Fr. Mode battles for souls

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Lieutenant Commander and U.S. Navy Chaplain Father Daniel Mode has landed by helicopter in the midst of gunfire on the rocky battlefields of Afghanistan to reach wounded soldiers. Wearing fatigues and a helmet with an identifiable cross, he is a welcome sight to soldiers.

With the words, "I am going to anoint you," he has brought Christ's peace to the dying and, through the Eucharist, strength and hope to those in battle.

He is an unsung hero, one of three Arlington priests on loan to the U.S. military thanks to Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde. Along with Fathers Eric Albertson and Michael Duesterhaus, Father Mode voluntarily brings the sacraments to thousands of Catholic troops stationed around the world. Their unending battle waged is the biggest one: the battle for souls for eternity.

In May 2005, at the age of 38, Father Mode, then pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish in Alexandria and a naval reservist, was sent to Bagram, Afghanistan, to serve in Operation Enduring Freedom as chaplain to Combined Joint Task Force 76. In the 22 months he was stationed there, he served as the supervisory chaplain of 17 U.S. and coalition chaplains and coordinated the Catholic coverage of 30,000 soldiers. He moved every couple of days, traveling on 263 missions to 51 forward operating bases and offered 601 Masses for 16,360 troops.

"There were four incidents when I knew that my life was in danger," Father Mode said of his battlefield experiences. "There were people shot right in front of me." He said that he was not afraid. His bravery earned numerous awards, including he Bronze Star Medal, the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the Navy Commendation Medal and the Combat Action Ribbon.

"You make your peace with it all. As a priest, you are always engaging them for eternity," he said. "For all of us, whether in Afghanistan or drinking a latte in Falls Church, we are all headed toward eternity.

"The last four years of my life I call my 'St. Francis phase,'" said Father Mode of his years of being one of 6-9 Catholic priests assigned as chaplain. "I lived out of a duffle bag." He said that he slept when he could, sometimes while traveling.

To reach his "parishioners" he traveled constantly using varying modes of transportation, including 12 different ships, two oil platforms, six different types of aircraft and five different types of vehicles. Through it all he never lost his zeal to serve God and his fellow soldiers so grateful for his presence.

"It is the greatest joy there is to be that missionary, to be sent, to bring Our Lord to them which may be the first time in months," said Father Mode. "This may be the only time they can receive Communion."

In March 2007, Father Mode was assigned to active duty in the U.S. Navy and appointed chaplain on the aircraft carrier USS Truman deployed to the Persian Gulf. This ship, as high as a 24-story building, with a flight deck of 4.5 acres, can accommodate 80 aircraft.

"Living on the Truman was like living in a monastery," said Father Mode. "There were a lot of similarities - the cells were the living quarters, there were bells that woke you up and sent you to bed. There was the 9:55 p.m. set prayer time. We all wore uniforms, kind of like habits. There was a pace to the day. It was a very monastic setting."

During this assignment, he offered 496 Masses to 5,064 personnel on nine different ships. One of his greatest honors was in November 2007 when he took a group of 150 soldiers to meet the Holy Father during a port call in Rome.

Father Mode said that a chaplain's job is similar to that of a parish priest. In addition to celebrating Mass, chaplains baptize, hear confessions, anoint the sick, and officiate at weddings and funerals. They are involved in the spiritual formation of the troops and run catechetical programs.

"Nothing stops when you are aboard a ship," Father Mode said. "Seventeen people joined the Church."

His door was always open to anyone who needed to talk, often times for advice.

"You do a lot of counseling," he said. "I counseled about 839 sailors in two years."

This June he was assigned as chaplain of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., where 1,000 students are in training to be officers.

He said that change and flexibility come easy to him since growing up in a military home, which gave him a "missionary spirit." His father was a Surface Warfare Officer. The youngest of four sons, Father Mode was born in Portsmouth, but the family moved to 15 different houses in 18 years. They lived in seven states and one foreign country - Korea. He attended three different high schools, finally graduating from West Springfield High School.

He realized his religious vocation in the eighth grade while sitting at his aunt's dining room table on Christmas Day.

"I heard in my heart, 'Dan, you are to be a priest,' between 'pass the potatoes,'" he said. His calling became more evident as the years passed.

Father Mode joined the naval reserves in 1989 as a Chaplain Candidate Program Officer, commissioned by his brother, Lieutenant Commander Kevin Mode, a submarine officer. He attended the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, followed by Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md. He graduated in 1992 and was ordained the same year. His first assignments were associate pastor of St. Mary of Sorrows Parish in Fairfax, and later, vice principal and chaplain at Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington where he served in the naval reserves during summers.

While in the seminary, Father Mode discovered the story of Father Vincent Capodanno, a Navy chaplain during the Vietnam War who received the Medal of Honor after he was killed in September 1967 during a battle called Operation Swift.

Father Mode's master's thesis on Father Capodanno was later published as a book, The Grunt Padre. In May 2006, Father Capodanno was declared Servant of God and Father Mode was appointed postulator for the cause after 10 years of "legwork" and promotion of this holy priest.

"Father Capodanno was so normal," said Father Mode. "In his normalcy, he did extraordinary things in a heroic way. He served and laid down his life for his friends. He is famous because of his death."

Father Capodanno has been an inspiration for Father Mode.

"His story is my story and everybody's story," he said. "He shows me this is what I need to do."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2009