The role of military chaplain has a long history. According to historian Michael Gladwin, in his book Captains of the Soul (2013), it might even reach back to before the time of Christ when Assyrian religious figures became functionaries within the armed forces.

The Christian take on the role is thought to have begun with St Martin of Tours (AD 316-97), who became an incredibly popular saint throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. The story of St Martin, who was a soldier, involves him using his sword to cut his own cape in half in order to clothe a beggar at Amiens. This cape was preserved as a relic in a chapel and also taken into battle by Frankish kings. The priests who were custodians of that cape became known as “chaplains” (from the Latin word capellanus, referring to the “little cape” of St Martin).

Today, the reality of chaplaincy has evolved dramatically, but few people know what’s involved. Is it simply a posting, or is it a calling? Do you have to be a member of the military in order to do it? And what is it like ministering to military men and women in comparison with the average Australian parish? Monsignor Stuart Hall is Parish Priest at Holy Eucharist and St Mary’s Parish, Malvern East, and prior to his appointment there in 2017, he spent 25 years in the military, 22 of which was as a Navy Chaplain. He kindly joined Melbourne Catholic to give us insight into the experiences of military chaplaincy.

Not your average “parish”

For Mons. Hall, becoming a Navy Chaplain was an unexpected development, occurring only a few years after his ordination to the priesthood in 1987. His service saw him shuffled around Australia – from WA to Cairns to Sydney to Melbourne and back again – and also overseas. One of his postings was on the HMAS Anzac, the lead ship of Australia’s eight Anzac Class frigates, which took him to the Persian Gulf in the early 2000s. He also saw two deployments to East Timor. In Sydney he became Fleet Command Chaplain, and in 2011 was appointed Director General of Navy Chaplains, a position overseeing Navy Chaplains across Australia from a wide range of faith traditions.

In some sense, adopting the role of Navy Chaplain was a “posting” like any other. Under the late Archbishop Frank Little they were looking for full-time chaplains to serve at the Melbourne Port Division and Mons. Hall’s name was put forward.

Was it a calling? I don’t think so . . . I saw a need and the Church was calling for people to help out with this particular mission of the Church.’

Although it’s not strictly required to serve in the military prior to becoming a chaplain, Mons. Hall said that this was the preference at the time, so he entered the Melbourne Port Division as a reservist for three years to get a feel for things before finally agreeing to the posting. Serving beforehand is a great opportunity for everyone to size each other up, he said: ‘They look at you, you look at them.’ Authenticity is key in the military: ‘Defense people “smell the rat” . . . They’re really attuned to who’s faking it.’

Serving in the Military Diocese is quite a different experience from serving the parochial parish, not only in terms of the mix of people but the way you can speak to them.

‘The chaplain is the person who reads it as it is,’ Mons. Hall said, ‘who can be pretty forthright with the person . . . Sometimes people just want an honest conversation. If you’ve stuffed up, you’ve stuffed up and these are the consequences of what you’ve done . . .

You can be a bit more forthright in language with military people than you can in parish ministry . . . It’s a more honest language.’

While parishes tend to be a congregation of like-minded people, in the military you encounter a wide array of people, young and old, who have a range of life experiences. In fact, among young people especially, there was little connection to the idea of a faith tradition at all, Mons. Hall explains. When asked about religious affiliation in surveys for instance, they were mostly inclined to tick “NR” (“no religion”). In an attempt to get people to think more deeply about this question, Mons. Hall would ask them:

If you were to die tomorrow, who would you want to knock on your parents’ or grandparents’ door to tell them? What is their faith tradition? What is their spiritual support?’

The point was to think a bit more generationally about the question of religion, instead of simply in terms of individual preferences.

Chaplaincy as “pre-evangelisation”

In this sense, Mons. Hall said that for him military chaplaincy was a matter of ‘pre-evangelisation’. ‘The longer I stayed in the Navy, I noticed a lot of the generation of young people had no experience of Church,’ he said. ‘What they saw of Church was on TV, or it was just a very limited notion of what religion was about. They had no faith background, even if they went to Catholic school.’

The main job of the military chaplain, Mons. Hall says, is to ‘enter into the military space to serve primarily the men and women who belong to the Catholic Church and their families, and provide a sacramental presence as much as we can.’ Outside of that, the work of a military chaplain is a relatively humble one, concerned more with walking with people and providing an ‘incarnational presence’ for military personnel:

A lot of it is about walking with that person, if they wanted you to, to sit with them and experience that discomfort, that frustration, and the anxiety that distance causes . . .’

Conversions are not ‘firework events’, he said. ‘They’re just normal, human encounters, where you enter into their story . . . And then we move on. Chaplains move on, get posted elsewhere, and they move on too . . . But it’s usually in a very quiet way that you enter people’s lives.’

On the ships, life was often routine. But that was the case for the whole crew, not just the chaplains. At sea Mons. Hall would spend his days doing odd jobs that needed to be done, and positioning himself so that he could be amongst the people and talk to them. Often this involved simply helping out in the galley with the cooks, placing himself in direct contact with the ship’s personnel as they ate. Depending on what people were asking for, his work might also involve administering the sacraments or leading Bible studies or prayer groups.

There’s this romantic notion that it’s all adventure, but like any job, whether at sea or on land, there’s a lot of mundane, routine things that happen.’

The important thing was for the chaplain to be seen as part of the crew: During “ship company” activities (involving everyone), like clearing the garbage, Mons. Hall made sure to get his hands dirty too. The bond of being part of the ship’s company was essential, he says.

During his deployment to East Timor, he would also do his best to get the Australian Defence Force personnel to use their downtime to connect with local communities. Being a mostly Catholic country, and being a Catholic chaplain, Mons. Hall said that connecting with religious communities in East Timor was easy. They would play basketball with the local kids, and often he would invite people to help teach young people English, something the locals were very receptive to.

They were so keen and appreciative, especially the young adults, who obviously saw English-speaking as important for future prospects and employment.’

“Let the Holy Spirit lead, not ambition”

As Director General of Navy Chaplains, one of the things he would frequently tell the chaplains is that they were like General Practitioners. Their broad calling is to be ‘General Practitioners of Ministry’ who are, for a time, ‘specialising’ in military chaplaincy. For Catholic priests especially, they were ‘on loan’ to the Military Diocese and not divorced from the mainstream Church. If they’re doing the job right, they should be able to return to General Practice in a parish quite smoothly.

An inspirational figure for Mons. Hall is St John Vianney, also known as the Cure de Ars. Vianney, sent to a ‘backward parish’, could have become disgruntled about his work, complaining about his bishop, about the people, about everything. But no: ‘He took the pastoral responsibility. He saw the need to look after his flock. And he got on with it, and the Holy Spirit worked through him to meet their needs . . .

He’s not someone who says “poor me”, but who just got on with it.’

Mons. Hall’s life has also been filled with excellent priestly role models, he said. They were priests who walked with their people and lived their vocation faithfully. They weren’t ‘looking for glory’ but were ‘humble, active, pastoral men, who were trying live their priesthood as best they could.’

This instilled an important principle in Mons. Hall, that we should ‘allow the Holy Spirit to drive us instead of ambition.’ As a military chaplain, you don’t always see the fruit of your labours, Mons. Hall reflected.

‘I do something, and I may never see the “reward” or the “outcome”, but down the track? One sows, another person reaps.’ After all, he said, ‘the mission is greater than I am.’

Images by Fiona Basile