Operation Let the Fire Fall

In November 2007, George Misulia, a Catholic layman who lives in Mount Airy, Md., was lying in bed, recovering from fractured vertebrae suffered during a bad accident and wondering what he might do to support Catholics defending America in the armed services.

There are some 1.5 million Catholics in the armed forces of the United States today; their 300 chaplains are stretched very thin across a vast number of deployment areas and overseas bases. Some soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines go for months on end without seeing a chaplain or being able to participate fully in the sacramental life of the Church—often at moments of great spiritual vulnerability when their lives are on the line. Units that don’t have their chaplain are often served by lay leaders trained in what are called “Catholic Lay Services in the Absence of a Priest.” Bible studies and other forms of paraliturgical worship are also used when a chaplain is unavailable.

George Misulia couldn’t do much about the chaplain shortage—one result of the overall priest-shortage in the United States, but a particularly sad one. Still, he thought, he might be able to do something to enhance the worship of Catholics in the military by some judicious deployment of modern technology: “It occurred to me that an iPod, loaded with quality liturgical music, combined with a Bose portable SoundDock, could enrich Masses on ships, in the field, even in combat zones. By adding a Web site with downloadable music, lyrics and other inspirational material, we could provide a quality resource to support our heroic Catholic military personnel around the world, even in the most remote places.”

And so, with the help of a few friends, Operation Let the Fire Fall was born. The first “FireBox” unit was sent to Thule Air Force Base in Greenland in September 2008. Catholics at Thule see a priest perhaps twice a year. But with the FireBox equipment supplementing the “Catholic Lay Service,” the Catholics at Thule began gathering weekly for prayer. Since that modest beginning  at the top of the world, Operation Let the Fire Fall has deployed FireBox units and supporting materials around the world, to Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and other sites. Chaplains in all branches of the service have eagerly embraced Operation Let the Fire Fall, as have Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese of the Military Services and his predecessor, Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, now archbishop of Baltimore.

According to Mr. Misulia, the music chosen for the FireBox units is aimed at “supporting singing at Masses and a variety of Catholic lay prayer services in the absence of a priest.” The aim is not entertainment or diversion, but “prayerful participation,” and the music chosen includes both traditional hymns (happily ungelded by that great hymn-wrecker, “Alt.”) and newer compositions that are, as Mr. Misulia put it to me, “scripturally based, theologically sound, and ‘God-centered’ rather than ‘we-centered’… [including] communion hymns [that] focus on the Real Presence.” (One of the vicars general of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, who had best remain anonymous, made it clear that there were limits to his sense of musical ecumenism: “If I hear ‘Gather Us In’ one more time I’m going to jump out a window.” May his tribe increase!)

Operation Let the Fire Fall cannot substitute for an increase in the chaplain corps, and doesn’t pretend to do so. Its aims are modest, but nonetheless important for their modesty: given the circumstances we’ve got, which dictate that Catholics in the armed services are often deprived of a normal sacramental life, sometimes for months on end, it ought to be possible to enhance the opportunities for regular worship that can be created, both by overstretched chaplains and dedicated lay leaders. And if Operation Let the Fire Fall does that, it may help bring out of the service a rich harvest of priestly vocations, which could then reinforce the chaplain corps.

Want to know more? Go to Operation Let the Fire Fall’s Web site, www.oltff.com. It’s a project worth learning about, following and supporting.

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.