Brig. Gen. Guy Chapdelaine, Canada's chaplain general, spent Christmas in 2006 in Afghanistan. Here he speaks with a soldier.

PHOTO COURTESY | ROYAL CANADIAN CHAPLAIN SERVICE

Brig. Gen. Guy Chapdelaine, Canada's chaplain general, spent Christmas in 2006 in Afghanistan. Here he speaks with a soldier.

January 25, 2016
DEBORAH GYAPONG
CANADIAN CATHOLIC NEWS

When Brig. Gen. Guy Chapdelaine, Canada's new chaplain general, spent Christmas in Afghanistan in 2006, he planned ahead for his possible death.

Chapdelaine said he "prepared all his things" and even visited his archbishop in Sherbrooke, Que., to tell him if anything happened to him, he wanted his funeral in the Sherbrooke cathedral.

"It's a complex ministry in the face of death or threats" in the field of operations, Chapdelaine said in an interview at his Ottawa office. "We have this service. Our life can end at any time."

But this willingness to embrace God's will, no matter what, had nothing dour or fearful about it. Instead, the chaplain general exuded peace as he described his work as a priest in the military, a calling that brings him great joy.

In Afghanistan in 2006-07, the Canadian military did not have helicopters so all travel was by road and dangerous, he said. "I don't know how other chaplains cope with that but it was part of my spiritual preparation to be ready."

While serving in Afghanistan, he learned "to keep always hope in the middle of despair, always light in the darkness, to see good things in the hearts of the soldiers."

The day after Christmas, soldiers were to return to the field, he said. His unit had recently lost a couple of soldiers, so their supervisor asked Chapdelaine to speak with them to provide comfort and reassurance to the troops. "If something happens, the chaplains are able to support their families."

Chapdelaine spent six weeks in Afghanistan to give two chaplains a break. It gave him an opportunity to help the troops cope with difficult situations.

"I discovered a lot of faith in these men and many signs of faith," he said.

"In Canada it is difficult to talk about faith," he continued. "In the theatre of war it is very easy to talk about faith, about religion. Here in Canada very difficult - people are very reserved, even with us as chaplains."

He recalled one soldier coming to him and saying, "My mother asked me to come see you to ask for a blessing."

"I found that request so moving," he said. "Another asked me to baptize him. It was not an easy request in the middle of the desert."

Chapdelaine began the man's preparation for Baptism that continued after his return to Canada.

CONVERSATIONS ABOUT PRAYER

He had long conversations with soldiers about prayer, especially after they saw other soldiers praying five times a day. That sight brought them to consider their own faith and "to question the meaning of life."

Many spoke of their loved ones and expressed fear they might never see their children or wives again, he said. "The chaplain is a friend - a person with whom we can talk, when they cannot talk with other soldiers."

Chapdelaine, who was appointed chaplain general in August, is the first Roman Catholic to serve in the post in 10 years. He leads chaplains of all faiths in the Canadian military. It is a challenge to recruit chaplains to serve in an increasingly diverse military.

Though the military is not permitted to ask the religion of its servicemen and women, Chapdelaine estimates the number of Catholics mirrors that of the Canadian population: roughly 40 per cent.

PRIEST CHAPLAINS

The bishop of the military ordinariate, Bishop Donald Theriault, recruits priest chaplains. Seventy per cent of them will retire in the next 10 years. In an era of priest shortages, it is a big sacrifice for a diocesan bishop to give one of his priests to the military, Chapdelaine said.

Brig. Gen. Guy Chapdelaine

The chaplain general tries to ensure a Catholic chaplain is deployed in the field so Catholic troops can receive the sacraments. They might work with lay chaplains and those of other faiths, he said.

Chaplains sent into the field of operations not only need to be fit and trained, but must also be prepared to minister to people of any faith or none, be bilingual, be prepared to work with women and possibly even have a female supervisor, Chapdelaine said.

Military chaplains are "there to build a ministry of presence and to establish and build bridges," he said.

HEARING THE CALL

Chapdelaine said his call to the military came before his call to the priesthood. When he was 11 or 12 he entertained the idea of becoming a priest, a thought that faded away during his teenage years.

While looking for a summer job at age 17, he joined the reserves. A year later, in May 1980, he began officer training.

Not long afterwards, a member of his unit died in a car crash. "It was my first time dealing with death up close," he said. "The chaplain came to be present with us."

The chaplain "did a wonderful ministry to help us cope with the death." Chapdelaine recalled being "fascinated" by the joyful presence of the chaplain and thought, "I would like to be like him."

"I was called into the military, even though I was not full time until 1998," he said. "My call was for the military, and in the military I decided to enter seminary in 1981." A year after that, he approached the Sherbrooke Archdiocese to begin the process that led to his ordination in 1989.

INTERFAITH

Upon ordination, Chapdelaine was promoted to the rank of captain and began full-time military service.

While the CAF has three Muslim chaplains and two rabbis, Chapdelaine would like to have even more diversity among chaplains. The new minister of national defence is a Sikh, and he would like to have Sikh chaplains.

"It's important for the Canadian Armed Forces to be open to Muslims so we can work together to building a better understanding of the role of faith."