Bremerton Navy chaplain finds fulfillment shepherding Catholics serving in military
Fifteen minutes after arriving in Iraq's Al Anbar province in 2007, Father Jose Bautista was called to bless a Marine undergoing surgery at a makeshift Marine Corps base shock-trauma hospital.
For the parish-priest-turned-Navy-chaplain, it was a jarring introduction to his 13-month deployment with the 2nd Marine Logistics Group.
"It just hits you that, wow, we are in a war zone," Father Bautista recalled.
By the time he returned to the states, Father Bautista had assisted at 150 surgeries and traveled hundreds of miles to bring the presence of Christ to men and women serving in the hot and dusty war zone. Acting like a parish priest for his deployed Marines, he said Mass, heard confessions, anointed the sick and dying, and gave counsel and blessings.
One 20-something Marine requested a blessing after every Mass, finally telling Father Bautista, "I feel better in my heart, I feel more peace, and it also makes my mom feel better when I tell her you blessed me." The next time Father Bautista saw him, the young Marine was on a surgery room table. He died later, but not before the priest administered the sacrament of the anointing of the sick.
"From then on, every time I was saying Mass, giving Communion, I was thinking, this could be the last Communion for any of them," Father Bautista said. "You put so much effort and love into what you are doing because you never know, this might be the last time this person receives any grace from the sacraments."
Shepherd for those who serve
Two years earlier, Father Bautista felt the call to service as he was gazing out at the dozens of baby-faced Marines gathered at his California parish for their fallen comrade's funeral Mass. At the cemetery later, some of those war-toughened young Marines sobbed as if it were the end, "like there was no hope," he recalled.
It struck him — "they were like sheep without a shepherd."
The mother of the fallen Marine, one of Father Bautista's parishioners, didn't know if her son had received the anointing of the sick. Other service members returning from fighting in Operation Enduring Freedom told Father Bautista about the large shortage of priests in Iraq and Afghanistan. "It really bothered me that our troops were out there without being able to go to Mass," he said.
The need for priests in the military is great. In 2001, 25 percent of service personnel were Catholic, but just 8 percent of the military chaplains were Catholic, according to the Archdiocese for Military Services. Today, there are only 234 active-duty Catholic chaplains, down from more than 400 in 2001.
Father Bautista felt called to be a shepherd for military men and women. He had wanted to serve in the military ever since coming to the U.S. as a teenager. With permission from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, he applied to become a chaplain. By January 2006, he was enrolled at Navy chaplain school; that spring he was sent to Camp Lejeune, N.C., in preparation for his deployment as a Navy lieutenant.
"For my priesthood, I think [the deployment] was one of the greatest blessings," Father Bautista said. "It enriched my vocation so much to be able to minister to our troops at that time."
After Iraq, Father Bautista worked with service members and their families as a chaplain back at Camp Lejeune. The robust 47-year-old with a warm grin and a talent for connecting with people is now stationed aboard the USS Stennis aircraft carrier at Naval Base Kitsap-Bremerton. He recently spent eight months deployed with the carrier to the Middle East.
Father Bautista regularly celebrates Mass aboard the USS Stennis aircraft carrier. Photo: U.S. Navy/Walter M. Wayman
Catholicism kept calling
Growing up in Guadalajara, Mexico, Father Bautista was part of a "Sunday Catholic" kind of family. His father's construction work brought the family to California and Arizona for a few years before they returned to Mexico. At 16, he moved back to the U.S. and worked odd jobs for less than a living wage, while his faith continued drifting. For a few years, he stopped going to Mass — until a girl agreed to go out with him if they attended Sunday Mass first.
Another link back to the church came through a nun in East L.A., who gave him his first Bible and helped him deal with an on-the-job accident. Looking back, he says her example as a supportive religious sister gave him an unconscious push toward considering a religious vocation himself.
The rest of the Bautista family eventually returned to the Los Angeles area and got more involved in the church through Anawim, a charismatic Catholic group. But it was a joyful priest, Msgr. Patrick Thompson of St. Anthony Parish in San Gabriel, Calif., who really stirred up his vocational calling.
"I asked him, 'What do priests do?'" Father Bautista said. "He just laughed and said, 'Come and see.'" So he did, shadowing Msgr. Thompson on his daily routine. "He was a happy, happy man, doing what he was doing. And that's what made the priesthood so attractive to me," Father Bautista said.
Soon after, he went to one of the first Spanish-language seminarian discernment retreats in the Los Angeles Archdiocese. God was calling him to the priesthood, he decided.
But the news that he was headed to seminary stunned his parents. He never mentioned he was applying for the seminary, fearing he wouldn't be accepted. One of his brothers asked if he wanted help finding girls to date. "I told him I could find my own dates if I wanted," Father Bautista recalled with a laugh. "I felt more of a calling and a need to do ministry."
His formal schooling had ended around eighth grade, so the archdiocese helped him earn a GED, enroll in English classes and receive college prep tutoring. He went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees and was ordained in 1999.
A chaplain's life
Today, Father Bautista may be called "Sir," "Father B," or just "Padre" by the more than 2,300 sailors and Marines he ministers to at the base in Bremerton. He is approachable, always smiling and easy to talk to, said Lt. j.g. Andrew Miller. Sailors "just want someone who's real, and Father B is very real," he said.
Father Bautista's days are as eclectic as any parish priest's. He oversees maintenance and upkeep for his division as division officer. He says Mass, hears confessions, supervises Navy community service projects and holds counseling sessions and RCIA classes. While on deployment, he flew from ship to ship aboard a helicopter with the call sign "Holy Helo."
It's important to have a priest on hand to foster Catholic fellowship, said Miller, who went through RCIA classes and was confirmed by Father Bautista at this year's Easter Vigil while on the Stennis in the Indian Ocean. "Just being out on deployment, at sea, away from your family, at a time of war, our days can be long," Miller said. "Everyone looked forward to Saturday night when we were going to sit down with Father and take a break."
Many sailors who serve are straight out of high school and have huge responsibilities placed upon them, Father Bautista said. He admires them for doing a job "that has to be done precisely or costs their life or other lives … They are out there isolated in a tin can to defend our country, to keep us safe." Faith can be one of the only constants in their lives before and after joining the military, so it's important to have priest chaplains who can give them a Catholic grounding, Father Bautista added.
He believes bishops benefit from allowing their priests to become chaplains because "they get a better priest coming back," with new skills and a perspective on the larger church community.
"I feel blessed that God has called me into the priesthood, as unworthy as I am, that my country has called me to be able to serve our troops," Father Bautista said. "The greatest gift … is to be able to serve both of my loves, God and country. It just doesn't get better than that."
CATHOLICS AND THE MILITARY
• 1.8 million Catholics are part of the U.S. military community — active-duty personnel, family members, VA patients and embassy workers.
• 25 percent of the military is Catholic; Catholic priests make up just 8 percent of the chaplain corps.
• 46,161 active-duty military members are serving in Washington state (U.S. Census Bureau, 2009).
Northwest Catholic - December 2013
Anna Weaver is the multimedia, online and social media editor for Northwest Catholic. She also writes for the magazine and website.