Fr. Michael Storey knows he might not be able to attend a formal Remembrance Day service this November 11. As a hospital chaplain in the Diocese of Calgary, the Catholic priest could find himself beside a hospital bed when other Calgarians pause in reverent silence at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. But make no mistake. While Fr. Storey may not be able to hear the dying notes of the Last Post, he will feel the lament in his heart. And he will remember. November 11, for this priest, is a matter of country, family and faith.
Fr. Storey’s dad and brother served the Canadian navy in the Second World War. During the same conflict, where 42,000 Canadians died and another 55,000 were wounded, his uncles were soldiers in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).
Having grown up in a family that sacrificed so much for so many, Fr. Storey admits it wasn’t difficult to step up when a friend and Calgary-based reservist mentioned the need for a military chaplain in Calgary. “I realized that military personnel needed spiritual support. I was also working at St. James parish, so it was easy for me to go back and forth between the parish and Currie Barracks.” Fr. Storey served that role in Calgary from 1987 to 1999.
Fr. Sajo Jacob, parish priest at Mother Teresa Syro Malabar Church in Calgary, assumed the military chaplaincy about two years ago. He was introduced to the ministry by students he met while serving as the campus chaplain at SAIT and Mount Royal University, a role he held from 2009 to 2019. Some of the students he met there joined the military and invited Fr. Jacob to bring his ministry there. Two years into the role, he’s grateful for the chance to serve military personnel, many of them young people, as they encounter the challenges of military service in defense of the country. “They are often away from their homes, they face personal crisis, they sacrifice for the country and people, and I felt a calling that I will be able to help them.”
A ministry of presence
Unlike more typical priestly ministries which focus on bringing sacraments to the faithful, military chaplaincy is a “ministry of presence.” As a chaplain, Fr. Storey met military personnel at formal events. He also dropped by places like a military rifle range if he knew soldiers and reservists were there to practise. “You do what you can to remind them that you are there if they need you,” he explains.
His formal role also included being one of two uniformed military officers who made next-of-kin calls to the families of military personnel who died in service to their country. “I was on three of those calls during my 12 years in the service. It was humbling,” he recalls.
The chaplain’s role is akin to “being a guide and mentor,” adds Fr. Jacob. “Sometimes you become a point of contact at a time of crisis and challenges. It is a vocation where you journey with people and you become God’s instrument to share peace and love.”
Whereas parish priests serve Catholic congregations, campus and military chaplains work in secular and interfaith spaces. “Chaplains are there for everyone and we guide and support whoever seeks help, regardless of religion, or orientation,” explains Fr. Jacob. His faithful presence in personal crises has included talking to people contemplating suicide.
There is no question that military chaplains witness Christ for others, adds Fr. Storey. He remembers being touched by the words of a former altar boy who attended an event to commemorate the priest’s 40th anniversary in the priesthood. “He told me, ‘I was so proud of my parish priest when I saw him in his uniform,’ That meant a lot to me.”
He and Fr. Jacob both view military chaplaincy as service to their nation. “It is my role in the nation-building process,” explains Fr. Jacob, himself an immigrant from India. In addition to serving military personnel as a spiritual guide and mentor, Fr. Jacob helps organize religious services and advises commanding officers in matters of religious accommodations and spiritual and ethical issues.
This Remembrance Day, Fr. Jacob will officiate at a November 11 ceremony. He says the events do more than remember fallen soldiers and veterans, they also inspire young Canadians in their message of service.
Written by Joy Gregory for Faithfully
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers