Military chaplain takes ‘natural approach’ to sharing faith

Father Bill Kneemiller of the Diocese of Davenport leads a Sunday field service at the U.S. Army Base in Hunter-Liggett, Calif. His unit left for Afghanistan at the end of August.

By Fr. Bill Kneemiller

Here at Fort Lewis, Wash., the third-largest Army base in the United States, we’ve been situated in the WW II barracks on the north side.

Except for a couple of vans to take us to training, we walk most of the time.  Someone mentioned that we are really “de-mobilized.”

Fort Lewis is a staging area for units going to overseas duty.  As we go through processing, equipment draw and other stations, the civilians are frequently making reference to me as “The Chaplain.” 

At another staging area, “Soldier Readiness,” I see a couple of young ladies in their 20s at the dental review station. One asks “How are you?” I reply with a quote from Jesse Romero (Catholic Radio), “I’m too blessed to be stressed.” Her reply, “I’m an agnostic.”


How can you answer something like that in a short reply? Still, I give it my best shot: “By the way, I’m reading a really good book, ‘Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul;’ you might want to check it out.” I leave her with this little suggestion, and a prayer to her guardian angel.

Another story: I was in the chow hall and we had been there only a few minutes when a Major said we had to go back to our offices where we were doing drills. We had just finished a five-day series of exercises so I knew this would be another case of  “Hurry up and wait,” with three minutes to have lunch. I made a bet with this Major who hadn’t darkened the chapel door in the past month. I was pleased when he offered the bet of “one Hail Mary.”

As a chaplain, I have learned in recent years to take the natural approach when it comes to talking about religion. I find, also, that I am the only one in the unit wearing a religious insignia — the cross — and the other soldiers often bring up religious or spiritual topics when I’m around. Recently we had our first pass — a few days free to go to Seattle or Mt. Rainier, both sites about an hour from Fort Lewis. After our first week of cloudy weather, a couple of days before the pass, the weather cleared, and Mt. Rainier appeared in its majesty — 14,000 feet tall with snow and glaciers glowing in the late summer sun. When it appeared, I quoted from a psalm to a few of the soldiers: “I raise my eyes toward the mountains. From where will my help come? (Psalm 121.)

During a recent field service I mentioned a comment on faith from a bishop who visited Fort Lewis to confirm adults and youths. He said this chapel was filled with God’s presence, somewhat as this space is filled with music. But we don’t hear the music until we have a radio and are attuned to the frequencies around us. So too, God’s presence and love surrounds us, but our gift of faith tunes us into that presence.

After I gave these words of encouragement to the soldiers, once again, I sensed the wonder of how God’s Scripture and some words of hope transform an outdoor field service into a holy sense of joy, hope and light for soldiers who are embarking on a fearful journey.

The noon Mass here at the base chapel is one of most inspirational services I’ve attended. I concelebrated the Mass, and as I looked out at the congregation, I remembered something my operations officer told me: there are over 20 nationalities represented on base here. As I looked at the packed chapel of Hispanic, Korean, Philippine, African, East European, Chinese and other nationalities, the word “Catholic” leapt to mind as never before. This is a reminder to me and other pastors and parishioners to always welcome the “stranger at your door” (Exodus 22:21). Our greatest strength is our Catholicity, and I could see it in the faces of the many nationalities represented and feel it in the inspiration of the music ministry and the spiritual vibrancy alive in the congregation.

The meaning of the word “catholic” — universal — became more real than any talk on the subject. We are one, holy, Catholic and apostolic church. Be proud of it!

So long from Chaplain Kneemiller.

(Fr. Kneemiller is a priest of the Diocese of Davenport who is serving as a chaplain in the Army Reserves.)

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