“I don’t know how you do it.”
This seemingly simple phrase packs a powerful punch when a military spouse hears its words. What is typically considered a statement of sympathy can be met with bewilderment by a military spouse. While our marriages may endure a different set of trials and difficulties, our marriages, as vocations, are no different than anybody else’s. Through our marriage, and through the hills and valleys, we are called to sainthood -- and we are charged with the mission to bring our Servicemember through the pearly gates with us. Just like other marriages, we made a vow with our spouses, inviting God into our unions, and we just “do” our best to make our marriages work.
I won’t lie -- the military lifestyle is not easy. We endure lengthy separations from our Servicemember, and oftentimes find ourselves sitting in a pew at church, single-handedly wrangling unruly little ones, quieting one while another attempts to escape out of the other end of the pew, or simply wanting to vanish through the floorboards as yet another child has a meltdown.
April is devoted to celebrating the “Month of the Military Child,” and I have been contemplating how I make my vocation as a wife, and my secondary vocation as a mother, work with the calling to which my husband responded -- that of a military Servicemember. One word keeps coming back to me when I consider the “how,” and that word is: Faith. This past Lent, I spent time in prayer considering the specific Station of the Cross in which Jesus met His Mother. I allowed myself to feel the pain she must have felt, not just beholding His torture, but also the pain she had to have in her heart, knowing she was physically separated from her Son. She could not give Him words of comfort, nor could she wipe the sweat and blood from His brow.
The same is true of the military spouse and family -- we can’t accompany our Servicemember when they are placed in harm’s way. Instead, we must find a way to stand supportively behind our spouse. We also must remember, as difficult as it may be at times, to have faith in God’s plan for our Servicemember -- and, have faith in His plan for our family.
It can be difficult to have that faith, and many military families look to their faith community for help during those difficult times. Some attend military chapels on their local installations; others prefer civilian parishes found in their local communities. No matter where they turn, there are some tangible steps every Catholic community and parish can take to assist military families. The following are some ideas, and is not meant to provide an exhaustive list, just suggestions to get some support rolling:
- Reach out to the single parent in the pews. You’ve seen them -- many times, they are struggling to keep multiple little ones contained. Honestly, this advice goes for any single parent -- offer to simply sit with that parent during Mass. Be the second set of hands for that single parent. Or offer to take one of the little ones to sit with your family. Occasionally, allow that single parent to pray without having to wrestle a bundle of budding independence in Mass.
- If you aren’t comfortable approaching the family, sit behind the parent. Or, on the other end of the pew. Be a bookend for that little escape artist try desperately to run away. Usually, a well-timed wave, or a finger to the lips to mirror a “shush” by a stranger is enough to encourage a little one whose parent is already attempting to keep their children quiet.
- Consider adopting a “deployment family.” I have easily been to half a dozen Catholic parishes throughout the years, and most include some sort of prayer of intention for parishioners who are deployed -- typically, the names of those Servicemembers are listed in the parish bulletin. Catholic parishes can easily run programs in which families invite the spouse (and family) of a deployed Servicemember over for a meal. Even a once-a-month invitation allows families to bond with other faith-filled couples or families -- and reminds the Servicemember that their families are being cared for by loving communities back home.
- The military lifestyle is no better than a civilian lifestyle. However, it certainly presents unique challenges and hardships. If your parish doesn’t already have one, consider beginning a group for military families. Focus on the needs of those families, from a faith-based perspective, using faith studies geared toward bolstering support during challenging times. Allow for children to attend those meetings, or better yet, provide childcare free of charge. Even the aforementioned meal could be served at those times.
- Implement a Military Life Liaison position, whose sole purpose is to reach out to military families. Military families can easily be identified on a parish registration form, and the liaison’s position could be as simple as reaching out to a new family with a list of local resources as they personally extend a welcome. The liaison position could also be as extensive as connecting the new military family with other military families within the parish community, and coordinating events for the parish aimed directly at bringing military families in touch with other parish community members and ministries. Instead of using an active duty Servicemember for this position, consider having the person filling the position being a military veteran -- someone who may be able to be a parishioner for years, but has intimate knowledge of the military lifestyle, community, and culture.
- Recognize active duty Servicemembers and their families fall under the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA (AMS). Tie special events in with AMS-themed events. For example, celebrate the Annual Memorial Mass on Pentecost Sunday, or air the Mass when it is played on EWTN by inviting the parish community to participate in the way your community is able. Invite military and veterans alike to wear their uniforms or branch swag to Mass on that particular Sunday. Hold a special Mass on Veteran’s Day. Celebrate the Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael the Archangels annually with a barbecue for parishioners, acknowledging St. Michael the Archangel’s historic role as Protector for those in the Armed Forces.
On average, active duty military families move every three to five years. Many civilian parishes around installations see an influx of new families who will move again in a few short years. Whether they are active duty, working in recruiting, National Guardsmen, or reservists, there are also a lot of military members in civilian parishes located far from military installations. Military families have tremendous God-given talents and assets to offer their civilian parishes. What is most important, though, is too create an environment which welcomes these transient families, and invites them to use their talents to create a well-rounded, robust, thriving parish.
Dandelions are often considered the “flower” that most resembles the military child because the wind blows the seeds in every direction, and no matter where the seeds settle, a bloom emerges. Military children -- and, their families by extension -- are like the seeds of the dandelion. They scatter with the winds known as the Department of Defense, at various stages in their own family’s life journey. Yet, most of these families are resilient, determined, and steadfast in their faith.
Allow the typical military family, with their resilience, flexibility, perhaps new ideas they have seen work in other parishes worldwide, and life experiences touch and deepen your Catholic parish’s faith life. And, at the same time, don’t overlook the importance of your Catholic parish’s life, and the impact on the faith of that Catholic military family who is blessed to be in your house of worship for the duration of their stay. Encourage military families to not only be welcomed into your congregation, but to join and be active participants in various ministries.
Let us help each other build faith, so that every military family, when faced with the question, “How do you do it,” can respond the same way I have been able -- our faith. The one constant in a military family is their faith -- their faith in God, in family, and in country. Through that constant, the multiple moves that our military children make allow for them to look forward to new experiences with parishes and Catholic communities alike. The adjustment from an old location to a new location is slightly mitigated when our families are able to meet with, and work/volunteer alongside with, other families whose belief systems mirror our own -- especially in a faith-based setting. This affords our children, and hence our military families, the ability to truly bloom where we are planted, no matter what the military life may bring for our Servicemember!
How does your Catholic community or parish support active-duty military families? If you are a military family, what have you found beneficial when you have entered a new Catholic parish community?
Copyright 2018 AnnAliese Harry
Images copyright 2018 AnnAliese Harry. All rights reserved. Main image: Canva Pro
About the Author
AnnAliese Harry is a proud Army wife to her husband Chris, and a mother to their young children. She has a BA in History, a Masters in Social Work, and has worked with disabled veterans, troubled teens, and in early childhood intervention therapy. AnnAliese volunteers with several military chapel communities and serves as a lector, EMHC, Adoration coordinator, and Catholic Women of the Chapel (CWOC) chapter president and vice president. She blogs about Catholicism, parenting, and military life at A Beautiful, Camouflaged Mess of A Life. Follow her on Twitter, on Instagram, or on Facebook.