Seventy-five years ago, on June 6, 1944, more than 156,000 American, British and Canadian troops landed at Normandy in France on D-Day, the largest seaborne invasion in history. It helped cement the Allied victory over Nazi Germany, but it came with a huge loss of life.
The dead from World War II and many other conflicts are remembered on Memorial Day, which will be celebrated on May 27.
Playing a key role in the invasion and countless other military operations throughout history were military chaplains, including Catholic priests who ministered to the soldiers, sailors and airmen. The Diocese of Cleveland has a long legacy of support for the military chaplaincy, with dozens of priests serving since 1880, when Father Eli Washington John Lindesmith was assigned to serve in Montana. Forty-two priests answered the call to service during WWII.
Currently, the diocese is represented by Archbishop Timothy Broglio, who heads the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA; Bishop Neal Buckon, an auxiliary bishop bishop for the archdiocese; and Fathers Joe Brankatelli and Curt Kondik, Army chaplains on active duty at Fort Riley, Kansas. Perhaps the longest-serving military chaplain from the diocese is Father Joe Piskura, who spent nearly 40 years with the Army, including 27 years on active duty.
“I miss it,” he said. “Cleveland is a very military-friendly town.”
Father Joe was ordained in 1954. He credits a seminary classmate, the late Father Dave Silva, with inspiring him to become a military chaplain. Father Dave, who died in 2010 at age 85, joined the Army after graduating from Holy Name High School and was part of the Normandy invasion. In fact, there is a section about him in Cornelius Ryan’s book “The Longest Day.” Father Dave was wounded on Omaha Beach and earned two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star medal. He entered the seminary after the war and did a tour as an Army chaplain in Germany.
“He left the Army and I went in,” Father Joe said. He had been in the reserves and after receiving permission from the bishop, went on active duty with the Army. Father Joe served during the Vietnam War, spending 18 months in Vietnam — in two stints. He also served at a variety of bases in the U.S. and did three tours of service in Germany during the Cold War.
“After my Vietnam service, I became a ‘lifer.’ I loved it,” Father Joe said of the Army. After retirement from active service in 1990, he worked another 14 years as a civilian contractor, filling in for other Catholic chaplains so they could accompany their units.
“Our soldiers are the most generous in the world with what they do for each other and young people,” said Father Joe, who was honored as the Joint Veterans Council of Cuyahoga County’s Veteran of the Year in 2015. He accepted on behalf of all military chaplains.
Father Joe crossed paths with Bishop Buckon at St. Margaret Mary Parish in Cleveland Heights. The bishop is a 1975 graduate of John Carroll University. He served in the ROTC program at JCU and was recognized as a Distinguished Military Graduate. He went on active duty after graduation and is a much-decorated Army veteran, serving in both the infantry and transportation branches.
“I was thinking about the priesthood while I was on active duty,” he said. After resigning his commission, he became the first co-sponsored seminarian, which meant he entered the seminary in Cleveland, served one assignment at a parish and then was “loaned” to the archdiocese for assignment as a military chaplain.
The bishop joined the Army Reserves in 1990, while a seminarian. In 1998, he was back on active duty, as a chaplain this time, and he agreed to serve until retirement, which was Dec. 31, 2010.
“I was on a trip to the Holy Land when I got a call saying that the Holy Father wanted me to serve as an auxiliary bishop for the archdiocese,” he said. “I found out on Dec. 8. The Gospel story was Mary’s fiat — saying ‘yes’ to God. I wrote Pope Benedict a letter saying that I would serve.”
Bishop Buckon was ordained a priest in 1995 and was elevated to bishop on Feb. 22, 2011, and serves as Archbishop Broglio’s vicar for the Western Region, overseeing Catholic pastoral care at 95 military installations for all branches of the
service in 18 states.
Serving as an auxiliary for the archdiocese involves many of the same roles that a bishop assigned to a diocese would do, including confirmations. However, instead of visiting parishes, he goes to bases, hospitals and military prisons to visit his flock.
As a chaplain, he said many people — not just Catholics — come to his office. Some are suffering from invisible wounds. He tries to help them get back their balance in life.
