BY Staff Reporter | April 6 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Fathers in arms

In the centenary year of the end of the Great War, AMANDA CONNELLY speaks to the author of new book Priests in Uniform about the Church’s heroic clergy

This year marks the centenary of the end of the First World War, the ‘war to end all wars,’ which saw thousands of young men sent to battlefronts across the globe. Facing bleak and difficult times, many turned to their Faith to find comfort and solace.

Within the forces, Faith played an important role, yet perhaps one overlooked aspect is the part played by men of Faith who provided opportunities for prayer and worship as military chaplains.

Now author and academic Dr James Hagerty has honoured their memory in his new book, Priests in Uniform.

Paying homage to the chaplains, he said it was ‘only right’ that their contributions be commemorated 100 years after the end of the 1914-18 war.

Dr Hagerty said: “During the centenary commemorations of the First World War there has been much emphasis on the battles of the war, on individual awards for bravery, on families and the war, and on the contributions of regiments long gone.

“As it is likely that every serviceman in the First World War came across a padre, it seemed only right that the chaplains too should be remembered and commemorated.

“Their contribution to the war effort in general and to individual men in particular is worthy of a place in the nation’s memory.

“Last year, 2017, also marked the centenary of the Catholic Bishopric of the Forces and this book acknowledges the work undertaken by successive bishops of the forces on behalf of Catholic service personnel and their families.”

Dr Hagerty noted that as British armed forces grew in number over the course of the war, the need for military chaplains also increased. Around 5,000 Christian and Jewish clerics acted as chaplains for the British Army and Royal Navy, including 800 Catholic priests from Ireland and the UK.

“Priests voluntarily exchanged their routines in schools, parishes, colleges and seminaries for theatres of war,” Dr Hagerty said. “They became non-combatant officers and donned a military uniform.

“They brought the Sacraments and the comfort of religion to men on the Western Front, at Gallipoli and Salonika, on Dreadnoughts and at the Battle of Jutland, in Italy and east Africa, in Mesopotamia and the Middle East, in casualty clearing stations and in hospitals.

“They celebrated Mass, tended the wounded, and buried the dead. They lived with fighting men, endured the same ­conditions, experienced the same dangers, and witnessed the same carnage. This book tells the story of their devotion and brave ministry.”

Dr Hagerty also noted that while there has been an outpouring of work on the Great War, ‘little has been written about its influence on the religious lives of combatants.’

He added: “Similarly, little research has been undertaken about the impact of wartime ministers of religion.

“I have tried to rectify this imbalance from a Catholic point of view and tell the many stories of those priests who left the relative comfort and safety of their normal lives to bravely minister to men in danger of imminent death and injury.

“I have a great interest in the lives and personalities of these men and uncovering their life stories continues to fascinate me.”

Among those Catholic chaplains were a number of Scottish priests; clergy who bravely carried out their ministry in the most far-flung and dangerous of environments, celebrating Mass and offering spiritual support to troops in battlefields across the world.

“Although they preached to the troops or sailors, the chaplains were not there to glorify war,” Dr Hagerty said. “Most were patriotic and supported the national cause but they did not preach a political message.

“They conducted services, celebrated Mass in fields, in barns, on ships, in the desert, or in ruined churches; they wrote letters home, they boosted morale, they heard Confessions of men about to go into battle, they tended the wounded, helped the medics, counselled and comforted.

“Their work took them as near to the men as they could possibly or dare go.

“Their determination to get to the troops in the firing line and their commitment to help men fulfil their religious obligations in the face of military routines sometimes incurred the wrath of army and naval commanders but most chaplains managed to collaborate with their immediate superiors in an effort to bring religion to the men. Their bravery earned them respect and admiration.”

The lengths to which Catholic chaplains would go to minister to the troops was particularly noteworthy, since the Admiralty was traditionally anti-Catholic and refused to commission Catholic priests, though Field Marshal Haig was ‘very supportive’ of Army chaplains and their work.

“Senior Catholic naval officers, however, disregarded Admiralty instructions and allowed Catholic priests on board ships,” Dr Hagerty added.

The bishops of Scotland were also supportive of the national cause, encouraging men to enlist and allowing priests from urban and rural dioceses up and down the country to serve as army chaplains.

Many religious orders also provided chaplains, including The Redemptorists at St Mary’s in Kinnoull, Perth. Among them were Fr John Howard, Military Crossrecipient, Fr David Aherne, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, and Frs Bernard Kavanagh and CharlesWatson, who died outside Jerusalem in December 1917 and in Mesopotamia in July 1918, respectively.

Benedictine monks from Fort Augustus Abbey also served as wartime chaplains, in the Royal Navy at Rosyth, Scapa Flow, Invergordon, Lamlash and other anchorages in Scotland. Frs Lawrence Mann, Adrian Weld Blundell, Wulstan Knowles and Odo Weld Blundell were Royal Navy chaplains, army chaplains Frs John Lane Fox and Andrew MacDonnell were given the Military Cross, and Fr Ninian MacDonald was mentioned in Dispatches, Dr Hagerty said. Meanwhile a Lanarkshire-born priest, Jesuit Fr Robert John Monteith, died at Ribercourt during the Battle of Cambrai on November 27, 1917. He was 40 years old.

