"The Happiest days of your life ......"
There is a popular saying which suggests that your school days were the happiest days of your life. In my case that wasn't true. It's not that my school days weren't enjoyable -they were, but by far the happiest days of my life so far, were those spent serving as a Chaplain in the Royal Air Force.
In the Royal Air Force a chaplain is given what is known as a "relative" rank. Something which, from the outset, demonstrated clearly that your primary role was that of a Minister of Religion. Your title of address was Rev, followed in brackets by the Officer rank you held.
But what was it that made my time there so happy? What can be happy you may well ask about going to places of conflict and unrest, places from which, there is always the chance, you may not return from?
For me it was without doubt the sense of camaraderie. The true feeling that "we are all in this together" That feeling of being alongside other personnel, was both challenging rewarding and at times frightening. The chaplain was there to represent the presence of Christ in "every" situation. The work of being with people in sometimes hostile situations was also very humbling. They appreciated the fact that their "padre" was prepared to be with them, wherever that may be and however dangerous. For me. One of the greatest aspects of being a Military Chaplain was the fact that before you could truly be "one of them" you had to win their respect, not as a Chaplain but as a fellow human being. The really popular Chaplains in the Military were always respected and loved firstly for their humanity and then their ministry. Lording something over a fellow airman or officer because you were a "padre" would hold no sway with them and would even put them off turning to you for help. I think this ministry would truly fall within the remit spoken of by Pope Francis when he says that Pastors need to know "the smell of the sheep".
When serving on a home station, the chaplains role would be very similar to that of a priest in parish. You would administer all the Sacraments, attend events in the local community to help foster good relations both civilly and within the local Christian community. You would deal with personnel and their issues, some of which were moral, pastoral and some of which were "service related" ie a need to facilitate a relocation to be closer to family for reasons such as a family members ill health and suchlike. You would be on hand to minister to families struggling with long periods of separation from their loved ones and especially present for them when they had lost a Father, a Mother or a child who had been killed in the line of duty. When on deployment overseas you were often in a "war zone". Such deployments brought home to me in a very real and sometimes harsh way, the precious and fragile nature of human existence. It wasn't unheard of to have sat at the breakfast table in the mess tent with someone and then hear that they had been killed later that day. Deployments were tough for personnel and for those who ministered to them. Some chaplains came home themselves scarred by what they had experienced.
I would say that my time as a military chaplain was privileged and I was very sad to leave. All ministry is privilege, perhaps Military Chaplaincy is privilege in the extreme. I am sure I will never feel such privilege again, but I am extremely grateful for all that it taught me about life and putting matters in perspective. It was a lesson I will never forget and for which I never fail to thank God each day. Please do keep Chaplains in the military and those they serve in your prayers. I never met a single person during my time in the Armed Forces who "liked" conflict. They serve, to try and keep peace in a sometimes broken world. Perhaps our ardent prayer for peace may one day make all Armed Forces redundant. We can but hope.