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Priestly duties and reporting for duty during a pandemic

“It’s a rewarding ministry. I love serving soldiers and their families.”

As a member of the U.S Army Reserves Chaplain Corps, Father Andrew De Silva is required to report for duty twice a month and for two weeks during the summer.

“I’m a captain in the U.S. Army Reserves. I’ve been in for seven years, always in the Chaplain Corps,” he said.

Currently, he’s the head chaplain for the 8th Medical Brigade on Staten Island. Part of his responsibilities include supervising the other chaplain teams in the brigade and providing spiritual support and guidance for the soldiers. Due to the pandemic, this year has proven to be much more challenging. 

“We’ve been busy setting up or preparing teams to set up field hospitals. A lot of our work has been to train soldiers to set up field hospitals,” Father De Silva explained.

In April, when hospitals were nearing capacity and fear was high, Father De Silva was on the road in New York and Pennsylvania tending to two different teams of soldiers preparing to be mobilized.

“There was a lot of stress and a lot of fear—fear for the future, fear for their families. The main difficulty was the uncertainty. I was there for celebrating Mass, hearing confessions and counseling soldiers,” described the parochial vicar from St. Agnes in Clark. “As a chaplain, you’re also the go-to person when things get tough. I conducted a few classes on suicide prevention and stress management during the training. I was there as a confidential person who people could talk to when things were going badly.”

Father De Silva noted that the timing of his absence from the parish worked out well since public celebrations of Mass in the Archdiocese of Newark had been canceled at the time. “I was able to celebrate the Triduum with soldiers who were away from families. But because of our online nature at the parish, was still able to be somewhat present to St. Agnes.”

Father De Silva also pointed out this was his very first Triduum as a priest—he had been ordained less than a year prior in May 2019. He said he wanted to help out as much as possible during this important time for his parish, so he and the pastor, Father William Sheridan, recorded a small retreat for parishioners before he left for duty. Father De Silva was also able to livestream a few Masses from his location in New York back to the parish.

Joking that it was like being in two places at the same time, he said he was grateful for the sense of support St. Agnes provided. “It was good to have Father Bill and the parish there praying for this other flock that I was ministering to,” he admitted. “They were incredibly supportive. That was really beautiful to see. They’re a great community at St. Agnes.”

Father De Silva said sharing his time between these two ministries doesn’t feel like a conflict. In fact, he said each one influences the other.

“I feel blessed to be able to be a parish priest, but at the same time, to be there when I’m needed for that community that is ready to put everything on the line for their country,” he explained. “My ministry in the parish impacts or benefits my ministry to soldiers and vice versa: My parish ministry helps me bring spirituality to soldiers; my [time in the Army] brings leadership and professionalism to the parish ministry.”