Civilian Chaplains Return to Work Despite Shutdown : Military Chaplains Unaffected

Mass at West Point

Civilian Catholic chaplains, unable to perform religious duties at U.S. military bases during the first weekend of the federal government shutdown, were getting back on the job as the shutdown continued into its second week.

"We're now being told priests can return to work," said John Schlageter, general counsel for the Archdiocese for the Military Services.

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Schlageter said he did not know whether the priests' return to work was a result of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's declaration Oct. 6 that far more civilian Defense Department employees would be considered "essential" and return to their jobs -- or the reaction to Schlageter's own Oct. 3 op-ed article about the shutdown adversely affecting the ability of civilian chaplains to minister at military bases with no resident Catholic chaplain.

He said the op-ed piece had gotten coverage or publication by The Washington Post, CNN.com, and the Fox News Channel.

The House passed a concurrent resolution, awaiting action by the Senate, to authorize the return of civilian Catholic chaplains to their military ministry. "I think the House resolution -- (with a vote of) 400 to 1 -- speaks for itself," Schlageter said.

The military archdiocese estimated that about 50 civilian chaplains were unable to conduct services on bases the weekend of Oct. 5-6 because of the shutdown. "Almost all GS (general services) priests and most contract priests were unable to work Sunday," Schlageter said. "We do have situations of door-lock, signs that said, 'No Catholic services this weekend.'"

Active-duty military chaplains were not affected by the shutdown.

The situation overseas was similar. "We're starting to get news from overseas bases where there was not (chaplain) coverage," Schlageter said. "It seems in many of the situations, private resolutions were found."

He added some priests celebrated Mass off base and invited the military congregants to attend. One priest, for example "had Mass in a park," Schlageter said.

In the case of the Washington Navy Yard, site of a mass shooting Sept. 24, the on-duty chaplain moved the Mass from the naval complex to a joint Army-Air Force base not far away known as Anacostia Bolling, which is staffed by a GS priest. "So the active duty priest moved it to Anacostia Bolling and brought the congregation from the Navy Yard with him," Schlageter said.

The civilian priests have contracts with individual bases. In a limited number of cases -- for instance, at the Quantico Marine base in Virginia -- the contract was written in such a way as to permit the continued ministry of a civilian chaplain at the base.

The need for contract priests is by and large restricted to Catholic clergy. "The contract in the GS provision is really an accommodation for Catholics because there's such a shortage of available chaplains," Schlageter said.

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