Bishop William F. Medley of the Diocese of Owensboro presides at a Dec. 14, 2023 Mass in Soldiers Chapel at Fort Campbell, Ky. Concelebrants included Fr. Christopher Kight and Fr. Emmanuel Udoh of nearby Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Hopkinsville; Fort Campbell Senior Command Chaplain Col. Fr. Rajmund Kopec; and U.S. Army Chaplain Maj. Fr. Maciej Napieralski. Dcn. Tony Carmona, the Catholic coordinator for Fort Campbell, assisted at the liturgy. ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD | WKC
Fort Campbell’s Catholic outreach meets military families ‘where they’re at’
BY ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD, THE WESTERN KENTUCKY CATHOLIC
The Sacred Heart Catholic Community at Fort Campbell, Ky., has a tradition at the end of each Mass in Soldiers Chapel.
“Before the final blessing the priest asks if there are any soldiers leaving our community,” said Dcn. Tony Carmona, the Catholic coordinator for Fort Campbell, which is located on the border of Kentucky and Tennessee. “Some may be deploying, or a Permanent Change of Station (PCS), or finishing their time in service.”
The priest then has them come forward and gives them “a special blessing and a rosary with a St. Michael prayer card.”
They do this for any soldier present – even if it is their first time ever attending Mass in the chapel on base.
It is practices like this that contribute to the vibrant Catholic community at Fort Campbell, which has its own Catholic chapel with a tabernacle, crucifix, and Stations of the Cross.
Dcn. Carmona said that to his knowledge, the only other installation that has a Catholic chapel like this is United States Military Academy West Point.
He explained that Soldiers Chapel is dedicated to the Catholic members, however, it is still a government building. That means anyone on the installation can request the use of the chapel through the Religious Services Office. It is a shared space, built to be utilized by anyone who needs it – though there are multiple other chapels and spaces throughout base in which other faiths typically worship.
“If someone makes a request we would ‘sterilize’ the chapel,” said Dcn. Carmona. “Any unconsumed Host would be moved to a smaller tabernacle in the sacristy, the Stations of the Cross have doors that close, and there is a curtain behind the crucifix that we can use to (cover it).”
In the past, in fact, the Catholics shared the chapel with the Protestant community “and we worked well together,” said Dcn. Carmona, who retired from the U.S. Army in 2010.
Serving anyone they encounter is the responsibility of all who minister at Soldiers Chapel, according to Lori Sylvia, the director of religious education for the Catholics at Fort Campbell.
“Here, no matter where you are sacramentally, the chaplains will meet you where you’re at,” said Sylvia, whose husband, Maj. Gen. Brett G. Sylvia, is the commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and Fort Campbell.
Sylvia and her husband raised their five children throughout his 30 years in the military, and therefore are familiar with the unique needs of Catholic families like their own.
An important aspect of the community at Soldiers Chapel, for instance, is “helping to foster a sense of home so new families can feel welcome,” she said, which includes assisting with whatever sacramental prep may need to be completed: “You have to be flexible.”
Christine Kuhns is a parishioner at Soldiers Chapel whose husband, Col. Matthew L. Kuhns, is commander of the 52nd Explosive Ordnance Disposal located at Fort Campbell.
“This is a very welcoming community,” said Kuhns. “It’s a difficult thing for military families to move around and make sure your kids receive all of their sacraments.”
But “military families, who relocate often, find the community here to be very welcoming,” she said.
This sentiment was echoed by Lisa Lynch, who with her husband are retired members of the Fort Campbell community and live locally. They assist in coordinating Masses and serving as lectors and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion.
“We love coming here,” she said, explaining that the retirees help the “continuing” factor of having an ongoing Catholic presence at Fort Campbell. “It’s really an honor and a privilege to be part of this community.”
Fr. Rajmund Kopec, who holds the rank of colonel in the U.S. Army and serves as the senior command chaplain at Fort Campbell and the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), emphasized that the military is “a transient community.”
“At times families move in January – the middle of the school year,” he said, adding that it is ideal for military bases to have Catholic programs “that support the full spectrum of sacramental requirements and pastoral needs.”
Just as military parish life differs from that of a civilian parish, priest chaplains operate differently than their civilian counterparts.
Fr. Kopec, like every priest who serves as a military chaplain, is on loan from his diocese for a set term, which can be renewed (he is from the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J.)
To be a chaplain, priests are “endorsed” by the Archdiocese for the Military Services, U.S.A., (often shortened to AMS), which permits them to serve active-duty, Reserve, National Guard, Civil Air Patrol, and Coast Guard Auxiliary officers in the U.S. Armed Forces.
According to milarch.org, the AMS’s official website, “Chaplains never become members of the archdiocese; instead, they always remain subject to their home bishop/religious superiors.”
Their role is crucial in the pastoral life of the Church: a total of 1.8 million Catholics currently serve in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Fr. Kopec said some specific needs of Catholics at Fort Campbell include providing more adult catechesis, addressing the issue of occasional gaps in priests’ presence on base due to deployments, and offering young adult ministry.
“We have about 4,500 Catholic active-duty soldiers who are considered young adults,” he said.
Speaking of the wider Church, Fr. Kopec said clergy and laity alike can improve healthier collaboration between military and civilian parishes by emphasizing mutual support between military priests and local pastors.
“As priests – military and civilian – we can do a better job of helping each other with sacramental ministry and not to be ‘too territorial,’” he said.
In the spirit of universality, Fr. Kopec encouraged civilian parishes to share more information with and invite military families to local activities like marriage retreats and youth events.
Of utmost importance for the health of Catholics in the military, he added, is that bishops allow their priests to serve on active duty.
As with priestly vocations in general, there is a critical shortage of Catholic priest chaplains – which has necessitated the AMS to endorse priests to fill GS (General Schedule) and contract positions at military installations across the globe.
According to milarch.org, “The requirements for these positions are different from those for commissioning as an officer and provide another avenue for priests to minister to a Catholic community on a military installation.”
Yet, there are local signs of hope. A Diocese of Owensboro seminarian, Conrad Jaconette, is being cosponsored by Owensboro and the AMS, which will allow him to become an officer in the U.S. Air Force before being ordained.
After he is ordained to the priesthood, Jaconette will spend three calendar years serving in parishes around the diocese, and then go on a five-year active-duty contract with the AMS.
And this past December, Bishop William F. Medley was invited to make a pastoral visit with the Catholics at Fort Campbell, which included Mass, a meet-and-greet luncheon, and a tour around base.
“Inviting Bishop Medley was a supporting effort to achieve that goal” of greater collaboration within the local Church, said Fr. Kopec, who presented the bishop with a framed sketch of Soldiers Chapel as a gift from the parishioners.
During his homily, Bishop Medley spoke to the distinct calling of Catholics in the military and challenged them to take Our Lady as their model.
“When God asks something of us, some moment of service, some moment of compassion, are we ready to give our yes as Mary did?” he said. “Let’s practice saying ‘Yes, Lord.’”
Originally printed in the February 2024 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.