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When I was in the seminary, faculty members would often tell me that I would learn invaluable lessons from priests throughout my life. I expected that to be true, and it was. But what I didn’t expect was how many lessons I would learn from ministers from other faith traditions. When I joined the chaplain corps of the US Navy, I was no longer working next to priests. I was on a ship with sailors and chaplains from many different backgrounds. Friends had warned me I might have to defend my Catholic faith to the other chaplains, but I found just the opposite was true.
The lessons began with my first assignment, when I was the junior of two chaplains on a ship stationed off the coast of Japan. My senior chaplain was a Southern Baptist minister named Curtis Price, and his witness, his warmth, and his wisdom have only helped me become a better Catholic—and a better priest. From the very beginning of our service together, Chaplain Price treated me as a brother in Christ and an ally in ministering to the sailors and Marines on our ship.
Learning to Listen. Throughout his thirty-two years in the military, Chaplain Price had welcomed thousands of young sailors into his office for counseling, prayer, and friendship. I soon discovered that he was just as willing to listen to me, a fellow chaplain, whenever I came seeking his advice. Once I told him about trying to counsel a sailor who had frequent nightmares after his father died. As I described our conversations, it became obvious that I had been too quick to interject my own faith-based comments—sometimes without even giving the man a chance to finish his sentences. “I like to listen with a blank slate,” Chaplain Price told me.
As this principle began to sink in, I changed my approach. Instead of trying to help a sailor right away, I focused on trying to understand what he was saying. This open-minded approach worked much better! Soon I began applying it to my own prayer life. I prayed to be receptive to God, just as Mary was receptive to the angel Gabriel. Mary allowed God’s plan to unfold, and I could do the same. Instead of saying, “Here’s what I think, Lord,” I could pray, “Let it be done according to your word.” What is your word, Lord? Turning my focus toward God and other people without conditions or assumptions, as Chaplain Price taught me, allowed me to love them more personally.
Patient for Encounters. My growing openness to God’s will also brought some surprises. I had an inspiration that seemed to be from God to spend my lunch hour with the enlisted men on the messdecks rather than with the officers. A couple of sailors were unimpressed with my presence there. One even let me know quite openly that I wasn’t welcome.
I was tempted to give up, but Chaplain Price encouraged me to be “open to the possibilities” for befriending sailors. I had watched how he welcomed sailors to his chaplain’s office, even the ones who had passed him a hundred times earlier without saying hello. The moment they had an interest in talking to him, Chaplain Price’s excitement at what God could do was always palpable. His patient hope—like God’s own anticipation for the return of the prodigal son—helped me to persevere on the messdecks. I knew, as hard as it was, that God wanted me to be there with the sailors.
A couple of months later, God’s plan became a little clearer. The very sailor who had once begrudged my presence appeared at the door of my office. “Chaps,” he said, “you are always there, bugging us on the messdecks, so I figured that it would be okay to talk with you. Could I come in?” I tried to conceal my surprise. Chaplain Price had said to be open to the possibilities, but I didn’t think this sailor would ever be one of them!
Be Not Afraid. One day, I was asked to offer a prayer at a women’s appreciation event on the ship. Agonizing over saying the wrong thing in a pluralistic environment, I brought up the matter with Chaplain Price. He smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “Why don’t you quote Mother Teresa?” It was a great suggestion, and that quote ended up jogging a couple of Catholics to return to Mass. But I still had more to learn.
Every evening, one of the chaplains would offer a few minutes of prayer over the ship-wide intercom system. When I first started, I imitated the styles of other chaplains, even a visiting priest. It didn’t feel right, though, and didn’t seem to be having much impact. Chaplain Price advised me to find my own voice.
Asking the Holy Spirit for help, I recalled that some of my favorite prayers were written in verse: like St. Thomas Aquinas’ prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, “Down in Adoration Falling.” Sacred things could be expressed through poetry or lyrics. So I thought, “Why couldn’t everyday tasks also be lifted up to the Lord as sacred?” I decided to take what sailors did in a given day and offer up their work at evening prayer in the form of lyrical poetry.
It was an immediate success. My evening prayers sparked many conversations and questions about Catholic discipleship with the sailors and Marines. And thanks to Chaplain Price, I once again found the courage to use my own Catholic tradition to minister on the ship.
The Gift of Brotherhood. I have since left the ship in Japan. I never would have imagined that I would learn so much about my Catholic faith from a Baptist chaplain. I now serve with the Third Marine Air Wing in California. My senior chaplain is an Orthodox Jewish rabbi who has already taught me a lot. So far, there’s only one other rabbi who has taught me more about being a holy priest, and that’s Jesus!
Lt. Luke Dundon is a Catholic priest who serves as the staff chaplain for Marine Aircraft Group 16.
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