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Saturday, August 30, 2008

"Chaplain to answer one call, make another"

From the St. Louis Review Online
by Jean M. Schildz

Former vocations director Father Michael T. Butler may be answering the call of the military, but while serving he plans to do a little calling of his own, too.

After about 14 years with the archdiocesan Office of Vocations — 11 of those years as director — the St. Louis native was released from duty this June by Archbishop Raymond L. Burke to serve with the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA.

Father Butler will join the U.S. Air Force at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio Sept. 25 as deputy wing chaplain.

The military, he says, is ripe for vocations. His new assignment "will be a good opportunity for me to challenge our young people in the military to think about serving as priests and religious."

Father Butler said jokingly, "You can take the priest out of the vocation office, but you can’t take the vocation director out of the priest."

In his new position, he will assist his commander in the training of chaplains and chaplain assistants.

"I’m going to be mentoring chaplains to make sure they’re doing their job," he said.

The post of military chaplain is not an unfamiliar one for him. In 1990, only one year after being ordained by Archbishop John L. May, Father Butler was permitted to serve as chaplain for the 131st Fighter Wing of the Missouri Air National Guard. The unit is based at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.

Since then the 46-year-old has been on active duty about two months out of every year. The first time he was sent overseas was 10 days after the attack on the World Trade Center Sept. 11, 2001. He now has seven trips abroad under his belt as chaplain with the National Guard. Several of his assignments have taken him to the Middle East. He also has comforted U.S. soldiers at a military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, where the seriously wounded from Afghanistan and Iraq are taken.

Father Butler in an interview last week said that each time he has been deployed, he has made it a point to talk to young people about a vocation.

"And it’s amazing how many of them really do think about it," he said. For example, one young man he spoke with attended the archbishop’s retreat at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary last year, while another has just entered the seminary. "So I do know there are guys who have really thought about it, and I’ve encouraged them. I know there are vocations out there, too, even in the military."

Among his accomplishments with the Office of Vocations, Father Butler was instrumental in starting the annual archbishop’s retreat and the various vocation camps at the seminary. But what he is most proud of is his work in helping young men and women discern what God has called them to do.

Said the priest, "I hope that’s the legacy more than anything, that I’ve hopefully made a difference in their lives." He expects his work to continue to grow and prosper under the capable leadership of new directer Father Edward M. Rice.

On loan to the Military Archdiocese initially for three years, Father Butler said his assignment could be extended. He hopes to return to St. Louis to serve again as a priest, but doesn’t know when.

"A lot depends on the future archbishop and the military and myself," he said.

He leaves behind his parents, Deacon James Russell (Russ) and Betty Butler, a sister, two brothers, and lots of nieces and nephews. They are all supportive of his efforts, he said, because they understand his calling as a priest and know the military needs him desperately.

In the U.S. Armed Forces today there are less than 300 Catholic priests, he said. At the end of World War II there were 5,000. "My understanding is that in the U.S. Air Force now we have right about 74 active duty Catholic priests.

And in four years there will be half that number. Right now I understand we have 18 Air Force bases that have no Catholic priests, which shows it’s a huge issue."

Father Butler has gotten to know members of the military through his National Guard duty and has great respect for them.

They are "heroic people, who really come to defend their family and their nation from those who want to do us harm. Are they really happy about going out and perhaps killing people and even dying themselves? Certainly not. But they believe in this country, and they believe in their families. They want to protect them enough they’re willing to put their lives on the line."

He has a great love for the military, "not because I love war, for I certainly don’t, but for the people and what they’re willing to do."

He recalled one young man who came to see him after he had celebrated Mass in a Middle East desert. "He came to my office, which was a tent. I remember he was about 20, 21 years old. An all-American kind of guy. And I remember he cried, which is not unusual. But then he composed himself and said, ‘You know, I’ve been over here for some time, and I can’t wait to go home, but the only time I ever feel like I’m back home is when I get to go to Mass.’

"And then he said, ‘Thank you for doing this because I know we have a shortage of priests, and not many people would want to come over and do this.’ But, you know, he himself volunteered." That in itself, he said, was enough reason for him to volunteer, too.

As a Catholic military chaplain, Father Butler loves bringing Christ and being Christ to others, no matter where they are and no matter their faith.

Said the priest, "It’s a wonderful life when you serve Christ, in whatever way that is."

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