BASRA, Iraq - St. Peter's Basilica it was not.
The priest wore desert-camouflage vestments. The congregation was three soldiers and a Marine. Two candles and a 6-inch crucifix sat atop a plastic tablecloth. The homily felt like a conversation among friends. And Mass took place at the end of a long table in a dining facility at a remote outpost in the desert of southern Iraq.
Jesus preached that God was present wherever two or more gathered in his name – words that rang true Sunday morning for the faithful at Camp Wessam in Basra province.
“It’s only my second Mass I’ve been able to attend,” said Lt. Von Spence, a Fort Lewis soldier serving with 1st Battalion, 377th Field Artillery Regiment, 17th Fires Brigade. “I’m usually out on missions, and if you miss it, it might be a while.”
The Catholic Church faces a priest shortage worldwide, and its numbers in the military are no different. Maj. Gary DeRouchey, the Catholic chaplain celebrating Mass, is one of only 10 priests ministering to the armed services in Iraq – and one of only about 100 in the Army.
The church, DeRouchey added, is authorized triple the number of priests currently serving.
Chaplains of all faiths and Christian denominations are in short supply in the Army, but especially in the National Guard and Reserves. The military has used creative means to meet the spiritual needs of the deployed, from enlisting European priests to celebrate Mass to starting a program to prepare Catholic servicemen for the priesthood.
Each chaplain is required to serve people of all faiths, regardless of his personal beliefs or theological training.
Camp Wessam – an outpost of 100 U.S. service members located amid the headquarters of the 14th Iraqi Army Division – is far too small to merit a full-time chaplain, even if the Army weren’t dealing with a clergy shortage.
DeRouchey is a 45-year-old reservist from South Dakota who previously served as a military intelligence officer before entering seminary. He is headquartered at Contingency Operating Base Basra, but travels regularly to 17 sites around the region.
In theory, that means a Mass every two weeks at Camp Wessam. But problems such as bad weather – which can ground vehicles because of the lack of air support – mean DeRouchey’s visits sometimes get postponed.
“I’ve been in small places where you wouldn’t see anyone for months,” said Alpha Battery commander Capt. Garry Hansel. “But this brigade really puts an emphasis on getting chaplains out here.”
It’s not an easy task. DeRouchey and Capt. Mark Rendon, a Pentecostal minister assigned to Fort Lewis’ 17th Fires Brigade, arrived Sunday as part of an armed convoy to Camp Wessam, about a half-hour drive from COB Basra.
True to military form, the priest packed his vestments, oils, wine, hosts and everything else he needed for Mass in a pack the size of a toiletry bag. The crucifix and the chalice were collapsible.
He emphasized prayers for peace among world leaders and for the service members’ families back home.
And just minutes after the Mass concluded, DeRouchey and Rendon strapped on their body armor and Kevlar helmets. The convoy of Humvees was waiting outside, destined for another outpost deep in the desert.