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A Leaven In The World . . . When This Plague Ship Returns To Port

April 29, 2020 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


In my life as a chaplain I had occasion to observe human behavior up close. Particularly so on the aircraft carrier, a city at sea, where I served aboard for three years, and for two deployments within that period.
When the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower was fully loaded, to include the aircraft units, there were about 5,000 people aboard. The ship needed everything to run a military airport at sea and everything necessary to support the lives of the personnel needed for that mission. There were two nuclear reactors and everything entailed to operate the ship itself.
Start to list everything you need for your daily life at home to do your work — except for a commute by car — and you begin to get an idea of what is necessary to sustain life and well-being for the mission of the ship and the air wing aboard.
The personnel also needed to practice their faith and that was where I, among others, came in. Items for worship aboard included a home-made kneeler crafted by a young officer who had taken up woodwork as a hobby. He was my first convert on that assignment. The prie-dieu was placed out at every Mass aboard so that the many Catholics who will readily kneel to receive our Lord in Holy Communion could spontaneously witness to their faith and love for the Lord truly Present. Many did.
Also, I found a shop in town at homeport which donated pieces of foam remnants. The parachute loft aboard the IKE had Naugahyde to spare so they sewed covers to make cushions which were placed out with the chairs when setting up for every Sunday Mass. The Sailors could pray the Mass exactly as at home, with all of the gestures of reverence.
When the ship pulled away from the pier in the United States destined for foreign waters for a period of six months, behavior among the crew would slowly transmogrify as the reality of separation from home and family, personal spaces and privately owned vehicles, POVs in “militarese,” set in. New priorities would materialize as lesser distractions faded into the background.
The results of separation from spouses and families was, of course, a constant source of pastoral concern as crises sometimes resulted.
A change otherwise in external environment and circumstances would free the individuals so affected to redirect their attention and energies to new priorities. Life needs put on hold because of lesser contingencies now rose to the surface in the wake of a new freedom won by a kind of retreat from many of the distractions that served to crowd them out in life ashore.
It was for this and other reasons that a deployment was often described as akin to a retreat. Folks would start showing up to weekday Mass in the ship’s chapel as well as on the foc’s’le in the bow of the ship for Sunday Mass. Group events and interaction not possible in competition with the usual distractions in port drew takers for the first time.
Converts came forward to seek instruction. It wasn’t unusual to bring new Catholics into the Church at Easter vigils celebrated at sea.
Catholics took part with others in pilgrimages to Lourdes and the Holy Land during port calls.
One young Sailor I had never met, though we had been on the ship together for nearly six months, introduced himself as the carrier steamed across the Atlantic back to our home port. He was Catholic and wanted to share the story of his reconversion upon visiting Fatima and after reading the story of the three shepherd children visionaries. It was a touching moment I have not forgotten.
I also shared in the crises of faith for those who had been living on a superficial or immature level. One pilot who participated in a pilgrimage to Jerusalem fell into a kind of funk after he returned to shipboard life. He came to see me because he had thought his faith would rise to a dramatic new level of experience after seeing for himself and walking in the places where the Lord walked, lived and wrought miracles, died and rose, founded and sent the Church forth.
I had to accompany him to a deeper understanding that faith always involves our willing cooperation. That faith entails the struggles necessary to believe and to love, and that our humanity, with all of its abilities as well as limitations, is no less necessary for faith as it is for anything else we do.
Many good things have come out of this Coronavirus pandemic crisis. It has served as a “deployment” for humanity away from daily life much as was my experience aboard a ship for long periods at sea. I’ve seen more children riding bikes in the last thirty days than I have for decades. People are walking and exercising. I’ve met more people in my town on my walks in the last ten days than in the last ten years. Couples are talking. Families are eating dinner together and spending time with each other. Rumors are that a baby boom may result.
The face of the world has changed. Famous boulevards in grand cities, airports and tourist spots all over the planet are empty of the usual teeming masses. Pollution has dissipated and air quality has improved.
In the time of the coronavirus we have been exposed to spectacles of all kinds. Some have found faith and some have revealed they have none. Some have panicked in the face of the prospect of death, as the usual distractions of life have been forcibly removed by the restrictions of social distancing and the closure of many businesses and shops. It has itself been a kind of death of society.
I deal with death and dying frequently as does every priest. It’s woven into the fabric of my vocation, as is the whole spectrum of life with the sacraments which sanctify, heal, and strengthen faith and life at any moment.
We all mourn the tragic loss of life. There are reasons to believe that some of the COVID-19 transmissions to the elderly and vulnerable could have been prevented.
Mourning, too, must be woven into the fabric of Christian life here on Earth. But also the battles.
Our identity as Catholics is founded upon the truth. The very notion of truth itself connotes something worth defending. In order to remain ourselves in the truth we must stand for it in word and action if we are to persevere to the end and be saved.
Many of the Sailors, pilots, officers, and others I came to know so well at sea completely disappeared forever when the ship returned at last to home port. I hope and pray that all of them persevered in the way of faith so well begun again for those who pursued the life of the Spirit, freed as they were from the lesser distractions of life in port. What will your life look like after this “deployment” is over? Will you return to “faith as usual” when this voyage returns again to port, as it eventually must?
Thank you for reading and praised be our risen Lord, now and forever. Alleluia!
(You can visit my blog at

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