When I entered service as a priest in the Diocese of Camden in 2007, little did I know that part of my ministry would be to veterans and military personnel. God seems to always have the last say: in high school I had seriously considered entering the Navy, but decided, in the end, to enter the seminary. Twenty-five years later, as I was making a transition in my priestly life, I again seriously thought about entering the Navy — this time as a chaplain. In the end, God would have the last say as, through the guidance of Bishop Joseph Galante, I entered service in the Diocese of Camden. Yet God, in his infinite wisdom, would lead me as a diocesan priest to serve veterans and service members.
Every year, since 2008, I have been asked to participate in prayer services or Masses commemorating our fallen heroes on Memorial Day or honoring our Veterans on Veterans Day (Nov. 11). In 2010, upon the urging of a layman, I began celebrating a monthly Mass at the Veterans Home in Vineland, and continue to do so.
While pastor at Saint Bridget University Parish in Glassboro, I began two years of volunteer service at the USO at the Philadelphia International Airport, and in 2015 I joined the local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 679 as part of the Unit 679 of the Sons of the VFW.
As pastor of the Parish of the Holy Cross in Bridgeton, I encountered the local Catholic War Veterans (CWV) Post 1578 (Immaculate Conception Memorial) and became an auxiliary member and chaplain to the Post last year. Personally, this was satisfying since my grandfather, a World War I veteran, was a member of the CWV in South Philadelphia.
Surprisingly and sadly, this Post is the only active Post in the entire Diocese of Camden! In fact, it is the only Post south of Trenton. Since becoming chaplain, it has been my goal to serve the pastoral needs of members and to recruit new members. Any Catholic in good standing who is a veteran or is on active duty or in the Reserves is welcome to join our Post.
Finally, my love for history has led me to two American heroes — Father Emil Kapaun, an Army chaplain from Kansas, and Father Vincent Capodanno, a Maryknoll missionary from Staten Island, who served as chaplain to the Marines in Vietnam. Both “gave the last full measure of devotion” to their men, dying while serving them. Both have been honored posthumously with the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest military honor for valor. Their life and works are being investigated in consideration for official recognition by the church as saints.
None of these experiences were a part of my official duties as a diocesan priest. Yet, the Holy Spirit has led me to opportunities of ministry and grace to serve those who serve our nation.
Serving our service men and women and veterans as a priest is not only an expression of patriotism, but a way of being a shepherd to a special population among us. Most of the priests in our diocese, in one capacity or another, serve our veterans and military personnel: as parish priests, chaplains in hospitals and nursing homes, assisting at local military installations, or even ministering to veterans in prisons or jails. Some of our priests are veterans themselves and might have served as chaplains in the Armed Services. Many of us priests are children of, or siblings and uncles to veterans or service members. Serving our military personnel and veterans is not a matter of politics; it is a matter of love in service to those who have served our nation, perhaps at great personal cost.
If, as church, we serve and honor our service members and veterans with special care, we might repay them a bit for their sacrifice or even bring to those who are still suffering a bit of healing and light.
Father Matthew R. Weber is pastor of Holy Cross Parish, Bridgeton.