A reflection upon military life as an Army Padre.
During 35 years of priesthood I have never failed to be surprised at the number of times when a chance encounter or an unexpected turn of events opens up possibilities of adventure and challenge. It was exactly such an event in 1992 that propelled me from parish ministry in the Archdiocese of Dublin into a wonderful 25 years of military chaplaincy in the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department. The chance encounter one Friday evening with the late Mgr Joe Mallon VG, Principal Catholic Chaplain to the Army started a sequence of events which resulted in a wonderful vocational career.
Ministering to the Catholic and wider Christian community within the Army at home, overseas and on operations introduced me to some of the nicest, most courageous, courteously loyal and supportive people I have ever met, many of whom have become lifelong friends. While some are faithful members of the Church, the vast majority would not exactly be ‘chewing the altar rails’ but you know, while they might not have understood what I stood for, or been far removed from their Catholic family upbringing, they respected what I did and in those moments while away from family and parents where a serviceman or woman can feel vulnerable, the acceptance of a promise of inclusion in my morning or evening prayers or the remembrance in my daily Mass of a sick mum, dad or grandparent, was always appreciated.
The experience of being immersed into military life was not as traumatic as I had expected it to be. After all, I was simply moving sideways into another structured, organised and disciplined organisation. Although coming from the Republic of Ireland was novel, it was by no means anything exceptional. There is a significant number of personnel across all the services who hail from Ireland including two priests who are currently serving as Chaplains.
The first introductory years were spent in Germany where I cut my teeth in military chaplaincy among the many thousands of servicemen and women and their families. Life in Germany was good. There were infinite opportunities for travel. In those days the summers appeared longer than today and so the social life of personnel at regimental, parish or in the community was important in that it cemented together a community dislocated from its home roots.
Successive postings in the UK, Northern Ireland and a return to Germany brought many new challenges and opportunities. In 2003 I had four wonderful months working with the Australian Army in their Army Recruit Training Centre in Kapooka, New South Wales. On my return, promotion brought with it new responsibilities which arose as a consequence of the unification of the RAChD and which paved the way for posts and roles previously unavailable to Catholic chaplains.
When I left the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst as a newly commissioned Chaplain, I never dreamed that 17 years later I would return as a Catholic priest to become the Academy Senior Chaplain and Administrator of the Royal Memorial Chapel. Similarly, after a subsequent promotion to CF1 (Colonel), the Chaplain General appointed me as Corps Colonel of the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department. This post, running in tandem with being Assistant Chaplain General at Army Headquarters, involved supporting and preserving the traditions and the heritage of the RAChD, the RAChD Association and the Museum of Army Chaplaincy.
Sitting alongside the other Army Corps Colonels during our monthly forum in Army HQ meant that for the first time the Department had an opportunity to be represented as well as to hear first hand at Corps level, the key issues affecting our personnel throughout the Army. It is interesting to note that in 2011 there were three Catholic CF1 chaplains (Colonels) out of six; Mgr Francis Barber (PRCC), Fr Anthony Paris and myself.
As Corps Colonel I had the opportunity to return to Sarajevo in 2015 on the 20th anniversary of the Sebrenica massacre. I undertook an engagement project with the Bangladesh Army which aimed to support the Bangladeshi’s in their desire to create a Chaplaincy Service to cater for the spiritual and pastoral needs of their service personnel. I had the privilege of attending Remembrance Days in Delhi and in Pakistan in Dhaka and retain very fond memories of the warmth of hospitality and friendship extended by my hosts.
In Israel, as guests of the Israeli Defence Forces, our out-of-conference travelling enabled us to visit Jerusalem, Hebron, Bethlehem and the Golan Heights. While in Dublin, I attended the commemoration of a new Sword of Sacrifice placed in Glasnevin Cemetery and did so in British Army uniform alongside my seminary colleague, Mgr Eoin Thynne, Head Chaplain to the Defence Forces of Ireland.
Greatest Honour Of My Career.
By far the greatest honour I received during my service as an Army chaplain was to have been appointed by HM the Queen, a Queen’s Honorary Chaplain. And then, suddenly as it had begun, my service as a military chaplain came to an end. No matter how much you prepare for that final day, it is still a wrench. I emptied my desk and made my way to the HQ Reception Room where I handed in my ID and HQ access cards. Unfortunately I had forgotten a book in my office but as I was now a civilian, I had to be escorted there and back by a member of the security team!
While all of these experiences and opportunities contributed to 25 years of wonderful ministry, it was the people that I was privileged to share my life with who made this ministry such a rewarding one. The faith, service and loyalty to Church and nation by so many was inspirational and humbling. The Catholic community in the Armed Forces punches well above its weight and in so doing is admired by many. I will always be thankful for the fun and friendship that so characterised my ministry to the Army for which I will be eternally grateful.
Fr Ian Evans QHC
Corps Colonel Royal Army Chaplains’ Department