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.”