Page 7, 30th June 1989

30th June 1989
Page 7
Page 7, 30th June 1989 — Parsons pleasure on the Rhine

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Locations: Belfast, Dusseldorf


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Parsons pleasure on the Rhine

Church and its Chaplains

THE MAN was dead, said the captain. He might have lived, given the right treatment, but the padre hadn't remembered what the right treatment was, had he? He'd forgotten to secure the injured man's wound with a bandage the way he'd been shown at the first aid briefing the day before, and now blood and guts were spewing out everywhere.

All the same, the padre wasn't giving up. He loaded his "casualty" onto a stretcher and helped carry him down the road to a first aid tent. "That's the thing you really notice on these chaplains' exercises," said the captain as the padre hurried off. "They're really keen, they really try hard, and they really do care."

It was day three of the weeklong "Parsons' Pleasure", a biennial survival skills course run by the British Army of the Rhine for its chaplains serving in Germany, and under a scorching sun the pressure was beginning to show. "They always pray for good weather for this exercise," said a corporal wryly. "Looks like they've prayed too hard this time."

Further along the dirt-track Fr Sean Scanlon wiped the sweat from his brow and shouted words of encouragement to fatigue-suited fellow-chaplains who were busily transferring the contents of one huge army truck

• 'onto another. "We've been told one of these trucks has broken down, and it's vital that we transfer the essential supplies it was carrying onto the other so they reach the base," he explained.

One of the containers lurched dangerously, accompanied by some fairly choice expletives from the soldiers watching the chaplains at work. "You can't be easily shocked in this game," said Mgr Joe Mallon, the burly Irishman who is principal Catholic chaplain to the British Army. "It's important to be open-minded." To prove the point the captain told a rude joke, its punch-line greeted by gales of laughter from the assembled chaplains.

Fr Scanlon, meanwhile, had successfully completed his task and was off to his next assignment driving a Land Rover across an exceptionally tricky cross-country course. He

had already this morning learnt how to survive gas, chemical and nuclear attacks, and had also become au fait with the workings of a field radio. That was important, the captain explained, because in the event of a radio operator being killed or injured the padre might be the only person available to get an urgent message through. Chaplains don't carry guns, but when the chips are down they'll do what they can to ensure their side wins the battle.

The exercise all seemed a bit of a Boys' Own adventure day, but no-one appeared to be taking the proceedings lightly. The Revd Adrian Bunnell, an Anglican chaplain based at Krefeld near Dusseldorf, thought it was all very serious indeed. "You've got to believe that, because one day it might not be a game any more. You might get into one of these situations in Northern Ireland. As far as I'm concerned we're real soldiers, and we've got to be professional and prepared for the day the army goes to war." Fr Scanlon, a small, toughlooking man, was proud of his success at the Parsons' Pleasure two years ago. He'd been named chaplain of the exercise, a sort of ecclesiastical equivalent of man of the match. "It means I'm the one the men said they'd most like to have with them in a battle," he explained.

Fr Scanlon said he thought he was a natural soldier, though he'd never thought of joining the army until the Archbishop of Southwark phoned him up three years ago, out of the blue, to ask if he'd be interested. "I used to sit at the feet of Bruce Kent, but I said I'd think about it and decided, in the end, to give it a go." Now he knew it was the life for him. "A lot of chaplains don't really enjoy the training side of it, but I love it all. I'm keen on sports, which helps a lot." Back in the field HQ, over a cool drink in the bar tent, Lt Col Paul Evans, commanding officer of the 3rd Armoured Division Transport Regiment and the man in charge of the chaplains' exercise, explained its purpose. "The padres do spend a month at Sandhurst when they first join, but it's important to keep them up to date. This exercise a challenge for them, a chance to make them aware of what they might have to face in war. It's to show them they might come across the most extraordinary situations."

Away from the exercise ground, things are rarely extraordinary for the chaplains of the Rhine. "Much of our job is routine parish work," explains Mgr Mallon. "We visit families, we celebrate Masses, we attend meetings, just as any priest at home would." The difference is that the army parishioners aren't the wide array of people they'd encounter back in Britain, but a fairly narrow band of young men and young families (a quarter of the army population in Germany is under 15, and about another 30 per cent aged 19 24). There are no elderly, very few sick and virtually no poor people on army bases.

