by Joe Bollig
TOPEKA — If you think that Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann is the chief shepherd of Catholics in northeastern Kansas, you’re only halfway right.
There is another archbishop who has authority within the boundaries of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas: Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services.
Archbishop Broglio’s jurisdiction includes a vastly scattered archipelago of all military facilities and 153 Veterans Affairs medical centers across the United States.
But Archbishop Broglio doesn’t work alone.
Bishop Richard B. Higgins, one of four auxiliary bishops of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, is the Vicar for Veterans. He is based in Washington, D.C.
Bishop Higgins visited the Colmery- O’Neil VA Medical Center in Topeka on Aug. 4, and Dwight D. Eisenhower VA Medical Center in Leavenworth on Aug. 5. Those were only two of many stops on his yearly pastoral visits to see how Catholic VA chaplains and their flocks are faring.
“The visits are pastoral,” said Bishop Higgins. “The objective is to visit the priests who are assigned to work there. Essentially, [the question is] ‘How is it that we in the Archdiocese for the Military can support the ministry of the priests who are assigned to work here?’”
“In addition to that element,” he continued, “we also like to see the position description — what the priest is tasked to do there — because the ministry differs from place to place. We also like to look where he’s working — the environment in which he works. Also, [we look at] the quality of the team of which he is a member.
“In most cases, thank God, it’s a highly functional team.”
The Archdiocese for the Military Services is unlike any diocese in the world, said Bishop Higgins.
“Our priests in the VA come from so many seminary backgrounds and so many cultures and nationalities,” he said. “A lot of these men tend to live alone, and that’s a concern we have. There’s not much in the way of priestly fraternity.”
“So we want to make sure that the priests have the opportunity and plug into the local diocese and attend whatever social, educational and fraternal opportunities they offer,” he continued. “We’re concerned about the spiritual health of our priests.”
In the VA system, Catholics are ministered to by priests serving as full-time, part-time or fee-based chaplains.
Bishop Higgins also wants to make sure his priests are supported in terms of resources and environments — that the priests have religious materials (such as literature and rosaries) available, vestments, sacred vessels to celebrate Mass and chapels that meet the requirements to celebrate Mass.
This can be a bit tricky at times.
By law, VA chapels are neutral.
“The chapels, when not being used for worship services, should be maintained in a neutral status,” said Bishop Higgins. “In a nutshell, religious items that could be seen as offensive to other religious denominations must be covered up or removed.”
There are good and bad ways to establish this neutrality. One of the “bad ways” he’s seen is the removal of Stations of the Cross and crucifixes when they could have simply been covered.
In this regard, it’s very helpful that Bishop Higgins was a U.S. Air Force chaplain for 30 years.
“Active duty [military] — we’ve been doing chapel neutrality for years, and we know how to do it well,” he said. “That’s not always the case in the VA.
“Thankfully, from my background in the service with 30 years as a chaplain, I can offer suggestions.”
Conforming to VA chapel requirements is not, however, his greatest challenge. That would be recruiting more priests to serve as VA chaplains.
Not only must the chaplains have a minimum of two units of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), they must be able to work in an environment quite unlike a parish.
It can be quite difficult to find priests who are CPE-qualified, relate well with veterans, can work in an interfaith setting and are willing to live in remote areas with long, harsh winters. Full-time priests are preferred.
The priests who make the best VA chaplains are former military chaplains.
“They’re pure gold,” he said.
During his visit to Topeka, Bishop Higgins visited with Father Joseph F. Chontos, a contract chaplain.
“I’m very pleased with what I’ve encountered,” said Bishop Higgins. “This is a very, very warm and welcoming group of people. The chaplains get along very well. It’s a great team. I was amazed that there were 60 people at Mass today in the middle of the week.”
“Father Chontos is very well known around the facility, which is always great to see. The veterans stop him and say, ‘Hey, Father, I need this,’ or ‘Hey, Father, you got that?’ Everybody knows Father Chontos. People really enjoy his presence.”
Bishop Higgins also visited Father George Bertels, who serves as a contract chaplain at the VA hospital in Leavenworth.
Father Bertels is “actively” retired. He celebrates Mass for the retired Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth as well as providing the sacraments at the VA hospital.
During Bishop Higgins’ visit, they celebrated Mass together and toured the facility.
Chaplains are very much needed and necessary at VA hospitals, said Father Betels.
“[We’re] indispensable,” he said. “We have a young man who is critical. I visited him and gave him the sacraments. Unless you had someone here, patients would die without the sacraments. It occurs regularly, almost every month. There are individuals who are desperately in need of a priest and so often local priests are not available.”
The bottom line for Bishop Higgins is this: Are the veterans being served?
“The driving force is the entitlement of the veteran to religious freedom and the practice of his religion,” said Bishop Higgins. “The VA is required by law to fulfill those needs. That’s where the military archdiocese comes in. We will do our utmost to make sure those needs are met and protected.”
Auxiliary Bishop Richard B. Higgins
- Born in Longford, Ireland
- Ordained March 9, 1968, at age 24, for the Diocese of Sacramento, California, at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome
- Served two pastoral assignments in Sacramento and entered the U.S. Air Force in September 1974
- Served at facilities in the United States, Europe and the Pacific
- Is a graduate of the Air Command and Staff College and the Air War College, both in Montgomery, Alabama
- Military decorations include the Legion of Merit with one oak leaf cluster and the Meritorious Service Medal with seven oak leaf clusters
- Holds an airline transport pilot certificate and several flight instructor certificates.
- Retired at the rank of colonel on Sept. 1, 2004
- Was ordained a bishop on July 3, 2004, in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.