Fresh out of college, Jason C. Burchell worked aboard a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, traveling the coasts of Europe and Latin America assisting vacationing passengers. Unbeknownst to him, the globe-trotting job was a little practical gift from God — a chance to find his sea legs years before stepping onto one of the world’s largest aircraft carriers as a spiritual shepherd and companion to U.S. Marines and sailors.
Father Burchell recently was assigned as a Navy chaplain on board the USS Ronald Reagan, built in Virginia and launched in 2001. After completing his military training in Fort Jackson, N.C., July 27-Aug. 17, Father Burchell will fly to Yokosuka, Japan, to begin a ministry he’s thought about for years.
“I love my country, I love what we stand for, and I love the people who are defending us,” said Father Burchell. “This is an opportunity to give back to those who have bled for our freedom.”
Since his 2013 ordination, Father Burchell has served as parochial vicar of St. Agnes Church in Arlington. He said in some ways, the USS Ronald Reagan is “like a huge parish with a diverse flock.”
The ship, with the motto “Peace Through Strength,” is a Nimitz-class supercarrier. The class designates it as one of 10 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in service with the Navy. It’s currently the largest class of aircraft carrier, with the USS Ronald Reagan measuring more than 1,000 feet — the length of three football fields.
The USS Gerald R. Ford is expected to join the Navy’s fleet in September and will be the biggest warship ever built.
The USS Ronald Reagan is part of the 7th Fleet, the largest of the Navy’s forward-deployed (not in the United States) fleets. With headquarters in Yokosuka, about 40 miles south of Tokyo, the fleet’s area of operation encompasses 50 percent of the world’s population and includes China, Russia, India, Japan, North Korea, the Philippines and Australia.
Father Burchell’s soon-to-be home carries more than 4,000 people, a mix of officers and enlisted personnel, including Marines. The primary purpose of the carrier is to provide a landing and launch space for aircraft used in surveillance, military exercises, war games and other military activities.
It’s “basically an airport on the water for any obligation that needs to be fulfilled in the area,” said Father Burchell.
The warship also provides humanitarian aid, such as after the 2008 typhoon in the Philippines and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
Supporting the aircraft carrier’s efforts includes everyone from mechanics and cooks to doctors and dentists. The ship has a grocery store, barber, hospital, post office, gym and chapel. It even has a monthly newspaper and a television studio. Along with being a floating airport, it’s also “a floating city,” said Father Burchell.
When he first learned of his assignment, Father Burchell admits he was “a bit nervous.”
But he said he’s now confident knowing God has chosen him for this ministry. “I’m just eager to begin and to bring Jesus to people on board,” he said.
As one of four chaplains on the ship, Father Burchell will serve the Catholic population by celebrating Mass, hearing confessions and leading religious education classes.
While he doesn’t know the exact number of Catholics on the USS Ronald Reagan, he said approximately 20-30 percent of active-duty personnel in the military are Catholics, so an estimated 1,000 people on the ship likely identify as members of the church.
Father Burchell also will engage in “deck-plate ministry,” meaning “walking around the ship just talking to people and seeing how they’re doing and if there’s anything they want to talk about,” he said.
The ship “sometimes is an intense” place, said Father Burchell, especially for the younger sailors and Marines. “No matter their faith, I want to meet them where they are spiritually,” he said. “I want to let them know they are loved and help them by providing a friendly face and the face of Christ without pushing religion on them.
“My job,” he added, “is not to convert them but to be there for them.”
In addition to caring for men and women on board, chaplains help organize community outreach efforts at ports of call, said Father Burchell. For example they rebuild churches, provide basic medical care and lead recreational activities for local children.
How long Father Burchell will remain on the USS Ronald Reagan “depends on the needs of the Navy,” he said, but normal assignments are about two to three years.
He hopes to spend most of his priesthood in service to the military in some capacity, but that depends on the needs of the Arlington Diocese. Following his retirement from the Navy, Father Burchell will return to the diocese to serve.
Other Arlington diocesan priests on active duty with the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services include Father Eric J. Albertson for the Army and Fathers Daniel L. Mode and Luke R. Dundon for the Navy.
Fathers James C. Hinkle, Christopher P. Christensen and Steven R. Walker, currently serving at diocesan parishes, hope to be assigned as military chaplains eventually.
According to the military archdiocese, nearly 220 Catholic priests are on active duty in the U.S. military, caring for more than 300,000 servicemen and servicewomen.
Looking ahead to his chaplaincy, Father Burchell said that, thanks to his time on a cruise ship, it’s not seasickness he’s worried about but rather “feeling like there are not enough hours in the day for the big job.”
But he’ll work as hard as he can to bring Jesus to “those who put their lives on the line for us,” he said. “I want to be a person they can trust, a person they put their confidence in so that they can be a better sailor and a better Marine — and so this Navy and this country can be the best it can be.”