October 29, 2015
Military chaplains have served the spiritual needs of soldiers in the U.S. Army since the Continental Congress in 1775. Monsignor Chad Gion, pastor of Spirit of Life Church in Mandan, joined these ranks in 2013. Soon, he will be among his fellow soldiers in active duty on Dec. 1 when he is deployed to Kosovo for four and a half months. The U.S. is 1 of 31 countries under NATO with a peace-support operation there since June 1999.
“I volunteered to go to Kosovo to get experience in a circumstance where there are no bullets in the air,” Gion said. The goal, according to him, is to be prepared in the event he ever gets deployed with his company, North Dakota National Guard’s Bismarck-based 1st Battalion, 112th Aviation Regiment.
Serving North Dakota
When Gion attended the now closed Cardinal Muench Seminary in Fargo, the rector, Fr. Brian Donohue (now a monsignor) was also a chaplain in the North Dakota Army National Guard. “I always looked up to him,” Gion said. Donohue had been deployed overseas many times, but in 2007, he accepted an appointment at West Point Military Academy.
“He was the only Catholic priest from North Dakota [serving as a chaplain],” Gion said. “There would be no priests to serve our soldiers.” Gion’s own call to service began with his thinking that someone needs to do this; a priest needs to step up to fill a great need. His thoughts shifted inward.
“It was about serving North Dakota,” he said. “That is the reason I went. And now that I’m doing it, I’m grateful that I am.”
Always a congregation
In 2007, Gion’s request to volunteer was turned down by Bishop Paul Zipfel due to a shortage of priests in the diocese. But five years later, the situation had improved and Bishop David Kagan gave his approval. In April of 2013, Gion attended a 12-week Chaplain Basic Officer Leadership Course (CBOLC) in Fort Jackson, S.C.
Basic training had distilled his priesthood to its very essence, Gion explained. “The administrative duties were taken away, even my congregation was taken away,” he said. “The only thing that distinguished me was that I said Mass and prayed the Liturgy of the Hours every day.”
As a congregation unto himself during daily Mass, Gion explained he became more in tune with the spiritual reality of the mystical body of Christ. “The experience emphasized to me that there is always a congregation. It was me, and the angels, and saints.”
Modern day concerns
As a chaplain in modern times, concerns about separation of church and state demand a delicate balance. The military chaplain is answerable to his commander in war and peace, while at the same time, he answers to God.
“It’s still about ministry and performing religious services, but has come to mean providing religious services for soldiers even if I am not able to perform them,” Gion said. “For instance, for a Jewish soldier, I cannot perform a ceremony, but I have the responsibility to try to provide for that soldier’s spiritual needs.” He explained that the Army informally calls chaplains “Officers of the First Amendment” since their responsibility includes protecting the free exercise of religion regardless of denomination.
At no point, does Gion expect to go into battle. “A chaplain’s place is not on the front lines,” he said. “I won’t carry a weapon, so I’m not in a position to defend myself. If I get hit, soldiers are going to go way out of their way to recover me, so I have to be careful that I’m not putting others at risk by taking unnecessary risks.”
Spiritual matters become prominent in a soldier’s mind when the likelihood for death increases during battle, and that, according to Gion, is his ultimate purpose. “As a Catholic priest,” he said, “my job is to bring the sacraments and to give encouragement, counsel, and support.”
In Kosovo, the U.S. Army actually wants Catholic priests on the ground. “There’s a kind of cultural cache to have a Catholic priest there,” Gion said. “In some places, being a priest can work against you, but in Kosovo, their culture recognizes the three major religions.” Since there are so many Catholics and so few priests there, Gion will be saying Mass in three different locations. “It will be like having three missions,” he said.
After Kosovo, Gion will return to Bismarck and continue his priestly duties in the diocese. “In the future, if my unit, the 112th Aviation Battalion, is called up, I’ll go wherever they go,” he said. His commitment is for eight years and he will reassess that when the time is up.
Gion said he does not really know what to expect, but one thing that he already appreciates is that the military facilitates the “death to self” to a greater degree. “I’m under obedience to the bishop and I have to go where he tells me to go,” he said. “As a priest of the diocese, there are limits to what he’s going to ask. But the military could ask me to go to Afghanistan so I have to die to self and say ‘wherever I am, God is there.’ ” He said it ultimately cultivates a real sense of freedom for what it means to serve as a priest.