Chaplains stand beside our nation’s protectors

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Army chaplain Fr Kene Onwukwe helping with the recovery effort after devastating bushfires on the NSW South Coast in 2020. Photo: Supplied
Army chaplain Fr Kene Onwukwe helping with the recovery effort after devastating bushfires on the NSW South Coast in 2020. Photo: Supplied

As Australians return to full-scale dawn services and marches on ANZAC Day for the first time in three years because of COVID-19, it’s timely to acknowledge a team of priests, deacons and laypeople who have continued providing spiritual and pastoral support to defence personnel and their families throughout the pandemic: our defence chaplains.

Across Australia, there are currently over 40 Catholic chaplains offering comfort and support across the army, navy and airforce and often placing their own lives at risk through their ministry.

Among them is Nigerian born, Fr Kene Onwukwe, who balances his work as Administrator of St Anthony’s parish in Austral with being a part-time army chaplain, based at the Holsworthy barracks in-south-western Sydney.

A Reserve Chaplain since 2018, Fr Kene was granted two months leave by the Archdiocese of Sydney in early 2020 to travel from his then parish in Mosman on the lower north shore to help communities along the NSW South Coast come to terms with the destruction left behind by deadly summer bushfires.

Not only did Fr Kene say Mass and prayers with affected communities, but he also put his hands to work, clearing debris and helping locals find accommodation.

“If they are non-Catholics, I can refer them onto another chaplain and if they need emotional support that requires more professional help, refer them onto a psychologist.”

He was subsequently honoured with a 414 award during the Australian Army’s 120th birthday celebrations. The 414 award relates to the legacy of service and faith from the 414 chaplains who served with the Australian Army during World War I.

Fr Kene also received a NSW Premier’s Bushfire Emergency Citation for this contribution to the bushfire relief effort as part of the Australian Defence Forces Operation Bushfire Assist.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Fr Kene has also provided support to army personnel confined to hotel quarantine after returning to Australia from overseas deployments, leading prayers for them via Zoom and supporting their emotional and spiritual wellbeing during uncertain times.

“I support everyone regardless of their personal religious belief”, Fr Kene told The Catholic Weekly.

“If they are non-Catholics, I can refer them onto another chaplain and if they need emotional support that requires more professional help, refer them onto a psychologist”.

“As a reservist, I regularly check-in on the soldiers who may feel down emotionally or be suffering from depression. Another important aspect of the role involves celebrating the sacraments with them, including baptisms, weddings and Reconciliation and being that pastoral presence for them whenever they need it”.

Fr Anthony Crook RAN with fellow chaplian Fr Joel Vergara at the Rim of the Pacific Exercise in Hawaii in 2018. Photo: Supplied
Fr Anthony Crook RAN with fellow chaplain Fr Joel Vergara at the Rim of the Pacific Exercise in Hawaii in 2018. Photo: Supplied

For Fr Anthony Crook RAN, his pathway towards becoming a chaplain took a less conventional path.

Prior to his ordination in 2000, Fr Anthony had spent 17 years as a secondary teacher in mathematics and religious education and later turned to tertiary education, becoming head of Applied Psychology at the University of Notre Dame Australia’s (UNDA) Sydney campus.

If was through his appointment as the foundational campus minister at UNDA in 2006 that he came to appreciate the rich pastoral dimension of chaplaincy ministry and he knew after his ordination that he wanted to expand that chaplaincy work with defence personnel.

Fr Anthony is currently priest in residence at St Columbkille’s parish at Corrimal, north of Wollongong, while serving as a Chaplain to the Royal Australian Navy.

As a registered psychologist, Fr Anthony provides much needed support to defence personnel as many struggle with illnesses like depression and Post Traumatic Disorder. “Even when we have a defence force where the majority of people identify as non-religious, the role of the chaplain is still incredibly vital and to attend to the pastoral and spiritual needs of defence force members, even when they may not have a defined spirituality to go with it”, he said.

“There’s a real joy in administering the sacraments to Catholic personnel: baptisms, weddings and funerals, in walking alongside them in those special moments in their lives.”

“To be able to say to someone, ‘this is not the end’, or to be able to assist someone to discover meaning in suffering and other deep existential questions of life and chaplaincy can bring a language and understanding of theology to help people in that search for meaning because the great secular narrative doesn’t provide a response to that”.

As a warrant officer for 28 years who had served in Iraq and Timor Leste, Randwick-based Deacon Michael Flew was well placed to take up the ministry of army chaplain, alongside his sacramental work as a permanent deacon at St Francis of Assisi parish in Warrawong and St Mary’s parish in Berkeley in the Diocese of Wollongong.

Deacon Flew said his parish ministry complements well his work as an army chaplain.

“There’s a real joy in administering the sacraments to Catholic personnel: baptisms, weddings and funerals, in walking alongside them in those special moments in their lives and providing them with the comfort and pastoral care they need at those pivotal times in their lives”, he said.

Are you interested in becoming a defence chaplain, whether full-time, part-time or reserve? Contact Senior Chaplain Paul Stuart. Email: [email protected] or Chaplain Fr Anthony Crook RAN. Email: [email protected]