“We meet the spiritual needs of those serving our country. Some are thinking about suicide, some are having marital difficulties or other problems. It can be pretty intense. But they hear the words of Christ. Where else could they go and hear those words? We’re there for everybody,” he said.
“In the end, it’s good for me to be here. I may have been able to save a life,” Bishop Buckon added. The bishop tries to get home a few times a year to visit his 90-year-old mother, who lives in Chagrin Falls, and other friends and relatives. He quoted Gen. Maxwell Taylor from WWII with saying that the spirit of a soldier is everything.
“We recognize that everyone has a soul and spirit and we try to keep them and their families strong. They carry a heavy burden,” the bishop said. Archbishop Broglio was ordained in 1977 and also served at St. Margaret Mary Parish. He spent 25 years in diplomatic service for the Vatican and was ordained an archbishop on March 19, 2001. He was named the fourth archbishop for the Military Services, USA on Nov. 19, 2007.
Although he had no prior military experience, the archbishop said his father was a physician at a hospital in England during WWII and his brother served as an Army physician.
“I spend a great deal of my time traveling,” he said. “I try to visit every installation and the hospitals.” The archbishop estimates he travels 200,000 miles per year as he crisscrosses his global diocese.
The archdiocese does not have a cathedral, Archbishop Broglio said, but they sometimes use the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., which is where the archdiocese is headquartered. He celebrates a Mass the Sunday prior to Memorial Day weekend at the basilica and invites all military personnel. “We usually draw a big crowd,” he said.
The archbishop has visited a war zone three times. He said the most moving thing he has done was washing the feet of military personnel on Holy Thursday at a base in Afghanistan.
“I also always spend Christmas somewhere with the troops,” he said.
The two diocesan priests currently on active duty, Father Joe Brankatelli and Father Curt Kondik, ironically are assigned to the same base — Fort Riley in Kansas. Father Joe returned recently from a monthlong series of maneuvers in the Mojave Desert. He’s also served in Afghanistan.
Although he heard the call to his vocation during his senior year in high school, Father Joe said he connected more with his faith but told God he didn’t want to be a priest, heading off to college instead. After three years, he transitioned to the seminary. While there, he considered serving as a military chaplain, but saw himself more as a diocesan priest.
“But I had an openness to serving God at his discretion,” he said. He met Archbishop Broglio and was invited to serve at the Mass when he was installed as archbishop for the Military Services. There a Catholic priest and military chaplain asked Father Joe if he was interested in the military.
“When I said I didn’t think the military was for me, the archbishop said just because you’re a military chaplain doesn’t mean you’re not serving the Diocese of Cleveland; it’s just in a different way,” Father Joe said.
The thing that nudged him to the military was a conversation with an Ohio National Guardsman who said he had gone six months on duty without seeing a Catholic priest. After discerning for a year, he spoke to Bishop Richard Lennon about wanting to join the chaplaincy program and found him very supportive. Since becoming an Army chaplain, Father Joe said he’s celebrated Mass in a variety of places, including in chapels and a large tent.
He shared the story of one close call while celebrating Mass abroad when some indirect mortar fire forced him and the congregation to seek shelter. “I grabbed the lectionary and we headed to a bunker. After the homily, we were able to go back to the chapel and finish Mass. I thought it was fitting that I got to read the word of God in a secure place and to preach to people who otherwise might not have heard the homily.”
Father Curt said he entered the chaplaincy program in 2011 after talking with Father Joe Piskura a few years before. Although he has several relatives who have served in the military, Father Curt said he hadn’t really considered it.
“God blessed me with a certain amount of physical fortitude,” he said, noting he grew up on a farm in Creston. He’s had two nine-month deployments — one to Afghanistan and one to Iraq — and also spent some time on the U.S. southern border last November when his military police unit was sent to help with border security.
“I consider it a great challenge and a blessing to be able to serve this diverse population. The military are very devout and willing to serve. It’s very inspiring to me, personally,” he said.
Vocations run in the Kondik family. Father Curt said his nephew is being ordained in June for service to the Diocese of Steubenville. And he tries to get home to Creston to visit his parents and sister whenever possible. His home parish is SS. Peter and Paul in Doylestown.
“I want to thank the anonymous Avila prayer moms and other Avilas who pray for the priests. I appreciate the spiritual support from people back home,” he added.
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