By FATHER PATRICK McCORMICK, Special To The Bulletin | Published April 26, 2007
Life aboard an aircraft carrier is routine and busy. I am currently serving in the western Pacific during an unplanned surge deployment aboard the Navy’s newest and largest aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan.
The Reagan departed from its home port, San Diego, on Jan. 26 and picked me up as they passed Hawaii a week later. I flew on a special plane departing from Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, out to the carrier a little over 200 miles to the south of Hawaii. Afterward the Reagan quickly moved into the western Pacific so that the USS Stennis could move into the Persian Gulf. All of these moves were a part of the U.S. military’s surge build-up taking place in Iraq.
The Reagan, with a crew of over 5,000 onboard, like most carriers has four chaplains assigned, one Catholic and three Protestants. Life for the Catholic chaplain entails the usual “Catholic Program,” which includes weekend Masses in the ship’s forward foc’sle on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. and Sunday at 8 a.m. Other services include daily rosary at 6:30 a.m., daily Mass at 11 a.m., and time for confessions each afternoon at 4 p.m. In addition, since coming aboard I have organized an RCIA class that meets three times a week. Five sailors were baptized at the Easter Vigil on April 7, onboard the ship.
In addition to Catholic religious services aboard the carrier, the Catholic chaplain also flies via the “holy helo” each Sunday afternoon to the other three ships in the Reagan Strike Group, the USS Paul Hamilton, USS Russell and USS Lake Champlain, to celebrate the Eucharist for the Catholics onboard those ships.
Besides the specifically Catholic activities, the Catholic chaplain, like all chaplains, is heavily involved in counseling, teaching and offering prayers at public ceremonies onboard. Every evening all activity is stopped onboard while the chaplain concludes the daily routine with a prayer broadcast throughout the ship over the public address system at 10 p.m. After the evening prayer the ship maintains silence for the rest of the night.
A daily activity for all chaplains is assisting with the delivery of American Red Cross messages. Often the news is serious, announcing the hospitalization or even the death of grandparents, parents and relatives, though many messages announce happy news, such as the arrival of a newborn baby back home. The chaplains also are available several hours each day to see anyone wishing to speak with them about personal matters.
Life is not all work in the Reagan Strike Group. During this deployment, the Reagan made port calls to the U.S. Navy base in Sasebo, Japan, Hong Kong, China, and Pusan, South Korea. Each visit is usually for four or five days, with opportunities offered for organized tours of the area. During a recent port call in South Korea, a group of eight of us visited the Demilitarized Zone, which separates the military forces of North and South Korea. The DMZ was established when the armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, suspending the Korean War.
Many sailors while on port visits participate in community relations projects organized by the ship’s chaplains. These projects, financed by the Navy, organize groups of sailors to visit hospitals, schools, homes for the elderly, orphanages and similar institutions, such as Mother Teresa’s home for the homeless in Hong Kong. The sailors do painting, plumbing, gardening and other manual labor as well as provide entertainment for the residents and children. Over 600 sailors worked on these projects during the current underway.
My permanent assignment is as the command chaplain at Naval Station Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where I am the senior ranking chaplain and supervise six other Protestant chaplains. I was asked to go on temporary active duty for three months aboard the Reagan from February through April because the Navy’s largest aircraft carrier had no Catholic chaplain, and the next one is not scheduled to report onboard until 2008. The U.S. military, like the civilian Catholic Church throughout the United States, is experiencing a growing shortage of Catholic chaplains. At present there are fewer than 300 active duty priests for all the military services. Catholic chaplains are often spread thin and increasingly replaced by part-time local retired priests who cover only weekend Masses at the bases but have no ongoing pastoral contact with the sailors and their families.
The USS Ronald Reagan, after a brief visit in Hawaii, will return to its home port, San Diego, in late April to undergo a nine-month refurbishing project. In 2008, it will set sail again for a scheduled six-month deployment back to the western Pacific, Indian Ocean, and Persian Gulf, unless, of course, the President calls her back to sea duty sooner.
Father Pat McCormick was ordained in 1968 for the Archdiocese of Atlanta and served in various parishes, including as pastor of St. Mary Church, Toccoa, and Sacred Heart Church, Hartwell. In 1990, he entered active duty with the U.S. Navy. He has served at naval bases in Italy, California and Japan and holds the naval military rank of commander.