Q&A with JBER military chaplain
Captain Nicholas Reid, age 37, is a Catholic priest and Air Force chaplain just outside of Anchorage, at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, where he was recently transferred. The Catholic Anchor caught up with him and talked about his coming-of-age on a military base in the Bible Belt, his vocation to the Catholic priesthood, and his military chaplaincy. Responses are edited for length and clarity.
COMING OF AGE IN A PROTESTANT WORLD
You grew up as a military brat?
Fr. Reid: That’s right. My dad was in the Army, and our family moved around to different bases, including the Pentagon. When I was eight, we settled in Waynesville, Missouri near Fort Leonard Wood.
Was yours a Catholic home?
Fr. Reid: My dad is a practicing Episcopalian and my mom a practicing Catholic, so we kiddoes were raised Catholic. Kids and mom would go to Mass every weekend, and dad would go to his service. Sometimes, on Christmas and Easter, we’d join together for the Catholic Mass. But I don’t remember denominational-specific differences brought up in the home. Sometimes we’d do prayer before meals that was Episcopalian.
I was a late-blooming Catholic, I guess. I remember a conversation as a kid in sixth grade when I was doing a project on JFK, and I went to the World Book Encyclopedia — which, before we had technology, was how we got information — and his religion said “Roman Catholic.” And I remember asking my mom, “Mom, what’s a Roman Catholic?” She said, “Oh, sweetie, that’s what we are.”
But I quickly learned in that part of Missouri what Catholics did — and did not — believe through discussions around the public school lunch table. “Why do you guys worship a cookie?” And I remember thinking to myself, “I don’t think we worship cookies, or statues, or anything like that.” And so I’d go and look it up with Catholic Answers. In high school, I was intellectually engaged with the faith from an apologetics standpoint, and I was reading Karl Keating’s book “Catholics and Fundamentalism.”
So that helped you have conversations with non-Catholic Christians?
Fr. Reid: Absolutely. So much of our Catholic faith is cultural, and I don’t mean that disparagingly. It’s something that seeps into us, a learn-by-doing, witness by parents and family members — but not always a step-by-step learning process. In high school I began to put things together from a theological and identity perspective, and being Catholic became something concrete.
For example, our Boy Scout troop was attached to the Methodist Church. Catholics comprise five percent or so of Waynesville, so we Catholics would go to these Methodist sports camps. In sixth grade, I received my vocation to the priesthood at a Methodist church camp, in a religiously blended family. I suppose in that sense I’m quintessentially American.
And you graduated high school in Missouri?
Fr. Reid: Yep – proud graduate of Waynesville High School, class of 1999.
Did you go to college after graduation?
Fr. Reid: I went immediately to minor seminary — four years at Conception Seminary, under the tutelage of the Benedictine Monks, their witness of work and prayer — and my own personal devotion to “sometimes homework.” That was the first time that I was steeped in a Catholic culture: men, young and old, all discerning their vocation on a farm in northwest Missouri. It’s a very unique and intentional community.
So you graduated from Conception Seminary in 2003. Did you immediately go to major seminary?
Fr. Reid: I wasn’t ready for the commitment of graduate level seminary. So I took four years off, the first two of which I lived with my twin brother at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, where he was learning how to fly jets. The last two years, 2005-07, I was at St. Louis University, studying historical theology at the graduate level. I thought that I would teach at a Catholic high school, or do some other ministry as a layperson. And the Lord called me back to seminary in 2007.
You called it a “reconversion.”
Fr. Reid: I never stopped practicing the faith. I was in Atlanta for Easter of 2005. During the sermon it just hit me, surrounded in a roomful of believers I didn’t know: I was bawling. But I heard the Lord say to me, convey to me, “I don’t care what you do, I care that you say ‘Yes.’” All of the stuff that I was worried about — what am I going to do, am I going to be a teacher — the Lord cut through all of that. “Say ‘Yes’ to my will, and everything is going to work out.” It gave me permission in my own mind to ask different questions. It wasn’t a “How am I going to be spending my time” question, but “Am I going to be following the Lord’s will” question. It was a Holy Spirit sneak attack — very well done, God!
Were you back at Conception for major seminary?
Fr. Reid: No, Catholic University of America, under the tutelage of the Sulpicians. They run St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore and Theological College in Washington, D.C. I was ordained as a priest for the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri on June 4, 2011.
A VOCATION WITHIN A VOCATION
Did you always want to go back and serve the military as a priest?
Fr. Reid: Yes. I always envisioned the priesthood in uniform. I had wonderful witnesses in military chaplains growing up, Catholic and Protestant. I remember thinking in high school, “I can do military stuff, and be a priest?” It’s a vocation within a vocation.
I joined the Army Reserves in 2008, and I was studying to be a priest with the intention of going active duty in the military. After ordination, my bishop and I decided that I would just work on the priesthood, so I didn’t actively drill. By the time I was ready to go active duty in 2015, my original commitment with the Army was up. I decided, “Well, I’m going to check out the Air Force.” Looking at different models of ministry, and hearing my brother talk about his different interactions with Air Force chaplains, I thought it would be a good fit. Actually, I’m delighted to be here at a joint Army-Air Force base at JBER.
Best of both worlds?
Fr. Reid: Exactly. You can take the kid out of the Army family, but you can’t take the Army family out of the kid — or the minister!
A lot of people saw the movie “Hacksaw Ridge,” and the challenges presented to someone who is a patriot and a soldier, but also a non-combatant. Is that how military chaplains are classified?
Fr. Reid: Per Geneva Convention, I am a non-combatant — hence the red cross on my ID. We are not allowed to train with, or use, weapons. We are 100% non-combatants. And that’s a hard and fast rule. Our job is to accompany — which is a word that Pope Francis uses a lot — the troops on campaign “down range.” We also ensure their First Amendment right to practice their faith, so there’s that constitutional aspect to our role. And then there’s the counseling aspect, which is critical to the life of a chaplain.
There’s also what we call “unit ministry” — being in the life of folks at the workplace. Among the differences between a civilian minister and a chaplain, this is probably the biggest one. Here, I’m expected to spend more than half my day with my airmen in the med group: I go to their places of work, I check in, I go to their PT in the morning. But as a civilian priest, if I walked into Wal-Mart’s accounting section, and I said, “Hey, what’s going on? I’m Father Reid, your unit chaplain!” — they would look at me as if I’d gone insane.
I’m not flying jets or turning wrenches, but I’m with them as they’re doing that, to learn about their jobs and build a relationship. So, if and when they’re having a bad day, they’re talking to a friend and not a stranger.
You served in Kuwait for part of 2017. Going from stateside to overseas, how did your role as a chaplain change?
Fr. Reid: A large portion of Kuwait’s population is foreign nationals who have manual labor jobs. Housekeepers, construction, oil rigs. That’s a lot of the cultural interaction, too — not just Kuwaiti culture, but these folks, many of whom are Catholic, from India and the Philippines.
Did you minister to any of these folks who were foreign nationals?
Fr. Reid: I did offer a weekly Mass on Saturday night for a handful of Indian Catholics. It was really beautiful. They would work 30 days per month, 15-hour shifts — really hard work. They only had so much time between their lunch and dinner shift, so I would go to the dining facility and say Mass. Some of them spoke English, some of them didn’t. But receiving the Eucharist, and being able to have a connection with their faith from an American, in the Middle East — if there’s anything more universal than that, I don’t know what it is. They were so grateful, and it was extremely humbling.
How long will you be stationed here at JBER?
Fr. Reid: I’ll be here for three years.
For the young men and women considering religious vocations: if you could go back and talk to yourself as that 12-year-old who first felt the call to the priesthood at a Methodist summer camp, what would you say now?
Fr. Reid: For anyone discerning God’s will, or making a tough decision, it’s asking yourself, “Do I really believe that God will be outdone in generosity?” If I were talking to myself as a 12-year-old now, I would say, “The Lord cherishes you. And those things that are complicating your life or decisions — the Lord is going to blow all of that stuff out of the water and call you to something that you can’t possibly even imagine how fantastic it is.” So I’ve learned more to worry about saying yes, rather than any number of reasons for saying no.