His Truth is Marching On: Catholic Military Chaplains, Part 1

It has long been pointed out by proud, patriotic Catholics that the percentage of young Catholics serving in the US Armed Forces is greater than the percentage of Catholics in the US population as a whole. However, this Catholic population is not without its fair share of hardships; in fact, members of the armed forces have historically been some of the first to be affected by any ebb in vocations to the priesthood. The Church is one and universal, the mystical body of Christ, and obviously Catholics serving their country in this capacity need to celebrate the Sacrifice of the Mass and partake in the Sacraments with the same regularity as their civilian counterparts. In the military lifestyle, however, with its propensity to be all at once highly-structured and yet unpredictable, cultivating one’s spiritual life can be especially difficult. Recognizing this unique situation, the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, devotes itself to ministering to Catholic members of the armed forces and their families, whether at home or abroad.

Being a Catholic military chaplain is a unique and challenging vocation. Priests often work in very isolated areas without any immediate, visible support from a religious community or diocesan network. Speaking to a group of military chaplains from the US in October of 2011, our Holy Father stressed the importance of their vocation, reminding them it required “a growing assumption of responsibility, so that, in military life as well, there be an ever new, convicted and joyful proclamation of Jesus Christ, the one hope of life and peace for all humanity.”

In recognition of the sacrifice and devotion of our Catholic military chaplains, I want to devote my next two posts here on The Papist to recounting some beloved, inspiring stories of wartime faith and valor. These guys take the title of Fidei Defensor to an entirely new level! And especially now, folks, in the midst of ongoing war and conflict overseas, may we continue to keep these wonderful servants of God in our prayers.

Francis P. Duffy (1871 – 1932) 

Father Duffy is best remembered as the much-loved chaplain of New York’s “Fighting 69th” regiment during World War I, but the first half of his life reads like the encyclopedia entry life of an academic theologian. Born in Canada, Duffy was educated at St. Michael’s College in Toronto and the College of St. Francis Xavier in New York. In 1896, he was ordained a Catholic priest for the Archdiocese of New York; in 1905, he earned his doctorate from The Catholic University of America. Father Duffy went on to teach future priests at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, where he also served as editor of the New York Review, a progressive Catholic scholarly publication. Fast forward a couple years, and we find Father Duffy putting in some time as regimental chaplain to the New York Army National Guard’s 69th Infantry Regiment.


Father DuffyWhen the 69th was federalized and sent to France during Word War I, Father Duffy was there for it all, – including trench warfare, mustard gas attacks, and an 80 mile march through the muddy Vosges mountain range in northeast France. Father Duffy was also present during the bloody Second Battle of the Marne, where he lost a close friend – poet Sgt. Joyce Kilmer, considered a leading Catholic man of letters at the time. Duffy later published his reminiscences of wartime as Father Duffy’s Story. For his wartime service, Father Duffy was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, New York State’s Conspicuous Service Cross, and both the Légion d’honneur and Croix de guerre from France. This makes Father Duffy the most highly decorated cleric in United States Army history! Want bonus points? Check out Pat O’Brien’s portrayal of Duffy alongside James Cagney in the 1940s flick The Fighting 69th!


John P. Washington (1908 – 1943) 

Now here’s an interesting one. John P. Washington was one of seven children born to Irish immigrants in Newark, New Jersey. He was religious from an early age and felt a calling to the Catholic priesthood during high school. Ordained in 1935, Father Washington served at several New Jersey parishes before joining the Army after Japan’s shocking attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Washington wound up at Harvard University, where he attended Army Chaplains School in preparation for a European deployment. While at Harvard, he became acquainted with Methodist minister George L. Fox, Jewish Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, and Clark V. Poling, a minister in the Reformed Church of America (and no, this is not the beginning to some bad joke!). In January 1943, these four men joined 900 soldiers aboard the USAT Dorchester for a transatlantic journey to the UK. While en route, their convoy was sighted by a German submarine. Just after midnight on February 2, the Dorchester was struck by a torpedo and began rapidly sinking. In the ensuing 27 minutes of chaos and struggle for the lifeboats, the four chaplains began organizing the evacuation process and distributing life jackets. When they had exhausted all resources, all four chaplains removed their own life jackets and gave them away, opting instead to stay and pray with those unable to escape. Final reports describe the four chaplains praying together with linked arms as the Dorchester sank below the waves. All four chaplains posthumously received the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart for their selflessness; in 1961, Congress presented the Four Chaplains’ next of kin with the Chaplain’s Medal for Heroism. Stained glass windows commemorating the Four Chaplains can be found, among other places, in West Point’s Post Chapel, in the National Cathedral, and in the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe, in Orlando, FL. Titanic Heroes, an organization dedicated to sharing “stories to inspire young men and women to live sacrificial lives”, has a neat video spot on the Four Chaplains you can watch by clicking here.

The four chaplains: Goode, Fox, Poling, and Father John P. Washington

From left to right: Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, Rev. George L. Fox, Rev. Clark V. Poling, and Fr. John P. Washington.

Stay posted for Part 2!


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