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To Chaplain, Warship's Just the Place to Spread Message of Peace and Love

Nightly rosary prayers are said below the flight deck, accompanied by the roar of engines.

October 27, 2002|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN, in the northern Arabian Sea -- With his words occasionally drowned out by the launch of warplanes, Father Matthias Rendon is leading a small group of Catholics in the nightly praying of the rosary.

That Rendon is aboard a ship that could become involved in a war in the Middle East is, depending on one's viewpoint, either an irony of history or an act of divine providence.

For a decade, the 42-year-old Franciscan friar was a missionary in the often war-torn Middle East. Then he enlisted in the Navy, looking for a new opportunity to spread the Christian message of peace and brotherhood.

Now he's the Catholic chaplain on a ship of war that may soon be ordered by President Bush to lead an air assault against the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein.

To those who might see a contradiction between missionary work and military service, the quiet-spoken son of a Pennsylvania dairy farmer says he has merely found a new way, like St. Francis of Assisi, to become a channel of God's peace.

"I don't think of our mission as war and violence," Rendon said. "I'm reminded of the Roman proverb: 'If you want peace, prepare for war.' I think of us as peacekeepers."

He enlisted two years ago after the Navy, struggling with a chronic shortage of Catholic chaplains, sent a recruiting letter to the Franciscan Monastery in Washington, the U.S. headquarters of the Franciscans of the Holy Land.

Brother Fabian, who directs the monastery, thought immediately of Rendon, who was working at a parish in Boston and was restless for a new challenge.

"I prayed on it," Rendon said. "I realized I was being called. And then all the doors flew open."

After attending chaplain school in Newport, R.I., he was assigned in early 2001 to the Lincoln, then in its homeport, Everett, Wash.

When the Lincoln deployed in July for a six-month stint in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea, Rendon became Catholic chaplain for the carrier and the smaller ships in the battle group.

Rendon, whose short haircut and dark-rimmed glasses give him a Drew Carey-ish appearance, celebrates Mass, leads nightly prayer sessions ("I'm convinced that prayer is needed everywhere"), hears confessions ("not as many as I would like"), and provides counseling. He visits the other ships aboard a helicopter known among sailors as the "Holy Helo."

Life aboard an aircraft carrier at sea can be a difficult, even intimidating, experience for newcomers. Not every sailor can adjust to the tight quarters, the incessant demands of work and the lack of privacy. Even the young, fit and highly motivated have been known to wilt under the pressure.

But Rendon, who holds the rank of lieutenant, says he has found that life on a carrier is much like life in a monastery.

"A carrier is just one big monastery when you think about it," he said.

Both worlds are highly structured. Both have a strict hierarchy of authority. Days center on work schedules and tasks to be accomplished. Punctuality and orderliness are mandatory.

And then there is the communal living and working beside colleagues with similar values and a similar uniform.

"In a monastery or on a carrier, everybody is in the same boat," Rendon said. "Nobody is alone."

Rendon attended LaSalle University in Philadelphia and, drawn to the religious life, attended a seminary in Jerusalem. He was ordained as a member of the Franciscans of the Holy Land, an autonomous province of the Franciscan order that for 800 years has provided a Catholic presence in the region.

He spent five years in Jerusalem tending to the spiritual needs of pilgrims, then five years at a French-speaking parish in Egypt. Returning to America, he worked in Boston.

The Franciscans, Rendon noted, are both a contemplative order and one committed to social activism: "We're committed to prayer, but we are not bound by the cloisters of the monastery."

The nightly rosary prayers are said in a small room directly beneath the flight deck. The roar of engines and the hiss of the steam-driven catapult are ever present.

On one side of the room is the Navy flag, on the other a fabric banner of a dove holding an olive branch.

"Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for our sins, now and in the hour of our death," the group says as planes launch for surveillance and possible bombing missions over Afghanistan.

Several Franciscans are among Navy chaplains serving aboard ships, at land-based commands and with Marines. Among them is Rear Adm. Louis Iasiello, deputy chief of Navy chaplains and former head chaplain to the Marines.

For Mass and nightly prayers, Rendon wears his brown Franciscan robes, but on most days he wears his Navy uniform, with only the cross on his collar.

"The Navy uniform is more practical and convenient," he said. "It also makes us all equal, and that is important."

With his dedication to order and discipline, it is not surprising that Rendon's next goal is to be assigned to the Marines. To make the transition, he's begun a regimen of physical conditioning, rising at 4:30 a.m. for workouts.

"He's in a groove now," said Cmdr. Robert Marshall, head chaplain aboard the Lincoln. "If he's going to work with Marines, he wants to look the part."

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