Fr. Vince Kuna, C.S.C., continues his diary of blog post from our Holy Cross parish in Colorado Springs. Today he shares a powerful story that is illustrative of how our Holy Cross priests in parishes really serve on the front lines in the Church today.
God has a way of bringing me back to the reality of the ministry he has called me to. More often than not, God does so in abrupt ways.
In late August, I spent a week vacationing in my hometown of Naperville. Final vows of my good friend, now Deacon Paul Ybarra,C.S.C., punctuated a week of catching up with family and brothers in Holy Cross. Fine spirits were imbibed. Cigars smoked. Tasty food devoured. Hours before I flew back to Colorado Springs this frivolity ceased when I received a cell phone call from my pastor, Fr. Bob Epping, C.S.C. He asked: "Vince, do you know a Captain Schilling from Fort Carson?" I tried to ask why he was calling but circumstances were such that the captain couldn't divulge too much information."
Still reveling in the hilarity of the weekend, I sarcastically replied: "Bob, unless the Army extends its jurisdiction to the city of Colorado Springs and now enforces speeding limits, the Army has nothing on me." "Very funny," Bob said, obviously not amused. "Would you please call the Captain and find out why he was calling?"
I immediately returned the Captain's call and his first words brought home a sobering reality: A staff sergeant Matthew West was killed in Afghanistan and he listed my name as the priest to accompany the notification officers to the house of the primary kin (in this case, the widow). I paused for a long while in disbelief. "Sir, are you still there?" the captain probed. "Yes." I replied running my hands through my hair, "I know Sgt. West. I just baptized his three kids at one of our mission parishes a month ago."
I was still left speechless at the news, and so the captain wrapped up the brief phone conversation: "We sent a priest from the base with the notification team since you were out of town. A casualty assistance officer will visit the widow tomorrow. We're flying her out to Delaware in the evening for the reception of the body. She'll be in contact with you sometime during the week."
After the phone conversation ended, for some reason I thought of films as I tried to process this information. The moment seemed surreal enough to simulate my presence in a movie. I remembered a scene from Saving Private Ryan where the mother of the Ryan family receives the news that three of her sons had died overseas. Before the notification officer can utter a word, she kneels on the front porch, knowing innately what the news will entail. A chaplain runs out to comfort her in her grief. I thought to myself, "I hope I could have been that chaplain to the widow had I been in town that day," because nothing prepares you for such a moment in ministry. No words of comfort can even assuage a person's initial sorrow in such a circumstance. But I hoped I could have provided some comfort by my silent presence at her side.
I also thought of the movie, The Hurt Locker. In our conversations during baptismal preparation, I learned Sgt. West served as an explosive device disarmer. Yes, that soldier who dressed up in an overinflated spacesuit and disarmed explosives while fellow soldiers observed the tense moments from outside a safe perimeter.
Fittingly, a couple of other funerals came in during the week and kept my mind occupied with ministry. So it was not until the next Sunday, when the West family and friends came to Mass did I see them. In the meeting and greeting following Mass, I hugged the widow and the three kids. She initiated the conversation, telling me she was surprised my name was listed as the priest to accompany the notification officers. For Sgt. West, even having been confirmed a Catholic, had never listed a religious preference, let alone the specific name of a Catholic priest since entering the military. A loss of faith, by what he had seen overseas? Perhaps. But the widow said I made such an impression on him, that he recorded my name on the notification list. A listed name that she took as the first sign of faith in many years. A first step back to Jesus Christ and His church. I've never been so humbled in my life and assured the widow it was more the work of Christ through me.
My gaze met the three little children, all smiles and too young to really comprehend what happened to their father. In a long week of not knowing what to say, I knew exactly what I would say to them on their occasion of reaching an age of reason: "Your last name is West. Your father's name was Sgt. Matthew West. His name represented a profession of sacrifice. And he believed in his profession enough to give over his very life to protect his fellow soldiers. By listing my name, he offered his first sign of faith in a long while. Honor your father by wearing the West name as if it were a frequent sign of the cross…a last name that is for you, a sign of faith."