Published April 2, 2009
The only U.S. military priest serving in the Afghan capital city, Father McCormick, known as Father Pat, normally covers five U.S. and NATO bases each weekend. Fortunately, in the Islamic world Catholics have permission from the Pope to celebrate the Sunday Mass on Friday, the Islamic Sabbath, as well as Sunday. So Father Pat begins his rounds of the coalition bases on Thursday evening and finishes on Sunday night.
In addition to looking after the spiritual needs of the 9,000 coalition troops stationed in Kabul, Father Pat also leads a volunteer community relations (VCR) project to aid the poor in the city of Kabul. Over a ton of clothing, toys and some food items are distributed each Friday morning to a poor neighborhood, refugee camp, children’s hospital, or school in Kabul. All of the items given out have been donated by Americans and Canadians who mail them to the chapel at Camp Eggers for distribution.
Many schools, churches, Veterans of Foreign War posts, and individuals who have served in Afghanistan are regular contributors to this cause, which is deeply appreciated by the poor of Afghanistan, especially during the hard winter months, December through February. From the Atlanta Archdiocese, Sacred Heart Church in Hartwell has sent clothing items for the Kabul VCR program in the past.
About 150 service members on Camp Eggers are involved in the VCR program. Every Friday, some 40 volunteers will sort the newly isarrived donations and arrange them in bags for a family of six, then load the bags on the trucks and head out to the designated area for distribution. Occasionally the volunteers visit local schools and hospitals to give paper, pens, crayons and other educational material to the kids.
In addition to being the command chaplain of Camp Eggers where the Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan (CSTC-A) is headquartered, Father Pat also celebrates Mass at four other Kabul-area U.S. and NATO bases. But his most unusual job is that of serving as the head American mentor to the Afghan National Army’s Religious and Cultural Affairs Department (RCA).
He meets weekly with the RCA General and his staff to set plans and monitor the development of the 160 Islamic mullahs who function as chaplains to the Afghan Army. The goal is to have a chaplain corps in the Afghan Army very similar to the chaplain corps in the U.S. military. Monthly meetings are held between U.S. chaplains and Afghan mullahs to share experience and to give training in such things as counseling techniques and assisting the many Afghan families whose sons have died in the war. The role of the mullahs is very important in this highly religious Islamic country, as 80 percent of the new Army recruits are illiterate. The teaching of basic Dari and Pashtun, the principal languages of Afghanistan, is a mission of the Religious and Cultural Affairs Department.
Occasionally Father Pat will be invited, along with an Afghan mullah, to give a prayer at a major NATO or Afghan Army affair, such as a change of command. Such interfaith encounters are totally new to the Afghan mullahs, most of whom never met a Christian, let alone a Catholic priest or Protestant minister in their entire lives.
Islam is the only religion that can be practiced by the people of Afghanistan, though there are a few foreigners who practice Christianity. Four of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity were permitted to come to Kabul five years ago to take care of abandoned, mentally disabled children. The soldiers at Camp Eggers often share the wealth of donated items with the sisters for their work with the children and the many poor who live in their center-city neighborhood.
As the senior chaplain Father Pat often travels to the far corners of Afghanistan, a country the size of Texas, in order to visit the U.S. chaplains in outlying areas and to celebrate Mass for the Catholic soldiers there. Due to the severe shortage of Catholic priests in the military, most of these outlying areas will have Mass only once every three months, and soldiers living in very small forward operating bases never see a Catholic priest during their entire one-year tour in Afghanistan.
Father Pat noted that while traveling in the rural areas of Afghanistan, one sees many nomadic families grazing their goats and sheep. It is very common to come across a camel caravan moving a small tribe of people to a new grazing area. Much of life in Afghanistan seems to be right of the biblical era of the Old Testament. Tradition has it that one of the three wise men who came to see the baby Jesus was from Afghanistan.
Prior to joining the Navy in 1990, Father Pat served at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta, St. John the Evangelist Church, Hapeville, Corpus Christi Church, Stone Mountain, St. Mary Church, Toccoa, and Sacred Heart in Hartwell. He admits to being anxious to welcome in his replacement—this summer, he hopes—so he can move on to his new assignment at the Marine Corps base in Kaneohe, Hawaii.