SAN DIEGO — There is something distinctive about the chapel where Father William J. Brunner now celebrates Mass: It floats.
To be more precise, it’s in a space aboard the U.S. Navy’s warship USS America docked in San Diego.
The fresh-faced, 31-year-old priest is one of the newest members of the Navy’s chaplain corps, having graduated from chaplaincy school last November. Though he hasn’t served on the ship long, he’s already seen how different his new ministry is compared to his former parish in the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin.
The obvious difference is the worship space. Instead of a church, he shares a small room that serves as both a library and a chapel with other religious denominations, aboard a ship where fighter planes land on deck.
Though the cheery young priest with the megawatt smile celebrates Mass in traditional vestments, when he peals the garb off after his religious service is concluded, he doesn’t reveal traditional black clerics with a white collar.
Instead, he is sporting a blue camouflage uniform with the name “Brunner” embroidered above his right breast pocket and “U.S. Navy” stitched above the left, similar to every other sailor on the ship, except he has a cross on his left collar to signify his role as chaplain.
“I administer the sacraments on the ship similarly to the way I did at my parish, but the way I conduct my ministry is very different,” Brunner told Catholic News Service shortly before celebrating daily Mass aboard the USS America in May.
Since he’s a Navy officer, he has duties in addition to religious functions, which include inspecting portions of the ship while the sailors are conducting routine cleaning.
It doesn’t, however, distract him from his role as chaplain, Brunner said. It gives him an opportunity to interact with people he may not otherwise come into contact with. Plus, their religious traditions are varied and sometimes nonexistent.
“It’s an opportunity for these folks to connect with a priest,” he said. “Sometimes it’s the first time they’ve ever had a conversation with a priest.”
Occasionally the dialogue takes on a theological theme, and other times the sailor has a personal issue that requires a sympathetic, compassionate and confidential ear, something the ship’s chaplain is equipped to handle.
Brunner said most of his ministry takes place while he is doing something the Navy calls deck plating — walking throughout the ship, making his presence known and eagerly connecting with the men and women on board.
The ministry of presence makes the military chaplaincy unique and several chaplains told CNS it answers the call from Pope Francis for priests to get out of the rectory and smell like the sheep.
In this message to priests, the pope is calling on them to go out into the world, away from the church, and connect with people where they work, reside, play and live life.
That pretty much describes the role of the military chaplain, who frequently works side-by-side with his fellow soldiers, airmen, sailors, Marines or “Coasties” (members of the Coast Guard), said Father John Reutemann, chaplain at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Montana.
The connection with the men and women he serves with is intensified during a war-zone deployment, because the chaplain shares the same risks and living conditions.
“When Pope Francis starts talking that way, you know, we were joking whether or not he got that from us or we got that from him,” Reutemann said with a laugh.
The mantra for military chaplains is they nurture the living, care for the wounded and honor the dead.
They do that by living the life of a soldier, an airman, a sailor, a Marine or a Coastie, said Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services in Washington.
That earns the priest credibility among members of the military, said Father Michael A. Mikstay, a Navy chaplain who currently serves at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.
Each time Mikstay has been assigned to a Marine Corps unit that has been deployed to a war zone, he has gone along with them.
Though he is considered a noncombat member of the military and is not issued a weapon, he still trains, travels and sometimes shares living quarters with members of his unit.
“To become one of them makes us effective and gives us entrance into the lives of those we serve,” Mikstay said.
Smelling like the sheep is what drives Father Lukasz J. Willenberg in his ministry as a chaplain in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division’s 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment located at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Though Willenberg is not required to participate in the mandatory 6:30 a.m. formation with the other soldiers, he does it anyway to forge camaraderie.
Following formation, he leads a group of men through morning physical training, better known as PT, a staple in military life.
Willenberg is as devoted to physical fitness as he is to his Catholic faith, which has helped him connect with the soldiers, said 1st Sgt. Robert Frame of the Headquarters Company in the 82nd Airborne Division.
“I think that helps soldiers to want to seek the chaplain out a little more,” Frame told CNS during a March interview at Fort Bragg. “It’s easier for them to talk to him, that is if they can keep up with him.”
Though Willenberg said soldiers do seek his counsel frequently by coming to his office, he said many also approach him during morning formation and PT.
“I think it’s very important for me to be there, to be part of morning formation, but also to be part of their struggle,” the 34-year-old priest said. “Sometimes it’s cold, sometimes it’s raining, sometimes you simply just don’t feel like being there at 6:30 a.m.
“By simply being there, you can prove to them that I care. That I’m here for you no matter what.”
The parish priest does know his parishioners and has made it his job to be there for them spiritually and emotionally, said Father Andrew Lawrence, program manager for the U.S. Army’s Chaplain Basic Officer Leader Course in Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
“But, you’re not sleeping in the same tent with them, you’re not sharing the same risks as them,” Lawrence said, “whereas in the army you get to know them even before the deployment begins. You’re doing the same exercises they’re doing, you’re going to PT with them, you’re getting to know them on a much more personal level.
“You have a shared experience and I would say that shared experience is amplified when combat is involved.”