A call to serve

Father Greg Lesher doesn’t want to just serve the people of St. Thomas More parish; he also wants to serve sailors on battleships out to sea.

Father Lesher was ordained a priest in May 2015, and he is also currently ranked as a lieutenant junior grade in the Navy. After fulfilling his service at St. Thomas More, he will go active duty and serve as a full-fledged Catholic chaplain in the Navy.

Father Lesher has had an interest in the military since high school, where he participated in the JROTC program at Romeoville High School in Chicago.  Before college, Father Lesher sought to apply for the ROTC scholarship and join the Marines. However, a history of asthma disqualified him from this, so he decided to go with his back-up plan. He moved to Denver and studied Security Analysis in the International Studies program at the University of Denver.

A trip to South Africa with DU’s study abroad program ignited in him a strong desire to serve others, so he changed his concentration to International Development in hopes of doing disaster relief and humanitarian work, which is what he ended up getting his master’s degree in.

During this time, Father Lesher was also wrestling with God about becoming a priest. He attended a Holy Thursday mass at Evans Chapel at DU during which Father Leo Weber asked those in attendance to pray for an increase in vocations to the priesthood and gave a homily about how priests are servants.

“To know your vocation is a beautiful thing,” Father Lesher said. “I already knew I wanted to be a servant, and I had been surprised in the homily that Father Weber had described priests as servants. I hadn’t really thought of priests in that way.”

After a long battle with God, Father Lesher reluctantly entered the seminary. One day while at lunch, he was surprised to find military recruiters there to talk about military chaplaincy, which he’d never considered before.

“When I saw the military recruiters, my whole life came back into focus,” Father Lesher said. “The military came back into focus, the international security came back into focus, even the development work. I suddenly realized that God hadn’t been saying ‘no’ to me, but rather he had been saying, ‘not in the way you’re thinking about it.'”

It was a beautiful summary of his life up to that point, he said, and he felt compelled to pursue the chaplaincy.

There’s an extreme shortage of Catholic chaplains in the military. Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the Archdiocese of Military Services recently appealed for more Catholic priests to serve as chaplains in the military at the U.S bishops’ general assembly in Baltimore.

“It is not easy to ask you to sacrifice a young, physically fit priest to care for that portion of your flock that is out-of-sight and under my care as long as they are active duty, but the dire situation leaves me few other viable options,” Archbishop Broglio said.

One fourth of military personnel and their families – roughly one million people – identify as Catholic, but there are only 217 Catholic priests serving in the Military Archdiocese, he said.

“We’ve got all of these Catholics in the military, but only 10% of the chaplains are Catholic,” Father Lesher said. “When you’re with the Navy and you’re out to sea, there’s either a Catholic priest with you, or there’s not. There is no local parish in the middle of the ocean.”

As a chaplain, Father Lesher is there to not only serve the Catholics, but all the troops. He’ll perform Catholic-exclusive practices such as saying mass and hearing confessions for the Catholics, but another part of his job is facilitating religious resources for everybody, which includes making sure people of different faith backgrounds are directed to their appropriate chaplain.

Another important role Father Lesher will play is serving as an advisor to the command and being a moral voice of reason. He has direct access to the higher officers, and in addition to caring and providing for them, they’ll look to Father Lesher to gauge the overall morale of their unit.

“The chaplain is usually the one who has the best pulse of the morale of the people you’re with,” he said.

While in chaplaincy training school, Father Lesher also realized there is a great opportunity to grow and foster ecumenical cooperation as a chaplain. He’ll be constantly surrounded by people of all faith backgrounds, including different denominations of Christianity, but they’ll be sharing a common mission of caring for the troops, which he said is an ideal environment to break down those barriers and recognize the opportunities for working towards a greater unity.

“You’ve got to figure out a way to work with each other as well as just having those opportunities to share life and talk about what you believe,” he said. “[In doing so], you realize you actually really are much closer together than was once realized.”

Most of the troops Father Lesher will be working with are in the 17-22 age group. These young men and women are immersed in one of the most stressful and dangerous environments one can be in, and it’s this fact that motivates Father Lesher to be a chaplain.

“It really tugs at my heart when I find that [the troops] have such little access to Catholic priests who will hear their confession as they’re about to go off and risk death,” he said. “It’s incredibly important that we have that priestly presence, not only because of the stress but because of the danger that’s inherent in their life. [I’ll] get to be a voice of peace and comfort and healing and love in the midst of all of that.”

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.