By Sam Donnellon
For Retired Admiral William J. Fallon, the Annual Pilgrimage for the Sea Services at The National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton is not just a labor of love for himself.
It’s also a labor of love for family — his Navy and broader Sea Services family that is suffering from a critical shortage of Catholic Chaplains while in Service to our country.
Fallon, Chair of the Pilgrimage Sponsoring Committee at the Seton Shrine, recently recalled the time his son, a Naval Aviator who was deploying to Iraq on an aircraft carrier, called him to say there was no priest assigned to serve the nearly 8,000 sailors on the ships preparing to deploy.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.’” Fallon recalled telling his son. “So, I immediately called the CNO, the head of the Navy, who happened to be a Catholic. They quickly reassigned a priest to get out there as the ships were leaving. But it illustrates the problem. They just don’t have enough priests.”
The annual Pilgrimage for the Sea Services took place Oct. 3 in the Basilica at the Seton Shrine in Emmitsburg, Md. At the Mass, people from across the country came together to pray for members of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Coast Guard, Merchant Marines and Public Health Services and to join family and friends in prayer to thank St. Elizabeth Ann Seton for her protection and ask for her continued intercession.
As the Patroness of the Sea Services, Mother Seton, whose two sons served in the Navy, has a strong connection to those who spend their lives at sea – men and women who need both her intercessions and the pastoral care of chaplains more than ever.
Catholic chaplains in the military have dwindled to a little over 200 today. Hardest hit has been the Navy, which has only 41 active Catholic priests for its roughly 120,000 Catholic sailors and Marines.
Fallon served in the Navy for more than 40 years, retiring in 2008 as a four-star admiral. His final assignment was as Commander, U.S. Central Command, with responsibility for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007-8. He recently discussed his involvement with the Pilgrimage and his devotion to Mother Seton.
How did you get involved with this work at the Seton Shrine?
I was aware for many years that the pilgrimage existed, attending a couple of times while on active duty, and saw what a good thing it was. Once during the 70’s when I was on a commercial aircraft flight from Norfolk to Washington and climbing into my seat, I noticed that my seatmate was a Catholic Priest. I was in uniform, we introduced ourselves and he identified himself as Rear Admiral John O’Connor, the Navy Chief of Chaplains at that point (later Cardinal Archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York). While Chief of Chaplains, he advocated for Mother Seton to be designated as Patroness of the Sea Services, collaborating with the late Admiral Jim Watkins, who was Chief of Navy Personnel at the time, to start the Pilgrimage. Admiral Watkins got me to come up to the Pilgrimage after I retired and then talked me into relieving him as Chair of the Sponsoring Committee. That was about 10 years ago.
How do we get more priests involved as chaplains?
As the head of the sponsoring committee and a retired Naval Officer, I make it a point to talk this up with the hierarchy of the Church. Almost all the military chaplains come from dioceses around the country. The Archdiocese for the Military Services works to convince the bishops into springing them, letting them come into the military, knowing that they are shorthanded too.
One of the things that we keep telling the bishops, is that one of your great sources of new priests is in the Armed Forces. Those who have been on active duty and end up having a vocation, generally turn out to be very good priests. They know the deal. They’ve been around. They know how the world works. They’re really effective.
What has been encouraging lately is the Archdiocese for The Military Services has been raising money and putting it to work to co-sponsor seminarians. They are asked to sign up and commit to service as military chaplains once they are ordained and do their time in their local dioceses. What has been occurring is that bishops first get three years of work out of them, which is fine because they need the experience, and then they come to the Services.
That’s been really helpful. I think there are more than 50 seminarians right now who are earmarked to come into all the Services. It’s a step in the right direction.
Were priests important over the arc of your career?
Oh, for sure. And there used to be lots more of them.
It’s really necessary. In my experience in Vietnam, we were young and nervous and happy that priests were there to help us. Even when I was leading my Air Wing into the Gulf War, twenty some years later, my men were grateful to have a Catholic chaplain with us.
Having a good chaplain on that ship, I can tell you, was very helpful in putting them at ease. (The chaplain told them) there is a higher meaning here. Put your trust in God and go for it. It was helpful to get guys to calm down.
During the Vietnam War, we had a priest who ended up saving several Sailor’s lives on the USS Saratoga when there was an awful fire in the engine room. He led the charge into those spaces to try to rescue people. Three Sailors died, but he saved a couple guys. He was injured but didn’t hesitate and brought them out.
And of course, there was Father Vincent Capodanno, a Maryknoll missionary who came into the Navy as a chaplain during the Vietnam War and was killed in a battle in 1967 for which he received the Congressional Medal of Honor for exceptional bravery. He had a terrific reputation amongst the Marines. They loved him and called him the “Grunt Padre.”
He was killed on the battlefield ministering to some Marines who perished and others that he helped to save. He gave last rites to those who didn’t make it. Although he himself had been wounded several times, he refused to leave the battlefield, and was finally killed as he tried to shield a wounded Marine with his own body. He is now a candidate for Sainthood.
What draws you close to Mother Seton?
She understood what our Sea Service people and our families do and go through. By her prayers and example, she tried to help her sons in Service to the Nation to be better people. She was a model, an example, certainly for me. And today, people can look to her, and they won’t see some abstract thing. She was a real person who was close to God who helped others and her own family in the Sea Services.
Any memorable stories from the Pilgrimage event?
Each year, we invite the Naval Academy Catholic choir to join us and sing at the Mass. And they usually come over in large numbers. Some years ago, I was having dinner after Mass at a table in the Sisters’ refectory with a couple and their kids. We introduced ourselves. It turned out that the father was in the Navy, and he had met his wife while on a Sea Services Pilgrimage. He was singing that year with the Naval Academy choir. She was attending the Pilgrimage with her parents, and they met at the post-Mass dinner. So here they were now, a family, with children and still attending. That one stuck with me.