But as a chaplain, I have different units I’m responsible for, to visit and counsel them, and provide support for the things they need chaplain-wise in their unit or workplace.”

He respects other faiths, but it’s not his job to promote them.

As a member of the military, he’s expected to learn and practice a number of skills — such as how to quickly don a chemical warfare suit. He’s also expected to live in rustic conditions, such as a tent, for months at a time. He’s expected to be fit enough to be deployed.

He is not, however, expected to learn war-fighting skills. That would be against the Geneva Conventions and the rules of the U.S. military.

Being a pastor in the military is quite different, in some aspects, from being a conventional pastor.

Catholics share worship facilities with other faiths. This means the chapel must be reconfigured for every Mass — and forget about permanently fixed statues, crucifixes, confessionals, tabernacles and votive candles.

The military has no Catholic schools — something Father Klingele misses. The population is highly transient, and faces the stress and difficulties of long and multiple deployments and separations.

The “flock” also tends to be very young, mostly age 18 to 25. There are older noncommissioned officers and officers and their families, but most couples tend to be young and with small children. Catechesis of children can be difficult because of the transience.

But at least he doesn’t have to worry about capital campaigns.

“A lot of priests worry about money and meetings,” he said. “We don’t worry about money as much, and we have a ‘leaner’ footprint. We don’t have a large staff. We may be it. We mostly have volunteers and maybe one paid position.”

There is a shortage of Catholic chaplains, especially in remote areas and places where Christianity is illegal or severely restricted.

“There were five places I’ve been where I was the first priest to celebrate Mass,” he said. “It was a treat for those people. It could be up to six months at a time before they could have a priest present and Mass. It was a big deal for them. There’s definitely a big need.”

Currently, Father Klingele is on his way to his next assignment at Kunsan Air Base in South Korea. He’ll serve as long as his focus is on service, and the archbishop is content to have him in the military.

“I don’t have any grandiose schemes of a long career [in the U.S. Air Force],” he said. “The archbishop has blessed me to serve now, and the Lord is blessing me to do some good things.”

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