Army chaplain on mission to recruit more priests for military duty
NASHVILLE — For 14 years, the Rev. Joel Panzer had a peaceful life as Catholic priest and school principal in his hometown of Lincoln, Neb.
The war on terror changed that. Five years ago, Panzer left his parish in Nebraska and became an active-duty Army chaplain.
It's a calling that's taken Capt. Panzer to Iraq twice and transformed him from a parish priest into a kind of missionary. Most of his time these days is spent among people who don't share his faith. And he said he's loved almost every minute of it.
“I was used to everything being Catholic,” he said. “It's been an eye-opening experience.”
Panzer was in Nashville for a meeting of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, a gathering of the leaders of Catholic religious orders from around the country. He's hoping to persuade a few of those leaders to allow their priests to become Army chaplains.
By doing so, he hopes to reverse a rising shortage of priests in the military.
About a quarter of the soldiers in the Army are Catholic, but only about 6 percent of the Army's chaplains are Catholic priests.
All military branches combined have just 239 Catholic priests on active duty, said a spokesman for the Archdiocese for the Military Services USA, which oversees Catholic military chaplains.
The number of priests in the military has been declining in recent years, in part because of a mandatory retirement age of 62 for military chaplains, said a spokesman for the archdiocese. That means chaplains are retiring more quickly than they can be replaced.
There are some signs of a turnaround. In 2007, there were seven seminarians training to be military chaplains. Today, there are about 40.
Because of the priest shortage, Panzer was always on the move.
“Every week, I was on a Black Hawk or Chinook helicopter going somewhere to say Mass, then back to the main base for four or five Masses on the weekends,” he said.
Panzer said most of the soldiers he works with don't share his Catholic faith. According to the Defense Department, the largest faith group among active-duty personnel is nondenominational Christians. The second-largest group is those with no religious affiliation, followed by Catholics.
“As a pastor, I was the teacher,” he said.
“In the Army, the important thing is taking time to listen.”