Answering God’s call to action
If you ask Lt. Col. James Ludwikoski why he became a priest, his answer will be simple: “Because I love God and I love people, and that’s a great way to put the two together.”
Father Ludwikoski was ordained for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas in 1973. Since he felt from the start that God was calling him to be a military chaplain, he served as a parish priest for only the three years required to become a chaplain, then requested that the archbishop release him to the Archdiocese for the Military Services, United States of America. In 1980, his request was finally granted, and Father Ludwikoski was given permission, as he likes to say, “to serve Kansans all over the world.”
Priests released to the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services choose their branch of service: Army, Navy or Air Force. They’re considered “direct commission” and so, like lawyers and medics, they have a shorter, different kind of orientation.
“We’re older, and already professionals, with master’s degrees,” explained Chaplain Ludwikoski, “so we don’t do all the marching and that kind of stuff. They figure we have some personal discipline already. ”
Father Ludwikoski spent his first year and a half as a reserve chaplain at Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base outside Kansas City, Mo. He became an active duty chaplain in October 1981.
An exciting life
Father Ludwikoski describes the life of a chaplain as dynamic and challenging, with tremendous opportunities to travel, see new things, and serve people all around the world.
“Every day is new for a priest,” he said. “For a chaplain, every day is new, but you may be in Kuwait one day and Colorado the next — literally!”
In 25 years, he’s had 14 assignments (a tour of duty at an Air Force base) and four deployments (serving troops in a combat area).
“I love every base for its locale and its specialties,” said Father Ludwikoski after recounting a walk he took under the glaciers in Iceland. “And I’ve learned things I never ever thought I would know: I never thought I would know how to drive the rings of Kuwait City and go through oil fields that are on fire, and yet I can do that. ”
Chaplain Ludwikoski currently is serving at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, where he is pastor of Our Lady of Peace Catholic Community. Goodfellow specializes in intelligence, firefighting, and special instrument training, and graduates 10,000 students a year.
Now a lieutenant colonel, the chaplain is also in charge of the whole religious program for the wing commander, responsible for providing spiritual opportunities for faiths as varied as Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Islam, Buddhist and Bahai.
“I not only celebrate Catholic Masses, but, at times, I may have to assist my Protestant chaplains with their services. And I get lay leaders or civilian ministers/ rabbis/imams to lead services of other faiths,” he explained. “Anyone on the base who has a religious need, I help provide the service for them. ”
Assignment and deployment
While on assignment, Father Ludwikoski’s time is divided between his religious and administrative responsibilities. Just as he is responsible for religious programs like marriage preparation, religious education and worship services, he also has to fulfill various military functions and assist with different programs. While on an assignment, his time is also filled with constant training so as to keep current in areas like nuclear, biological and chemical training; readiness and buddy care training; force protection; and LOAC (Law of Armed Conflict) training.
During deployment, Chaplain Ludwikoski said the focus shifts to “getting the planes off the ground to do their mission wherever they’re going; protecting our airmen, soldiers, sailors, and Marines; and protecting the people of that country from insurgents. ”
While deployed, a chaplain’s job becomes a ministry of presence, said Father Ludwikoski, and the focus of counseling is often on issues like separation and loneliness, and, of course, the trauma of war.
Deployment to Qatar
During his recent deployment, Chaplain Ludwikoski was stationed in Qatar. It was a return visit to a base he had helped set up about a month after the 9/11 attack. Qatar is now the biggest base in that area of the world and serves as the hub for those deployed in Iraq. Many troops, therefore, transition through there.
“They jump from their forward bases to our base and then from our base back to the United States, ” Father Ludwikoski explained. “We were finding troops coming back who were at very active locations. By ‘active’ I mean [they experienced] incoming shrapnel and missiles. Increasingly, we found troops coming in and dealing with the shock and the symptoms of war. ”
Even when airmen, soldiers, sailors, and Marines did not seek out help for themselves, Father Ludwikoski sent chaplains into the transition tents to help out where they could.
“We were trying to do a kind of debrief and assist for post- traumatic syndrome personnel as they transitioned through,” he explained. “Fear and anxiety are a normal part of war; we military members know it, and we deal with it. ”
Chaplain Ludwikoski said that’s why it’s important to have a support system, and one of the reasons why the chaplains — regardless of their different religious affiliations — grow so close.
“To me it is one of the most incredible experiences in the world — that ministers of all faiths and within faiths are all getting along and serving in a direct mission in a religious dimension that is cooperative, ” he said. “And it’s great to have minister friends of all faiths. We have fabulous discussions.”
A need for vocations
Father Brian Schieber, vocations director for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, admires the work Chaplain Ludwikoski has done and is keenly aware of how important chaplains are, especially in a time of war.
“I think during a time of war you’re dealing with people who sometimes have spiritual awakenings or conversions,” he said, “and there’s a great need for priests to minister to those people.”
Unfortunately, the military, like most U.S. dioceses, does not have enough priests to meet its needs. According to Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Estabrook of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, in the past five years, for example, the Navy has retired 30 priests a year and has gained only two or three priests each year to replace them.
“The archbishop of the military always pleads with us to send more priests to the military, ” said Father Schieber. “The problem is, fewer and fewer bishops are agreeing to because that would create a hole in their diocese. ”
Bishop Estabrook believes all bishops should look at the military as an extension of their own diocese. Because the military holds the single largest group of young adult Catholics in this country — 27 percent of the Army and Navy, 35 percent of Marines, and 50 percent of all officers are Catholic — he believes each diocese has an obligation to see that the military has priests.
“Every bishop in the United States,” he said, “should ask himself: When I send people from my good Catholic families into the military, what am I doing to make sure they come back as good Catholics? ”
Bishop Estabrook also cautioned that often, when Catholic military chaplains aren ’t available, people who don’t support Catholicism are stepping in to counsel airmen, soldiers, sailors, and Marines. Instead of helping, they actual wind up increasing the serviceman ’s anxiety by causing him to question his Catholic beliefs.
To combat this problem, Bishop Estabrook has started a “Catholics Seeking Christ” initiative, training young military people to witness to their faith as a peer minister. So far, he has about 90 young people trained.
The U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, has also begun holding discernment retreats for active duty enlisted men who are interested in the priesthood. The first one was held last year on the East Coast and 54 young adults showed up. The second, held a month ago in the San Francisco Archdiocese, had 33 young men in attendance.
“They were from every part of the Navy, Air Force, and Army,” Bishop Estabrook said. “And they were very interested. I would say 95 percent felt pretty sure they wanted to go into the priesthood. ”
An asset to the home diocese
Finally, said Bishop Estabrook, a military chaplain’s broad experience eventually benefits his home diocese.
Since all Catholic military chaplains are on loan from their original diocese or religious order, they will eventually return to that diocese or order when they retire from the military.
And they’ll bring with them a wealth of experience.
“You bring an awful lot back to your diocese,” he said.
“I’ve had experiences all over the world. I’ve been all through Europe; I’ve lived in Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, and Japan,” he added. “When I came back, I brought a new awareness and dimension to my sermons and the way I operate. ”
Father Ludwikoski agreed, and looks forward to retiring from the military in a few years and returning to the archdiocese to minister to Kansans at home. In the meantime, he encourages any young men looking for a life of adventure to consider becoming a priest.
“Become the best priest you can,” he counseled, “and then offer yourself to the military service. We need you badly, but what’s more important is that it’s what you think God is calling you to. It’s both a choice and a response to God’s call.”