PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Morale is high among priests and soldiers serving in Iraq, Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services told Providence diocesan priests gathered March 21 at Our Lady of Providence Seminary.
The archbishop noted that, while there has been a decline in the number of priests serving as chaplains throughout all branches of the military, there is a steady increase in the number of soldiers seeking the sacraments in combat and in families requesting the support of Catholic priests.
“There is a rise in baptisms, and those seeking to return to the church,” he added.
Archbishop O’Brien presented an overview of the Middle Eastern conflict and the war in Iraq, stating that he is wrestling with some of the same questions the U.S. administration has as battles continue to be waged and the number of casualties escalates on a daily basis.
The archbishop said that while one war met its objective – the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was toppled – several internal conflicts remain. The Vatican has always urged the United States to use caution when taking military action, and remains committed to the welfare of innocent Iraqis and soldiers serving in combat.
While he sees much progress in Iraq – the empowerment of the Iraqi people through a democratic process with a written constitution, free elections and the formation of a legitimate government – Archbishop O’Brien said there still remains a core group of extremists who are determined to negate these efforts and take over the country.
Although much media attention is directed at those insurgents committing atrocities against their fellow Iraqis and the international corps of soldiers serving in Iraq, Archbishop O’Brien said the presence of American soldiers is welcomed in many parts of the war-torn country, especially in the north, where U.S. troops have set up classrooms and have helped with rebuilding efforts.
The archbishop said the one major concern that remains – and one that is also of concern to the Vatican – is the peaceful and responsible transition of power in Iraq, following the eventual end of the war.
He urged prayer for military leaders and government officials to make prudent decisions that will lead to an end of the war and a restoration of peace.
Addressing how American Catholics can support the troops and chaplains serving abroad, Archbishop O’Brien said he hoped that all parishes were praying for peace. One way parishes could honor those serving in the military is to display photographs of the soldiers and invite communicants to pray for them, he said.
“What are our parishes doing for the spouses and kids of those deployed?” the archbishop asked the priests.
In an interview with the Providence Visitor diocesan newspaper following the talk, Archbishop O’Brien commented on the work of those who care for returning injured soldiers in military hospitals and for former soldiers in veterans’ hospitals.
“They are committed, dedicated and self-sacrificing people,” the archbishop said, noting that he had recently visited Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington. He called on groups such as the Knights of Columbus and others within the church to help soldiers ease their psychological and physical transition from combat duty to civilian life.
“I believe that an alert community can befriend (them) and take them to the next step,” he said.
He urged church groups to develop connections with veterans’ hospitals and their chaplains to identify returning and former soldiers who need help, and to identify parish members returning home from military service.
“What are we doing for our parishioners who are worthy of our honor and respect?” Archbishop O’Brien asked.