All Saints

Inside the Pentagon, we finally arrived at the Office of the Chaplain directly across the hall from the Pentagon Chapel. My escort introduced me to the head chaplain, a friendly Protestant minister, whose job is to oversee the spiritual needs of Pentagon employees. Each branch of the military also has a head chaplain who leads a squadron of chaplains that provide spiritual guidance to troops in the field. One of the deputies from the Chaplain’s office agreed to take charge of me, so my original escort handed responsibility for me over and said he’d come back later. I thanked him and bade him farewell.

My new escort asked if I was ready. I didn’t know for what—but I said I was. We set off again, walking briskly up and down more hallways. As we went, he explained that today’s Catholic service would be especially large and would take place in an auditorium, not the chapel. I tried to hide my disappointment. I thought wouldn’t that be something to have made it this far and fail to even lay eyes on the Pentagon Chapel.

By the time we got to the auditorium, almost every seat was filled. The Pentagon is said to have roughly 30,000 employees; several hundred had come to honor the individuals throughout history who, according to the Catholic Church, represent the highest embodiment of the Christian faith. The front of the room was transformed into a make-shift altar: a priest in robes, candles, a table set with a chalice. This space was not really a church and the people present weren’t congregants in the traditional sense—presumably they were tithe-paying members elsewhere—yet it was as authentic a place of worship as any I had visited. I marveled at the distance I had come that elements of the ceremony could feel familiar to me: calls and responses, readings from the Bible, communion. I remember agonizing in the beginning over whether to partake in the sacrament. Today, I didn’t hesitate. I believed I could approach it with the understanding and intention it deserved. I had earned my stripes.

The service concluded and my escort introduced me to the priest. A fresh haircut made him look as bare as a new recruit. He agreed to speak with me and my escort gave him the job of returning me to the office; I was a baton in a chaplain relay.

We sat in the now-empty auditorium and he told me about his years ministering on the front lines in the Middle East. He explained that “ministering” in the military was not necessarily what it sounded like. His job wasn’t to preach his beliefs to soldiers, but to support their spiritual needs regardless of their religious identifications. Within every large group of soldiers, a spectrum of affiliations might be represented including Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and Atheists—not to mention the variations within those categories. Given certain constraints—particularly those in war—only one chaplain may be available for all those soldiers. So the situation is likely to arise that a Christian chaplain will make sure that Jewish soldiers have the necessary accommodations to celebrate Passover or that Buddhists soldiers have time to meditate or that Muslim soldiers are given a chance to perform daily prayers or that an Atheist soldier be permitted to avoid it all. In one particularly memorable instance, the Catholic priest explained, he had even ministered to a soldier who identified as Wiccan.

6 thoughts on “All Saints

  1. The words of the chaplain reminded me of something I heard from a chaplaincy student who attends Center for Spiritual Living: “I have deep pockets in my jacket and carry the Bible, the Kadish, Inspirations of Buddha and several other books reflective of a particular religion. When I’m in the Emergency Room tending the sick and/or dying I fulfill their requests as closely as possible. Such times are not times to offer conversion. So I find myself sharing words I may not agree with but then I remember, ‘I’m not doing this for me. I’m here for them.’ “

    • Hi Frank, When I first encountered this type of ministering at the Pentagon, I had never considered that a religious leader who identified as one thing or another could work with/for people of different faiths. I tried to think of other settings that might necessitate this–and, yes, an ER or hospital could also require it. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I find something about this model so moving and I feel like there are some really important lessons in it.

    • “When I’m in the Emergency Room tending the sick and/or dying I fulfill their requests as closely as possible. Such times are not times to offer conversion. So I find myself sharing words I may not agree with but then I remember, ‘I’m not doing this for me. I’m here for them.’”

      Frank, as a human being, I think that is one of the best actions a person can do – unselfishly do something for someone’s emotional health that you do not gain absolutely anything from – its wonderful that you think that way, and im glad you are where you are 🙂

  2. How apropos your title here: “All saints.” I’m guessing that you didn’t mean “saint” in the same way that word communicates in our popular culture, as in perfectly holy, but simply all people who are set apart (the meaning of ‘saint’ or ‘holy one’) by God as his worshipers. The chaplain must be a “servant to all”.

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