“War is the ultimate human failure,” says Capt./Fr. John Nemanic. Not a sentiment I expect to hear from a military chaplain but Fr. John is adamant. “Human beings are called to be in communion with one another; to love and help each other. I had to grapple with this.” As we continue the interview, he expands on this conflict.
Barely nine months ago, Fr. John was a diocesan priest in the Diocese of Calgary. Now he is a chaplain serving in the Roman Catholic Military Ordinariate of Canada (RC Milord Canada) under the supervision of Bishop Scott McCaig. The RCMilord is described as “a diocese of massive dimensions” serving not only military members and their families at home, but also wherever the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) have a presence around the world.
Fr. John is simultaneously an officer, serving under a military chain of command including the Royal Canadian Chaplain Service (RCChS). This branch of the military, which Fr. John describes as similar to Alberta Catholic schools in that it serves all faiths. According to the National Defence website, “CAF chaplains attend to the needs of all members of the CAF and their families, whether they identify with a particular Faith Tradition, have no specific spiritual/faith practice, belief or custom, or are spiritually curious.”
In some ways, this is similar to parish work, caring for the spiritual needs of all CAF members, those who are Catholic, those from other faith backgrounds or those who have none. The pluralism found within the CAF reflects that seen in Canadian society as a whole, so chaplains have to be prepared to deal with all of it. Fr. John says, “As individual chaplains we’re told to be faithful to our faith traditions, so I might refer for example, a same-sex marriage request, to another chaplain. The chaplain might also refer military families to the local (secular) parish, for example, for sacramental preparation or for French-language Mass. He also liaises with other houses of worship nearby to be able to refer different faith adherents appropriately. It’s an environment of ecumenism and outreach into which chaplains are rigorously initiated.
Fr. John felt a calling to the military as early as his calling to the priesthood. His father served in the Yugoslavian army, so after Fr. John was ordained in 2008, he considered serving as a reservist. However, he found the commitment unsustainable with full time parish work. In 2017, his yearning to serve for the military resurfaced during centennial celebrations of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Eventually, he applied to the RCChS and began a long process of interviews, physical tests, evaluations, educational qualification assessments and personal reference checks. “This was also to test the call,” Fr. John says, “A lot of it was prayer.”
Once he was accepted, he was posted to Garrison Petawawa in Ontario (population 19,000 including 6,000 people directly connected to the base). He then began 13 weeks of basic training from 5 am to 10 pm. It was a tough regimen designed to emphasize teamwork and endurance under adversity, as well as essential fighting skills. Chaplains do not carry weapons, although they do have to learn how to safely disarm them. They also do not command any personnel but bear an officer’s rank so they can minister to members at all levels. Chaplains have authority, and an obligation, to present significant issues from the rank-and-file to higher-ups. They also preside at religious services and form part of the group which delivers news to a family following an incident.
It was during basic training that Fr. John experienced a memorable moment. Among his fellow trainees, who ranged in age from 19 to 50, one approached him expressing suicidal thoughts. Fr. John arranged for mental health support for the person. He remembers being awed and humbled by the “power of the padre”, to be trusted with a confidence at the outset of his training. Not all his experiences were as positive.
While visiting the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa during Basic Training, he paused in front of a large display of instruments meant to kill and maim. “My stomach churned,” he says, “I wondered, ‘am I enabling this by serving in the CAF?’” With the help of an advisor, he came to understand differently. “Canada’s interests in going to war are noble: to defend our country and defend those who need our help.” He goes on to say that Jesus met violence with acceptance when he submitted to being crucified. Chaplains can provide solace to those who’ve had to kill and those suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Fr. John explains that soldiers have to accept what the military terms ‘unlimited liability’ which means they cannot refuse an order even if it places them in dire danger. Officers have to deal with issuing such orders. Even peacekeepers, who are not permitted to fire unless first fired upon, can encounter terrible situations which they are powerless to affect.
“It’s such a conundrum to support CAF members but not believe in war,” Fr. John says. “Only God can bring creation out of chaos. Pray for peace in our hearts and homes. Pray that there is no more war and no need for the military but pray also for our soldiers.”
Fr. John ends our interview the same way he began it, with gratitude to Bishop McGrattan for “putting me on loan to the military”. He says fervently, “I would never have found peace until I knew if I could do this. God has put me in a place where I can really help people.”
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers