When Cardinal Edwin O’Brien was named Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem in 2012, he found himself embroiled in a war a world away from the jungles of Vietnam where he ministered to dying troops as a young priest.
“The forces that are at work now are intent on eradicating the Christian civilisation, nothing less, nothing less,” said the 76-year-old American cardinal.
“It’s genocide taking place.”
In Sydney last month to reach out to the order’s 600 Australian members, Cardinal O’Brien didn’t pull any punches in relaying the daily horror faced by Christians in and around the Holy Land.
“I think our public is very blasé about the whole thing,” he told The CW.
“We’re afraid to say that this is an extremist terrorist group that is basing their principles falsely on the tenets that they believe are theirs from God himself.
“Unless we face the facts, this radicalism, this extremism, is going to keep spreading.”
Most disturbing for Cardinal O’Brien is the lack of military response from the US.
“We’ve had an opportunity to stop those forces,” he said.
Islamic State fighters attacked 35 Assyrian villages on the Khabur River in Syria in February, killing a dozen people, kidnapping more than 90 Assyrian Christians, burning two churches and forcing more than 3000 people to flee.
“We did nothing to stop them,” he said. “And now those Christian villages have been eradicated, [people] killed, taken into slavery.
“What have we done about it?”
The inaction from the US was particularly grievous for Cardinal O’Brien who has spent much of his life working alongside its military.
Born and raised in the Bronx, he was ordained a priest of New York in 1965 as the US Military Academy at West Point was preparing to double in size.
The young priest was appointed to the academy, initially as a civilian priest on a temporary posting.
That posting stretched to five years and he was so impressed by the tenacity shown by a generation of young men that he could no longer remain on the sidelines.
“I’d be marrying cadets in June, and a year later burying them, because they had been shipped right to Vietnam,” he said.
“I had great admiration for what I saw and what I heard: the generosity, the integrity, the selflessness of the cadets and of the staff.
“It was almost a continuation of my formation as a priest, the example I received.”
He joined the US Army with the rank of captain with one goal in mind. “I’d been promised I could go to jump school, airborne training, and I could go to Vietnam, because that’s what I wanted to do.”
His mission, as he saw it, was clear – “to keep our men and women in the military strong in their faith, and to give them guidance and counsel when they needed it personally or professionally”.
To serve alongside troops in combat was the first step towards gaining their trust, the cardinal said.
“I think one gains greater credibility when one shares the burden, in any way of life.
“The fact that chaplains – whether a priest, a minister or a rabbi – would travel halfway around the world not out of any self-interest but to serve, and to bring into a very challenging situation for these young people, meant a great deal to them.”
Despite witnessing grave losses and suffering, the experience reinforced rather than challenged his faith. “It was a strengthening of my faith, because I saw the role of the military, as I do now, to be a very lofty vocation.
“Christ said: ‘I have come to serve and not be served.’ When one puts on a uniform that person enters the service. ‘Greater love has no-one than this, to give his life for his friends.’ ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.’
“What is the military for – a good military, a noble military – but to bring about peace?”
Decades later, another war defined another chapter of his priesthood as he asked that question of an entire nation.
In September 2011 he was four years into his tenure as Archbishop for Military Services in the US, overseeing the nation’s 1.5 million serving Catholics, when the country was struck by four terrorist attacks.
“I was at my desk in Washington on September 11,” he said.
The Military Ordinariate had been hosting a retreat for 40 Washington priests who were chaplains to local military units.
“I heard of the first plane, then I rushed over to where the chaplains were, and everything was in lockdown. All these chaplains were from the Washington area. They couldn’t move; they couldn’t get back to their units.
“It was a traumatic moment, and everyone looked to the military to do something and to the president to take action, and the president was more than willing to do it.”
As the US prepared for massive military intervention in Iraq, Cardinal O’Brien drew public and media scrutiny when he appeared to endorse the invasion in the context of “just war” doctrine.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
The strict conditions for legitimate defence by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:
• the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
• all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
• there must be serious prospects of success;
• the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine. The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.
In 2003 Cardinal O’Brien told a congregation of servicemen at a Mass at West Point: “I know that a lot of people have said that the Pope is against war with Iraq … But you are not bound by conscience to obey his opinion. However, you are bound in conscience to obey the orders of your commander-in-chief (the president) and if he orders you to go to war, it is your duty to go to war.”
In March that year he wrote to US Catholic military chaplains: “Given the complexity of factors involved, many of which understandably remain confidential, it is altogether appropriate for members of our armed forces to presume the integrity of our leadership and its judgments, and therefore to carry out their military duties in good conscience – “our leadership” is not referring to the pope – It is to be hoped that all factors which have led to our intervention will eventually be made public, and … will shed helpful light upon our president’s decision”.
Speaking to The CW, he said: “It was discussed in the press not because a Catholic bishop posed the question, but because ‘just war’ theory is a natural law, a set of principles that dates back 1500 years to St Augustine.
“I spoke out about that, raised some questions that our government should answer.”
While the Military Ordinariate does not set policy, “we tell those who are responsible for setting policy and carrying policy out what answers they should be required to give if they’re going to justify the increased action in the Middle East”.
“We were just bringing that to the fore and saying: ‘Whether you’re religious or not, whether you’re Catholic or not, when it comes to taking other lives there has got to be some very serious thought and debate and conscientious conclusions to be reached’.
“These are the questions that have to be answered.”
On a personal level, it is a question that prompts reflection from military personnel of any faith.
“I saw my role as (being) to remind our military, Catholics especially, that there is no contradiction between what they do when they put that uniform on, as long as they do it in good faith and according to the principles of Catholic ethics.”
While his comments saw him labelled the ‘warrior cardinal’, he never wavered from advocating the importance of chaplains at a time when the proportion of Catholic chaplains, just eight per cent, was vastly outnumbered by the 27 per cent of US military who identified as Catholic.
Cardinal O’Brien left the military archdiocese in 2007 when he was appointed Archbishop of Baltimore.
He quickly became aware of the infrastructural and financial challenges facing the archdiocese, which had seen a dramatic shift as its large Catholic population drifted out of the urban centre in favour of suburban and rural areas.
A third of its 150 parishes were in the city of Baltimore, which is now home to just five per cent of the archdiocese’s Catholics.
“We had virtually empty schools, schools built for 1000 youngsters that might have had 120 students,” Cardinal O’Brien said.
“I think it’s immoral to collect money that can be more wisely spent in a consolidated area.”
He set about restructuring the archdiocese’s schools with a goal of “better education, better accountability” for the people of Baltimore.
“It was tough, but it had to be done because we were pouring funds down a black hole, and still maybe more has to be done, not only in schools but parishes as well.
“These churches are built for 600 or 1000 people and are collecting, at three Masses, maybe 150.
“Major cities throughout US urban areas are facing the same challenge.
“What used to be largely Catholic is no longer, but we have the structures there, and we need to change so that our people, young and old, receive the best spiritual and educational services the Church can provide.”
Despite extensive consultation, the cardinal faced “terrible resistance”.
“Everyone thought this was a good idea except when it came to their own schools,” he said. “This is something I expected but the outcry was rather severe, and it was pumped up by people looking for headlines.
“Still, if I had to do it again I would do it again.”
As in Sydney, the question around the future of Catholic schools lies in the future not of education but faith.
“I would hope that our schools survive and our Catholic identity survives, and that’s as big a challenge as having our schools survive,” he said.
“We are not just there to provide a common education for everyone. We’re there for that, but also to preach Christ and instill the faith in future generations.
“Unless we’re doing that, they can go to public schools, they can go to private schools of their choice, but we don’t have the right to call ourselves Catholic.”
His appointment as Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem came as a shock after less than four years in Baltimore.
“I thought I would die in Baltimore,” he said. “I got there within seven years of retirement and I just presumed that was the last stop.
“When I got the call I didn’t want to leave, but when the Holy Father asks you to do something you do it.
“That’s been my mantra for others, and it’s a mantra I had to carry out myself.”
Three years on, he enjoys “the challenge of serving some very generous men and women – 30,000 knights and ladies of the Holy Sepulchre – who are intensely interested in bringing justice and relief to a downtrodden minority in the Holy Land”.
“To serve them and to encourage them is to serve some of the poorest in the world, and some of the most persecuted Christians,” he said. “It’s a great responsibility to join the order, a responsibility to serve our fellow Christians in the Holy Land.”
He said vocations “have always been a preoccupation of mine” and expressed the hope that the shortage of vocations in the western world “will soon be resolved”.
He was confident the recent US visit by Pope Francis would spark a renewed interest in religious life, as happened with previous papal visits.