Rev. Guy Chapdelaine's first traumatic experience in grief counselling was not as a chaplain in a theatre of war but in Asbestos, a small Quebec village near Sherbrooke, where a couple of teens killed themselves in a suicide pact. One was a high school dropout Chapdelaine had been counselling.
"He and his girlfriend hanged themselves. Having to deal with their suicides prepared me to deal with any crisis," he says.
Chapdelaine, 53, became Canada's Chaplain General in August — the first Roman Catholic to hold the post in 10 years and only the second francophone since separate Catholic and Protestant chaplaincies were integrated in 1995. He will preside over the Remembrance Day ceremonies at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on November 11.
The calm and focused priest will be responsible for the direction of 350 chaplains of various denominations in the Canadian Armed Forces. The job, he says, is not to proselytize.
"The chaplain is there to care for all — even for those who have no faith. We minister to our own, and we facilitate the worship of others," he told Convivium recently over a leisurely breakfast in Old Montreal after celebrating Mass at the historic Notre-Damede- Bonsecours Chapel. "Our role is to make sure the spiritual needs of soldiers in a pluralistic society are met. A lot of the work is not sacramental. It is to befriend soldiers and listen to them. It is basically a ministry of presence."
The eldest of three children in a metalworker's family, Chapdelaine was 17 when he joined the 52nd company, now the 52nd Field Ambulance Company. He decided to become a priest after one of his army buddies was killed in a car accident. His unit was consoled by a priest who had a background in psychology and was a chaplain in the Reserves.
Chapdelaine studied for the priesthood in Sherbrooke and obtained his Master's degree in Theology and Biblical Studies at Université Laval in 1989.
He was ordained in Sherbrooke by Monsignor Jean- Marie Fortier, the same bishop who had confirmed him. He was promoted to the rank of captain the same day. At the time, the ordination was essential to become a chaplain.
"I really had no set goals for myself. I was content to be stationed in Montreal as the Land Force Quebec Area chaplain."
He was deployed to Kosovo, and the experience in the Balkans, he says, helped him concentrate his mind on questions of morality and mortality.
"It was a dangerous place, with minefields, but I never felt threatened. We didn't lose a single soldier on that mission. We all came back together. But I had to prepare myself and the soldiers for the possibility that we would be killed. I had to ask myself, 'Am I ready to die?' When you come face to face with the prospect of death every day, you start asking yourself questions about the meaning of life."
Chapdelaine recently attended the fourth European conference of military bishops in Paris, where he presented a short speech on "The Experience of a Canadian Military Chaplain in the Face of Death." He also attended the International Military Pilgrimage to Lourdes.
"You cannot give pastoral comfort to soldiers facing death unless you are aware of your own mortality," he says. "Personal preparation is a key element. Upon my arrival in Kandahar, I was keenly aware of the possibility of dying. One of my first visits was to the morgue — or, to be politically correct, what they call the mortuary business — and Kandahar Hospital, knowing that I could be called upon at any moment to offer a prayer over the remains of a soldier or spiritual comfort to the wounded.
"There was a strong possibility that I would be hit by an improvised explosive device during each of my trips outside Kandahar. Even inside our camp, death could strike. I recall one Saturday evening in the chapel when I had to stop Mass twice to seek protection from rocket attacks. On my first sortie outside the camp, sitting in an armoured vehicle, I was surrounded by journalists who, like me, were unarmed. The only person accompanying us with a weapon was a military photographer, and I sensed his fear at knowing that he was the only person who could respond in the event of an attack. My personal preparations were carried out intuitively, motivated by the real possibility that I would die [while] on an operation."
Soldiers, he says, don't often wear their faith on their sleeves, but that doesn't mean they are not religious.
He says he was first convinced of the need for chaplains when he was in Kosovo and Major General Tim Grant conducted a survey asking soldiers how the military could be improved. Among the things they wanted were more chaplains to minister to them.
A telling incident during a mission to Afghanistan made him appreciate that need.