Priests from Glasgow Archdiocese and Dunkeld Diocese also served. Fr Michael Patrick Gordon of Glasgow served in Belgium for just three months before dying from his wounds, aged 34, on August 26, 1917, while Irish Fr James Shine of Tipperary, on loan to Dunkeld, died onApril 21, 1918, aged 37.

Scottish chaplains were also hailed for the bravery and dedicated service, with one, Fr Stephen Thornton of Cadzow, granted the Distinguished Service Order. He served at Gallipoli with the Royal Naval Division, and was at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Gaelic-speaking Fr John MacNeill from Eriskay was also recognised for his efforts, being awarded the Military Cross. He ministered to the Cameron Highlanders from November in 1914, and moved to the Royal Navy in 1918.

It is these stories of victory and loss, of bravery and Faith, and the lives of these chaplains that Dr Hagerty feels are deserving of remembrance.

“I consider it important to remember legacy of those who fought and perhaps died for a cause they thought to be just,” he said. “We cannot judge them by contemporary standards, norms of behaviour, or social and political attitudes but we should recognise the sincerity and understanding of their commitment in their day.

“Similarly, I believe it is important to remember the wartime ministry of priests who conducted their vocation in ­circumstances very different from those of today.”

And yet the dedication of military chaplains is not one to be forgotten in the here and now. Rather, said Gourock native Mgr Andrew McFadden, principal Catholic chaplain to the Royal Navy, they are ‘more than ever important.’

He described chaplains as ‘a link in an often hostile and life threatening environment with family and loved ones. As an example of courage and integrity: to be with Service people where they are, often in life or death situations, and to be a sign of the eternal presence and values of God. As a friend and adviser of all on-board, in the field and in the air.’

“It’s an incarnational ministry,” Mgr McFadden said. “Like Christ among us, with people, often on the fringes, and living among them 24/7 through suffering, joy and sorrow.

“It’s about mission: being sent out, like fellow comrades under orders, and bringing the transcendent values of the Kingdom of God through witness of life, prophetic word and the transforming celebration of the Sacraments to many who would otherwise never be touched by the Gospel and the authentic Catholic Faith.

“The ranklessness of a commissioned naval chaplain allows unique access within the forces’ community to all rates and ranks.”

Mgr McFadden has been a Royal Naval chaplain for more than two decades, and has served on ships, submarines, training colleges and naval bases. He is now principal chaplain from Admiralty House in Portsmouth and is continuing a family tradition by serving in the military.

“I was inspired to join up as a chaplain by my grandfather, who served in the navy at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, and by my late father, who completed his two years national service with the Royal Artillery at Aldershot, now the home of our Catholic Military Cathedral,” he said. “There he was greatly encouraged by the Catholic army chaplains and always spoke with great affection about their great pastoral ministry and care of many young people, who like him were away from home in an intensely disciplined environment, for the very first time.

“Curiously, as an altar server in my home parish of St Ninian’s, Gourock, I used to assist the parish priest, the late Canon Patrick Durcan, prepare the altar for the celebration of Mass.”

The chalice used each day, he said, was that of Fr Stephen Thornton, a decorated navy chaplain.

As Mgr McFadden explained, he was ­surprised to discover that the heroic Fr Thornton had been a priest of the then-vast Glasgow Archdiocese before he served at Gallipoli and the Somme.

He added: “Little did I imagine as I prepared that chalice, bequeathed by the family of Fr Thornton, that one day I would also serve as a chaplain in the Royal Navy. God’s ways are not our ways.

“I am reminded of a beautiful prayer in the ordination rite of priests, when the bishop presents a chalice to the newly-ordained: ‘imitare quod tractabis…’, literally ‘Imitate what you will handle. Model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s Cross.’”

This mystery, that sacrifice of the brave chaplains of the First World War, a story yet largely untold, is what is recorded in the new publication from Dr Hagerty.

“It is the fruit of many years’ research and is a real labour of love,” Mgr McFadden said. “As the centenary of the end of the war approaches, I can think of no more fitting and lasting tribute to those brave ‘Priests in Uniform’ whose legacy is still alive today.”

“So much in Dr Hagerty’s excellent book still resonates with serving chaplains and military personnel today,” he added. “Although the world has changed radically in the past century the human and spiritual needs of service personnel remain much the same, especially in time of war and on long periods of separation at sea, on duty.”

– Dr Hagerty has written and lectured extensively on Catholic military chaplaincy. He is co-author with Tom Johnstone of The Cross on the Sword: Catholic Chaplains in the Forces (published by Geoffrey Chapman) and co-author with Steven Parsons of Monks in the Military: Benedictine Chaplains in the British Armed Forces during the Twentieth Century (published by Downside Abbey Press).

His other works include Cardinal Hinsley: Priest and Patriot, Cardinal John Carmel Heenan: Priest of the People, Prince of the Church, and William Gordon Wheeler: A Journey into the Fullness of Faith (all published by Gracewing). Priests in Uniform, priced at £25, is published by Gracewing.



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