Want to find Catholic young adults? Then look to the Armed Forces. They are more likely to be found there in greater numbers than in any other workplace or institution. An estimated 300,000 U.S. Catholics, most of them young adults, are employed by the military around the world.
The Archdiocese for the Military Services, responsible for their pastoral care, embarked in January on a program called Catholics Seeking Christ. It is intended to reinforce the identity of young adult military people as Catholic Christians at a pivotal time in their lives. With the assistance of Paulist Media Works, the Paulist Fathers, the Catholic Leadership Group, and New Group Media, Catholics Seeking Christ offers an ongoing small prayer and discussion group process.
Mark Moitoza, director of youth ministry for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, says the peer ministry program is intended to convey to young military Catholics that “they are not alone. There are other young adults like them experiencing the same things.”
At four pilot locations on bases in South Carolina and Virginia, Catholic military personnel gather weekly to read Scriptures, pray, view DVDs and discuss faith questions, such as “Can a Catholic have a personal relationship with Jesus?” and “How do Catholics read the Bible?” Other topics include the role of the saints in Catholic belief and discerning right from wrong. Groups are composed of two leaders and six to eight participants.
The process grew out of suggestions from Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, head of the Military Archdiocese. It is based upon similar peer ministry efforts that have been used in college settings. One goal, says Moitoza, is to provide young Catholics in the military a basic education in their faith so that they can confidently discuss it with others.
Catholics Seeking Christ was launched after a year of meetings, focus groups and planning sessions. Participating groups helped produce the DVDs, brochures and other aids that focus the discussions. One video features young adults in uniform talking about the spiritual questions and the challenges that they face in their lives.
Moitoza, raised in an Air Force family with experience of ministry on a military base in Germany, knows about those pressures. He notes that young people in the Armed Forces live with uncertainty. They can be called at a moment’s notice and sent to a trouble spot. “There’s a higher tempo of operations,” he says, reflecting military jargon about the stretching of resources due to war conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other commitments around the world.
Often, he says, military personnel “know they will be deployed but don’t know the time and place.” Not knowing creates personal and spiritual strains. Catholics Seeking Christ provides an opportunity for young adult Catholics in the military to use their faith to ease the transitions in their lives.
Chris Sartorius, an Air Force major stationed at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, is a Catholics Seeking Christ group leader. An Oklahoma City native, Sartorius is a 16-year Air Force veteran who has served in Kosovo and in Italy, as well as in the United States.
His base discussion group completed a six-week process in May. It was active during the intense focus on things Catholic during the death and funeral of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI. Raised in strongly evangelical Oklahoma, Sartorius notes that the topics in Catholics Seeking Christ provide an opportunity for young Catholics in the military to respond to questions about the church raised by those in the military from other Christian traditions. “It allows us to address misconceptions that people have,” he says.
The discussions offer a respite from the military workplace, says Sartorius. The military chain-of-command is relaxed as airmen talk about faith topics on the same level as officers. The training sessions for group leaders, held in Washington last February, was “a grand experience for me,” says Sartorius, who said he was able to interact with devoted Catholics in the military from around the country. Group leaders like Sartorius are selected by chaplains for their leadership skills and interest in faith concerns. He found that the sessions on the theme of “It’s not all about me,” focusing on service, were the most helpful because it focused on “what you can do for the larger community.”
The next step, says Moitoza, is to examine how the pilot programs fared and to expand it to larger bases, including the mammoth Fort Hood in Texas, as well as bases on the West Coast. A peer leader training event is planned for September in San Diego. Moitoza, noting the transient nature of military life, hopes that those who have already experienced Catholics Seeking Christ can spread it around the globe, wherever young American Catholics are serving their country.