May 16, 2016

A chat with the Philly priest who earned a Bronze Star in Afghanistan


Philadelphia, Pa., Apr 26, 2016 / 06:40 am (CNA).- After Mass at a typical parish, it’s fellowship over coffee and donuts. But for troops stationed in Afghanistan, after Mass it’s cigars smoked down to the nub.

Father Stephen McDermott, a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and a U.S. Army chaplain who recently was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his service in Afghanistan, just completed a year-long tour of duty in the country. He recalls how after the Sunday evening Mass, about 25 soldiers would gather for a smoky, improptu catechetical session.

“We’d just sit around and burn down a cigar, and it was one conversation: ‘Father, what do you think about this or that?’ They would come with their questions, and that was just a golden time of doing that.”

He promoted the practice even in small outpost bases when he stayed overnight. “I would post a sign saying, ‘Mass at this time followed by Holy Smokes,’” he said.

Much of Father McDermott’s time is spent ministering to Catholics and anyone else at the sprawling Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, where tens of thousands of service personnel and civilians live and work.

His “parish” is hardly typical, but it does include much of the ministry performed by any parish priest.
At a chapel used by people of all faiths, he celebrates up to seven Masses on a weekend plus daily Mass and weekly Eucharistic adoration and confessions. He even leads the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) program, a women’s group and Bible study sessions.

“One of the things I always try to do no matter where I am – my first three years were in Germany – is trying to create a parish atmosphere for these people, both military and civilian alike, so they are connected somehow to the parish back home,” he said.

Father McDermott is a native of St. Joseph Parish in Warrington and graduated from Temple University before entering St. Charles Borromeo Seminary and ordination as a priest in 2003. He has risen to the rank of captain since joining the Army chaplaincy in 2008.

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