They have their problems, all the same. "There's a lot of loneliness in the forces particularly among single soldiers, and among army wives," says Fr Terry Makings, a former jeweller from the Midlands who was ordained at the age of 30 and joined the army eight years ago after finding life as a curate too limiting. "Many of the wives have never been abroad before, and then they marry a soldier and suddenly find themselves out in Germany, isolated from their family and friends."

Now based at Soest near Duisberg, he tries to get parish groups organised to provide a support system. But it's not always easy army parishioners are a transient breed, so there aren't the long-established stalwarts to organise things.

Then there's the fact that Massgoing itself isn't high on many soldiers' priority lists, let alone getting further involved with the Church.

Sometimes lonely army wives turn to one of the seven religious sisters sent out to Germany since 1979 to help the chaplains. "Lots of the women on army bases are desperate for someone to talk to," says Sr Christina, a Sister of St Joseph of Bordeaux who came out to Paderborn three years ago. "They often feel very isolated."

But it was the soldiers' children the sisters were originally drafted out to help with, and their main work remains in the army's non

denominational schools. "Religious education for Catholic youngsters was minimal before we came," says Sr Patrick, a La Sainte Union sister who arrived in 1980. "Now we run special RE lessons, and have separate assemblies."

The sisters have honorary membership of the officers' mess at their bases, while the priests are salaried, commissioned officers, going in at the rank of captain and rising, potentially, to the status of full colonel. They wear barrack dress uniform (green trousers and a black pullover), though two small crosses on their shirt collar give away their true vocation. "They know I'm not a real colonel," says Mgr Mallon as two officers stand to attention as his car pulls away, "but it does make a difference. Rank is very important in the army because of mine, I get a Granada and a corporal to drive me, instead of a Cavalier and a private."

He agrees that the life of an army chaplain can be a plesant one, with an attractive salary, comfortable accommodation, opportunities for travel, lots of independence. But then any priest, he points out, is only as busy as he chooses to be. And he doesn't believe it would be possible to do the job as a civilian: "It's very important to be in the army to do this work properly. The army is a big family, and it's essential to be part of it."

There's quite a lot of "them" and "us" between the Catholic priests and their fellow chaplains from other denominations. The army is basically a Church of England institution (even the word Padre has Protestant overtones, and no Catholic chaplain uses it), and the priests and their faithful few often have to fight their corner. Ecumenism (like most other advances of the last 20 years) is barely evident in

the army, though lip-service is paid to it with Catholic priests sometimes invited along to what are essentially Anglican services. There's a strong feeling that being a Catholic isn't properly catered for or understood: it's a case of clashing tribes, and the army instinct is that loyalty to itself comes first.

It certainly seems to work that way in practice. Catholics who fought in the Falklands say they had to forget the enemy soldiers were their brothers in faith (difficult, as the Argentinians fought with rosaries round their necks and holy cards sellotaped to their guns). "You've got to separate religion from your job. We couldn't have coped otherwise," explains one.

It's the same, he points out, in Northern Ireland the "enemy" there is Catholic, too. Doesn't that situation pose problems for the chaplains who serve in the province? "I think everyone in Northern Ireland respects the fact that soldiers should have priests, though you certainly couldn't walk into any parish in Belfast and ask the priest to say Mass at the baracks for you," says Fr Makings. Other chaplains, men from southern Ireland, admit their work in the north has been hard for friends and relatives back home to accept.

No-one, though, has any problems justifying his role as a member of an armed force. "lf this were an army of aggression it would be very different: I don't think we could remain in it any longer. But it's an army of defence: everyone has the right to defend himself, and the army is just an extension of that right," says Fr Makings. He sees no difficulty with nuclear weapons, either; "They are a deterrent. It would be abhorrent to actually use them, certainly, but if they were taken away we'd just be wide've got to be sophisticated about it."

Mgr Mallon is even more forthright. "Being a soldier is an honourable profession," he says firmly. "We're maintaining the peace. And blessed are the peacemakers."

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