WASHINGTON — Striding down the halls of the U.S. Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, Father Daniel L. Mode doesn’t stand out as a priest — he looks like any other highly decorated senior officer, in a tropical blue summer uniform with four stripes on his sleeve.
As a Navy captain recently appointed head chaplain of the Coast Guard, Mode is an expert navigator of a military establishment whose culture and customs are complex.
“I have 45 different uniforms in my closet — central casting can call me any day,” he joked. If he could just wear a black shirt and white clergy collar, “my wardrobe would be so much simpler,” he told the Arlington Catholic Herald, the diocesan newspaper.
In truth, Mode, 56, seems perfectly comfortable living in two worlds. He grew up in a Navy family; when people ask how long he has been in the service, he tells them, “56 years.” But he points out that all his uniforms have a gold cross on the shoulder, identifying him as a Christian chaplain who supports the spiritual needs of those who serve.
He sees chaplains as missionaries to the military.
“You learn their language, eat what they eat and wear the same clothes they wear. You’re embedded with them. You don’t sit in a parish, you go where they go. The joy in that is the effect of your ministry can be so much more,” he said. “One day in Afghanistan can be like a year in a parish.”
This missionary insight came to him while writing a master’s thesis on Navy chaplain Father Vincent R. Capodanno, a Vietnam War hero killed while protecting a corpsman who was administering first aid.
His thesis became the 2000 book, “The Grunt Padre,” and initiated the process for Capodanno’s canonization. In 2006, the church proclaimed the Maryknoll priest a “Servant of God.”
“Father Capodanno was a missionary. He died six months before I was born, but I consider him my spiritual director,” after researching his life, Mode said. “You start to think like him and be like him.”
In his new assignment, Mode advises the commandant of the Coast Guard — Adm. Linda Fagan, who became the first woman to lead a branch of the armed forces June 1 — on the religious needs of service members.
He supervises 150 chaplains, including clergy volunteers called “auxiliarists,” to ensure appropriate pastoral care, from worship services to weddings, funerals and confidential counseling, an important safety valve to address issues before they become significant problems.
Mode’s advice is valued not just by his military superiors, but by those in the church.
Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services said Father Mode’s appointment was no surprise, because he “has served with distinction as a pastor, chaplain and mentor to many.”
He said he personally counts on the chaplain’s counsel and is grateful to the Arlington Diocese, “which has been so generous in releasing priests for the service of the men and women in uniform and their families.”
Arlington Bishop Michael F. Burbidge said: “Father Mode has demonstrated he has the heart of a true servant and missionary of the Gospel. I am grateful for the spiritual care he has offered to the people of our diocese, as well as to the brave men and women in uniform serving our country all over the world. I congratulate him and ask God’s blessing on his recent appointment.”
As the first Catholic in the post in 12 years, one of Mode’s first acts was to set up a prayer room next to his office with a tabernacle for the reserved Blessed Sacrament.
He also offers Mass in the chapel at Coast Guard Headquarters, part of a 1.3 million-square-foot Homeland Security complex in Washington across the Potomac River from Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Arlington, where he’s now in residence.
As a child, Mode wanted to be a pilot, but in eighth grade he heard a voice in his head announce: “Dan, you are to be a priest.”
He took it to heart, “and I’ve never looked back,” he said. “Like any relationship, it grows. When I counsel people about discernment, I tell them it’s got to be like breathing — it’s natural and it gives you life, like air that fills your lungs. It’s just natural and good, and it continues.”
When he was in high school, his family moved to the Arlington Diocese, where he was ordained in 1992.
In the first 13 years of his priesthood, he was in the reserves, moving to active duty in 2005, with the approval of Bishop Paul S. Loverde, then head of the Arlington Diocese.
The rows of ribbons on his uniform testify to the action he’s seen. He flew on 300 missions in Afghanistan, was shot down in a helicopter, and spent seven years of sea time on four different ships, from the Persian Gulf to Guantanamo Bay to Japan, where he was the 7th Fleet Chaplain. Asked if he misses being on the front lines, he replies, “Who wants to be shot at? But I definitely like to be operational. It’s hard to be an office guy.”
He plans to spend significant time on the road, visiting chaplains to understand their needs “and find ways to build that resiliency and spiritual readiness to make us the most effective force that we can be.”
A key to his own resiliency has been staying close to the sacraments and the Divine Office. Whether on a ship or the back of a Humvee, “in 30 years of priesthood, I have never missed a day celebrating the Mass,” he said.
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Miller is a staff writer at the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington.