There is no doubt about it; I have it – the best job in the world. The compensation in dollars and cents is hardly worth talking about – certainly it is negligible. The conditions under which I fulfill my duties are not the best, and the life is full of discomforts, in not hardship, with death a little closer than under ordinary circumstances. And yet I would not voluntarily exchange my job for any other in the world, for it be known unto you that I am a Knights of Columbus chaplain. What more can a man ask?
The four months which I have spent here at Camp Funston have convince me that never did God give a man a better chance to do good for country and faith than that which He gave to me through the Knights of Columbus. Of course I will measure up to it. That is an impossibility for any man. I know many other priests who could do the work better than I can. Still the chance has fallen to me, and I am doing my best, working, working, working, but with a singing heart the livelong day.
The fascination of the work lies in the material upon which I work. Never has such material been gathered together before. Thousands and thousands of our country’s best and bravest are here being formed into an army that is to uphold the ideals of our Government and rid the world, let us hope, forever of the greatest menace that has ever threatened human progress.
I must write only of what I know, but I am sure that what applies to Camp Funston also applies to all other camps in the United States. Here we have marching, side by side, men from all walks of life, everyone of them imbues with the one idea of winning the war – citizens coming by the thousand to offer life itself at their country’s call. I did not think in all our country there were so many great-souled men.
And men they are. Some way or another, while we call them “boys,” to me they answer the description of men. I have not met one yet who did not possess a thorough knowledge of the task before him and the gravity of the burden he has assumed. I have not met one with whom I would not trust all I hold dear. They are cheerful. They are happy. They are always smiling or laughing. But underneath their young joyousness there is something that is always present, an undercurrent running smoothly, strongly, that seems to permeate their whole being. I never met it in civil life, but I never lose sight of it here. I think it is a consciousness that so much depends upon them and an iron resolution not to be found wanting when the time comes.
I have a great deal to do with them, and the more I know them the more I love them. They come to me with all their sorrows and joys. A priest is always near the hearts of his people, but here he seems a little nearer. They have left home and its familiar faces. They cannot bring their little troubles or their interests to father, mother, wife, brother or sister. Homesickness, admitted or not, is their trouble now. How they crowd around him, how they consult him, how they value his services, only one who has been fortunate enough to be a chaplain can fully understand.
I could write reams of personal anecdotes. I could tell you the story of a private who offered to lend one of the officers $100,000 for some business enterprise. I could write of another private who paid off the mortgage on a comrade’s farm. I could mention the private whose father is a colonel, but whose Americanism and democracy led hem into the ranks. I could align him with the private whose one brother is a priest and the other a colonel.
At the mess where I take my meals, one of the waters is a former superintendent of schools. While I was talking to him the other day after dinner, he quietly told me he had just finished an article for a leading newspaper.
We had a mock trial by jury one night. I was surprised at the manner in which it was conducted. The mock judge looked as conventionally solemn as a real judge. The clerks of the court, the attorneys and all the rest connected with the trial were true to type. I learned afterwards that five of the men were lawyers. So they follow, one after the other, always the last a little more starling than that which preceded – the surprises of camp life. The moments do not lag here at Funston.
From a Catholic standpoint there is great joy in being here as chaplain. I remember how friends, who are minsters to non-Catholic congregations, were fond of asking me for the secret I possess which enables my to attract crowds to my church. They could not bet a baker’s dozen of men into their churches, although they were good preachers. The explanation is simple: they did not know the power of the holy sacrifice, and they thought that something personal was the attraction. When I informed them that Catholics could not be kept out of church when the holy sacrifice of the mass was offered up on Sunday, they marveled at it and could not understand. And here it is more evident and more edifying than ever to watch the men crowding in for the holy sacrifice. Their breathless attention, their earnest acceptance of it, is inspiration enough to urge a chaplain to give them the best in him in his sermon. A mixed congregation’s a gratifying sight for a priest to behold, but some way or another a congregation composed of only men seems in my estimation to demonstrate the power of religion more than anything else.
There is a strong appeal to me in the freedom with which the men accost the K. of C. chaplain. You know the army chaplains have an officer’s rank and wear an officer’s uniform. The men are accustomed to salute their officers and to stand at strict military attention when an officer speaks to them. While they know they may have entire freedom with their regulation chaplain, discipline is hard to over come once it is instilled, hence they are not quite as much at ease with the commissioned chaplain as with the K. of C. chaplain.
The great pleasure of the day is the attendance of the K. of C. hall. The one I live in is, I think, rather quiet. But this feature seems to be appreciated by the men. Every evening the writing desks are filled with the boys writing home to the loved ones. The small tables have chess, checkers or dominoes, and the games are played with great gusto. The piano always has its group, and frequently some artist comes in with a roll of music to give us a taste of the real thing. It may be piano, or it may be violin, but one is always sure of a good performance for the musicians of the higher rank are adding their share to the evening’s enjoyment.
Let me write a word about the officers. I have used the word private so often that you might think my boys were all privates. This is not so. Officers and non-commissioned officers are included in the list. My altar boys vary from captain to privates. I have not had a colonel or a general yet; but I feel confident that if one were present and altar boys were scarce, he would step up and do his best. Wonders are taking place. There may seem to be a contradiction in terms, but democracy appears to have taken hold of the army, at least of this camp. The pride that the officers take in their “wonderful boys” is equaled only by the assurance from every private that his “commanding officer is the finest officer in the whole regiment.” While, there is, of course, strict discipline, a mutual respect between officer and private is everywhere observable. The long looked for democracy in the army has arrived.
The greatest work I have to do, and the one that brings the greatest reward, is, of course, with the sick. When I arrived at the camp, that plague of military life, spinal meningitis, was rampant. Many were sick. Some had already gone the long journey. And others were rapidly approaching the end of things for them here. After consultation with the other chaplains and the parish priest – a fearless man who had been doing all this dangerous work unaided – I undertook the work at the base hospital. Never will I forget my first night. The doctors, Red Cross nurses and orderlies were working tenderly, quietly and tirelessly to alleviate the sufferings of the patients. Indeed, I was a welcome addition to this hard working staff of men and women. But it could not equal the prayerful welcome of those sick boys, so far away from home and kin.
I wish all my readers could take a trip with me through the hospital and see what our Government is doing for our sick boys. And those skilled physicians at their endless task are my “boys” too. What a welcome they gave me I never know what religion a doctor professes for the manner of his welcome for it is always a hearty one: “Welcome, chaplain; mighty glad to see you,” they will say with all cordiality, or “Father, you will find one of the boys in such or such a bed not feeling very well,” or some other such a kindly or co-operative greeting.
I call upon every one of the patients and use my best efforts to console and cheer them all. Need I tell you that I have substantial proofs that my visits are fully appreciated? There are several colored soldiers who are convalescing from spinal meningitis in one ward. I visit them daily, spending from twenty minutes to half an hour with each. Their spokesman a minister, made a little speech the other day, thanking me for my attention to them. The rest all joined in with “We will never forget your kindness to us as long as with live.” I pity the man who will slander a priest of our Church in the presence of that group. Gratitude and proof of it I have not only from the men, but also from their friends at home.
All my “boys” are mot men. I have quite a number of Red Cross nurses. May the Lord reward them for their labor I firmly believe that the army could not get along successfully without them. Just think of these fine women, living in most uncongenial quarters ever watching over their patients with maternal care, with hardly a single thing to make life tolerable, spending themselves freely for the cause we are enlisted in. The heroes of the war have already shown themselves – they are the physicians, nurses and the orderlies of the camps.
I find myself often wondering, since I came here to live with the “boys” when the war will be over, what will be some of the lasting results. Of one thing I am confident, that is that the days of bigotry and of calumny of the Church are nearing an end, and that the time when there will be but one Shepherd is rapidly approaching, and that one of the means used by God for the furtherance of His plan is the bond of friendship that has been formed between the chaplain and his “boys”.