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Military missionary Fr. Daniel Mode returns to Arlington

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“I like to say I’m not a chaplain,” said Father Daniel L. Mode, an Arlington Diocese priest serving the Archdiocese for the Military Services. “I’m a missionary —  I’m sent.”

And sent he has been, from the halls of Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut, on two aircraft carriers, to posts in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and Afghanistan, among other corners of the world.

After 12 years serving outside the diocese, he’s back in Arlington, in residence at Our Lady of Lourdes Church and working at the Pentagon as commander of the Chaplain Corps U.S. Navy. He said he’s been stationed there “forever,” or in civilian terms, about a year, performing the crucial administrative work that connects chaplains of all religions to military servicemen and women of faith.

Growing up in the Navy, Father Mode lived all over the world, but he spent his senior year of high school in Springfield, prompting him to enter seminary for Arlington. After his ordination, he spent 13 years serving the diocese in various ways, including as pastor of Queen of Apostles Church in Alexandria. In 2005, the reservist was sent to Afghanistan. He has been, in his words, a military missionary ever since.

Most recently, he was the command chaplain at Guantanamo Bay, managing all the chaplains for the 6,000 souls on base in addition to being the only Catholic priest. “(It) was the most pastoral assignment I’ve ever had in the military,” he said. “We did everything: CCD, confirmation classes, funerals, baptisms, had festivals and barbecues.”

These typical parish activities aren’t the first thing that come to mind when one hears of Guantanamo Bay, he admited, but Father Mode has learned that life goes on, even in a combat zone. In Afghanistan, he convalidated the marriage of two couples, in addition to administering numerous other sacraments. During his career, he has celebrated Mass on 42 different ships deployed at sea — on aircraft carriers and destroyers, cruisers and other ships in their strike force.

Of 600,000 active duty persons and their families in the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard, 25 percent are Catholic, said Father Mode. Only 45 priests care for all their spiritual, and often emotional, needs.

“In a combat situation, you’ve got stresses and fears —  are you going to go to your commanding officer to talk about that?” asked Father Mode. “One of the gifts that military chaplains have is complete confidentiality. A person can come to them and really pour their heart out and not have to worry that it's going to go anywhere.”

The Command Religious Program analytics tool, a new data collection program Father Mode is helping to implement, lets the chaplains demonstrate their value. “We have always collected data.  (But) we’re doing it now in a unified, web-based, immediate way,” he said. Through this online database, chaplains all over the world can enter how many religious services and counseling sessions they perform. Father Mode and others in his office use the information to decide where to place chaplains and identify the needs servicemen and women have.

“Maybe our suicide rate has gone down because we’re there on the front lines caring for people,” he said. “We know that intuitively and if we can show that through statistics, all the better.”

When not working at the Pentagon, Father Mode spends as much time as he can flying a small recreational plane. But while stationed overseas, he’s had to pick up the hobbies of the locals. In Cuba, it was scuba diving. “(It’s like) swimming in an aquarium with all the most amazing fish you could ever imagine. And because it's only (the U.S.) on that side of the island, it's really pristine.” he said.

Every day, he finds inspiration from Maryknoll Father Vincent R. Capodanno, a Navy chaplain killed while serving in Vietnam who has since been declared a Servant of God. Father Mode wrote his master’s thesis about Father Capodanno, and later, a book about his life titled The Grunt Padre.

“There's not a week that I don’t have a connection to him from somebody who asks about him, who tells me they’ve had a miracle through his intercession or that they knew him,” he said. “Every week I get an email, letter or call related to Father Capodanno.”

Later this summer, Father Mode will be promoted to Captain in the U.S. Navy at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington. 

“I congratulate Father Mode in this momentous year both of his promotion to Captain and his 25th anniversary of priesthood,” said Arlington Bishop Michael F. Burbidge. “We are ever grateful to Father Mode for his faithful and generous priestly service to our Church, our diocese and our country.” 

His priestly mission work has connected him with all sorts of people, including the former president of the Jesuit Sophia University in Tokyo, who happens to be a longtime friend of Pope Francis. This May, in honor of Father Mode’s 25th jubilee, he was able to celebrate Mass with the pope in his private chapel. After Mass, he told the Holy Father about his life and their mutual friend.

“Here’s this American priest who happens to be a Navy chaplain in Rome talking about Japan. It was truly the universal church in action and an example of being a Navy chaplain,” he said. In other words, a missionary. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017