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Army chaplain is honored to serve military families

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DALLAS - Surveying the scene at this year's National Conference for Diocesan Vocation Directors convention in Dallas, Father Matthew Pawlikowski recounted an experience he has often had with soldiers in the military.

"Some of the guys will say, 'Hey Chaplain, where's your weapon?' I tell them, 'Right here,'" said Father Pawlikowski, slapping his hands together in prayer with a rosary.

He spoke to The Texas Catholic, newspaper of the Dallas Diocese, while attending the vocation directors' September gathering.

Although officially an active duty Army chaplain since the summer of 2000, Father Pawlikowski has been serving members of the military as a chaplain since he was a student at Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. He remembers being drawn to the priesthood as early as high school.

He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., in 1986 with a Bachelor of Science degree in foreign area studies in the Soviet Union. He then spent six years of active duty service as an infantry officer, which took him from Fort Benning, Ga., to Uijeongbu, South Korea, and then eventually to Fort Bragg, N.C.

When his six years of service were complete, he resigned from active duty, entered the Army Reserve and began attending Immaculate Conception in hopes of becoming a priest. During the seminary, he found himself, in short order, to be the unofficial chaplain for Seton Hall's ROTC cadets and officers.

After being ordained a priest in 1997 for the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., Father Pawlikowski spent three years as a parish priest before returning to work as an active duty chaplain in the Army.

"I love being a priest," said Father Pawlikowski, who was born in Jersey City, N.J. "Being a priest is the greatest thing in the world. Getting to be a priest for soldiers and their families is even better. These are people who go out and do jobs that need to be done, but the rest of us don't want to do. They put their lives on the line.

"They put stresses on themselves and their families and make great sacrifices for our safety. That is a clientele that I think is an honor to serve. It's an honor to be a priest for anyone, but especially to serve the military and their families."

While his life as an Army chaplain has been fulfilling, he said, a chaplain must always remember his purpose, especially when soldiers are at war.

"Chaplaincy is missionary work, not only to the culture of the military, but especially when the military is deployed and deployed into harm's way," said Father Pawlikowski, who counts among his heroes, Father Emil Kapaun, a Kansas-born Army chaplain who died serving prisoners of war during the Korean War and who is a candidate for sainthood.

"That is really when we are most needed. As Christians seeking the advancement of the kingdom, we don't look to give up our lives, but if necessary, that's part of being Christian," he said. "As priests, we don't look to give up our lives, but if necessary, if that's what it means to take care of God's people, then that's what it means."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2013