CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan – On the fourth Sunday of Advent, in a small plywood chapel with two-by-four benches, Father Ulysses L. Ubalde reminded an overflow crowd of military personnel that they, like Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, were vessels of holiness.
Just as the two women were selfless in bringing Jesus and John the Baptist into the world, so, too, could the men and women serving in the Taliban-infested Helmand province find peace and strength in taking Christ to others, he told the mostly gun-toting men and women at the U.S. Marines’ dusty, remote compound.
“It’s the spiritual part of ourselves which allows us to relate to and love others,” he said, adding that when the troops and sprinkling of civilians received Communion that afternoon, they, like Mary, would “carry the presence of Christ, not just for our own sake, but to bring him to all who labor, are frightened, who need our help.”
It was the fourth and final Mass of the weekend for Father Ubalde, a U.S. Navy lieutenant and one of two Catholic chaplains serving the 11,000 Marines, 600 U.S. Army, and many other NATO Coalition Force troops at Camp Leatherneck, part of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade. Construction is ongoing for the anticipated addition of some 8,500 more Marines soon, per President Barack Obama’s recent troop surge announcement.
“We hope several more priests can be added to help with the troop surge,” Father Ubalde said.
For now, Father Ubalde and another Navy chaplain, Father Joseph Coffey, take turns celebrating the weekend Masses at the base’s three chapels and two others at adjoining camps operated by the British. They also alternate weekday visits for Mass and other pastoral work among troops serving in outlying, remote and even more dangerous combat outposts and forward operating bases.
Father Ubalde said he has been told that since he deployed to Camp Leatherneck, he’s logged at least 20,000 miles doing his weekly circuit by helicopter, vehicle convoy and airplane, all under threat of land mines, improvised explosive devices, or other attacks by Taliban insurgents. Besides the danger, there is also the frustration of logistics and “a lot of waiting.”
“But this is also very rewarding work,” he added. “I look forward to Mass and giving Communion, also doing confessions and counseling.”
The priest also offers Bible studies, classes for catechumens and marriage preparation, and does other pastoral work required by a large Catholic population.
“I’m a bridge for the person needing help,” Father Ubalde said.
He reflected that he rarely gives the sacrament of the sick, “because by the time I’m able to see them, they’re already dead,” so he blesses bodies before they are transported home. He also visits, counsels and blesses those injured in the war.
Father Ubalde motioned toward the large lighted Christmas tree atop the main chapel a few blocks from the small chapel where Mass has just ended. He said he and Father Coffey would alternate offering Christmas and New Year’s Masses at Camp Leatherneck and nearby Camp Dwyer.
Then, smiling, he turned his attention to people who waited patiently to see him at the rear of the chapel.
Father Ubalde was originally ordained for the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., but for the past 10 years he has been attached to the Archdiocese for the Military Services as a chaplain. Now 44, he said he began his current duty in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom last July. Before that, he served six months in Iraq. In April he is scheduled to return to his home base with the 2nd Marine Division at Camp LeJeune, N.C.