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Monday, March 16, 2009
"Military padres a rare breed"
By Matthew Fisher
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Padre Bastien Leclerc is one of the rarest of the rare. He is a Roman Catholic priest and a cleric in the Canadian Forces.
Just as the Catholic Church is having a devil of a time finding priests for its parishes across Canada, it has become more and more difficult for the military to find priests to fill billets at bases in Canada and overseas.
Forty of the 84 Roman Catholic positions in the forces are now filled by lay pastoral associates. Four more are lay deacons, meaning that the 40 priests still in uniform have become a minority within their own chaplaincy.
"It is very hard for a bishop to give up a priest but it is even worse if the priest is young and I was only 34 when I joined the military,” said Father Leclerc, whose rank is major and is Task Force Afghanistan’s senior chaplain.
"There is such a shortage of priests in Canada that some have two or three parishes and spend all their time running from masses to baptisms to marriages. I admire the priests who can do that, but that was not me."
A priest who was a padre suggested to Leclerc, who was not keen on parish life but enjoyed his work at the time with street kids in Quebec, that joining the military might be his calling.
"I took spiritual direction and prayed and signed on the dotted line," he said, pausing for a moment as a pair of fighter jets screamed past his window. "My bishop reluctantly agreed. Ten years later he can see how much happier I am."
Nevertheless Leclerc, unlike some other military priests, remains on loan to the forces, and could be called back to Quebec at any time.
"The bishop still has that option but I think he knows that he would only get half a priest back," Leclerc said with a boisterous laugh.
Leclerc’s home base is Edmonton. He has done a tour of duty in Bosnia and is now near the front end of 9 months in the heat and dust of southern Afghanistan.
Part of his duties at the Kandahar Airfield include celebrating a mass every Saturday night for a congregation that includes not just Canadians, but soldiers from many other NATO countries and devout Filipino civilian workers who provide music for the service. Leclerc also often fills in for an American padre at a mass on Sundays.
Like all padres, Leclerc went through boot camp — minus weapons training — when he joined the military. The deployment to Afghanistan was preceded by months of pre-mission training at Wainwright, Alta.
During exercises there that simulated serious casualty situations "we made training prayers," Leclerc, explaining with another big laugh that "I had to begin those prayers by stating, ‘I am faking a prayer.’
"It is different work here than in Canada. The guys are younger and we deal a lot with family issues. Some will leave a newborn and come back to a walking kid who looks at them and wonders, ‘Who the heck is that guy?’”
There is also the immense challenge of helping soldiers to deal with grief.
"There is only so much that a man can take sometimes," he said. "When they lose a friend, and sometimes more than one, they sometimes ask questions about what we are doing here."
Leclerc was philosophical about the inexorable trend toward more Roman Catholic lay ministers in the military.
"The lay ministers bring a lot of different ways of doing things, of thinking and of reflecting, and there is a real richness to that," he said.
The future of the Catholic ministry within the military was already evident in how its representatives have been divided into three groups, with priests, deacons and pastoral associates.
"A lot of our future Catholic chaplains will be permanent deacons." Leclerc said. "These are usually married people who have been pastoral associates. They are not allowed to say mass but they can do weddings and baptisms."
Leclerc considers himself to be doubly blessed to be a padre and to have been given the "experience of a lifetime" by being posted to Afghanistan.
"To be here or anywhere in the world with our soldiers is a privilege," he said. "Some people, especially in Quebec, have questioned this mission. But it is something special to be part of a team that is trying to improve the quality of life here."