BETHESDA, Md. – Since last October, David Schlatter, OFM, has been leading a team of Catholic chaplains at the National Naval Medical Center here, ministering to servicemen and women wounded in the Iraqi war and their families.
On call 24/7, the team offers six daily Masses, as well as provides pastoral care for the Catholic patients and staff. Ministering a 40-hour week, the friars also respond to crises and other emergencies that arise. The chaplain’s office has several Protestant chaplains, as well as a part-time rabbi and imam. “Besides patient visits, we offer the ministry of reconciliation, as well as the Sacrament of the Sick,” said David.
The team includes Francis Di Spigno, OFM, Russel Murray, OFM, James Sabak, OFM, Ronald Stark, OFM, and Paul Keenan, OFM, along with Erick Lopez, OFM, who is involved in a supervised ministry through the Washington Theological Union.
The amount of time that each friar gives to the facility, nicknamed “Bethesda,” varies.
“Because all of us have full-time ministries or studies, we knew when planning this ministry that no one friar could assume the responsibilities, but together we could form a team to fulfill the requirements of the ministry,” Francis said.
Ministering to Young People
In addition to giving a sense of fulfillment to the friars, the ministry also fulfills the Province’s mission. “It refers to the Province’s emerging priority of ministry to young adults,” said David. “This is a very specific community of young adults at a very critical moment in their lives’ mission.”
What makes this ministry so special to the group is also a sense of serving their country.
“Sometimes it goes beyond the walls of NNMC to the fields of Arlington National Cemetery,” David said. “It is a sad privilege to preside over someone’s interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. This ministry is a privilege that is not extended to everyone. Most people do not have access to the wounded. It’s a great privilege to be allowed to minister to these brave men and women.”
Adds Francis: “Without getting involved in the politics of war, I believe it is a way that I can support my country that I still respect and love, as well as support the men and women in uniform who have literally put their lives on the line.”
David agrees: “It is a way to not only support our troops, but also to serve their families who have been through so much over the past seven years. We try to bring our Franciscan charism to heal the wounds of violence and horror, which all wars create. It is a way of giving something back to our country and to those who are sacrificing so much for our country.”
This theme was included in an interesting editorial in the March 2008 issue of Sojourners magazine, according to Fran. In the editorial titled “Wounds of War,” Paul Rieckhhoff said, “For a country starkly polarized by this war, the Church is one place where we can come together and pledge to love those who fought in it.”
A Long History of Ministry
The friars have a long history of ministry at NNMC, according to David. The friars began their current one-year contract with NNMC in September 2007. When David contacted Louis Iasiello, OFM, then chief of Navy chaplains, in January 2006 to inquire about the possibility of the friars serving, Lou recommended that David look into NNMC.
Across the street from the National Institutes of Health, the NNMC is about 15 minutes away from Holy Name College, where students, including George Corrigan, OFM, and Walter Liss, OFM, have ministered over the years at the medical center.
Evan Greco, OFM, and Theodore Lehr, OFM, among others, have been remembered by the veterans with great affection, according to Francis.
The ministry is a nice fit for both the friars and the medical center, according to David, especially in the diverse ministry styles of all the friar chaplains. “Where there was only one Catholic priest ministering to the Catholic community at NNMC, we now have a variety of ministers, each with their own style. The people who come to the daily Mass have mentioned their appreciation for the variety of preaching and presiding styles that comes from the rotation of various friars.”
— Wendy Healy, a Connecticut based freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.