Sheen Panel Examines Role of Spirituality in Times of War

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The Sheen Center for Thought & Culture in lower Manhattan hosted a panel discussion examining the role religious faith plays during war with a program titled “Faith and Duty: The Role of Spirituality in Times of War” Dec. 15.

The Sheen Center Gallery was a fitting place for the discussion, amid an exhibit titled “Faith & Duty: New York’s Chaplains in World War I,” which showcased the words of chaplain priests and soldiers from the archdiocese, with photos and artifacts to underscore the importance of faith and religion on the World War I battlefields.

The exhibition and panel discussion complemented the New York premiere of the musical “All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914” in the center’s Loreto Theater.

Kate Feighery, director of the Archives of the Archdiocese of New York, moderated the forum, which culminated nearly two years of activities commemorating the centennial of World War I. “We examined the role of priests, parishes and the people of the Catholic Church in New York, what they did in the conflict both overseas and on the home front.”

Ms. Feighery underscored the significance of the priests who served as military chaplains during the war. “From New York’s own Archbishop Patrick Hayes, who served as bishop for what was then known as the Military Vicariate, to the over 78 New York priests who served as Army and Navy chaplains, (priests) of the archdiocese were well represented.

“In fact,” she continued, “so many priests opted to serve their country that the seminary class of 1918 had to be ordained early just so there would be enough priests to staff the churches here at home.”

Whether serving at home or abroad, “the priests really saw their role as helping the men, many of them their own parishioners, through the horrors of war,” Ms. Feighery said.

Documents in the archives provide perspectives from both home and abroad. Ms. Feighery noted letters from chaplains “describing the work they were doing, particularly hearing confessions and burying the dead.”

There is also a collection of letters from men overseas written to the pastor of their home parish, she said.

Dr. C. Colt Anderson, professor of Christian spirituality at the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education at Fordham University, began the panel discussion by saying, “War is, and has been, a significant part of the human experience ever since people have been writing history.”

Spirituality has a role in war, Anderson said, namely “to help those who are involved survive the experience—to help them heal, to help them let go of their guilt.”

“It’s also important,” he said, “to help the soldier or sailor or aviator find a way to recognize God’s presence in pain, suffering and loss.”

Anderson continued, “We need to find ways to help these warriors connect their story to Christ…to the Christian narrative. We need to find a way to show them that as long as you’re going at this with the aim of saving your friends and protecting your home land, that it can be a spiritually fulfilling endeavor in life, that it is a way to enter in more deeply into the Passion of Christ.”

Also on the panel were Lt. Col. Scott R. Ehler, state support chaplain and Joint Forces Headquarters Chaplain for the Department of Military and Naval Affairs in Latham, and Dr. Jacqueline E. Whitt, associate professor of strategy at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.

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