Saturday, September 4, 2010

Baltimore Priest Who Served in Iraq To Become Bishop of the Archdiocese for U.S. Military Services

On one of the bloodiest days of the Iraq War – April 9, 2004 – Father F. Richard Spencer became the link between this world and the next for many of the mortally wounded.

Insurgents had attacked a large convoy of gas trucks that Good Friday, firing multiple mortar rounds at a United States base on the outskirts of Baghdad International Airport. Father Spencer, a U.S. Army military chaplain, administered the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and prayed with men and women whose faces wore what he remembered as glazed looks of shock and disbelief.

“In the moment, you do your prayers, then move to the next situation, because it’s continuous chaos,” said Father Spencer, then attached to the Army’s 1st Calvary Division.

“You just offered prayers that they would see the face of God that very day and you trust and hope,” he said. “We had both Iraqis and Americans die. I didn’t know who was Muslim or who was Christian – but they all got a prayer.”

Once Father Spencer and his soldiers made it into a concrete bomb shelter, he stood on a trash can and offered general absolution as the shelling continued.

“It was a life-changing day for me,” he remembered. “Our men and women in uniform are able to face hardships and they’re trained to make good decisions in the midst of chaos. Their resiliency is inspiring.”

Father Spencer is about to expand his service to U.S. military men and women around the world.

In May, Pope Benedict XVI appointed him to be the next auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese for U.S. Military Services. The 59-year-old Baltimore priest will be installed Sept. 8 during a 2 p.m. liturgy at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

Remaining on active duty, the Alabama native will become the first auxiliary bishop for the U.S. military archdiocese able to enter war zones. He will have unprecedented access to military personnel serving in most difficult circumstances.

“I have known Father Spencer well for many years, first in my capacity as archbishop for the military and now as Archbishop of Baltimore,” Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien said. “We are proud the Holy Father has chosen him, one of our own, to continue serving our brave and generous women and men in the military.”

Bishop-designate Spencer is humbled by the appointment. He believes his experiences in the Baltimore archdiocese, as a pastor of St. Peter the Apostle in Oakland, associate pastor and director of the Monsignor O’Dwyer Retreat House in Sparks, have given him invaluable pastoral experience.

“I will listen that I may serve” will be his motto – borrowed from the late Archbishop William D. Borders, a World War II Army chaplain and one of Bishop-designate Spencer’s spiritual mentors. He prays he can live up to it.

Heart For Service

When Bishop-designate Spencer’s parents migrated from Wisconsin to Alabama in the 1940s, they faced discrimination because of their Catholic faith. They were only allowed to live on one street – “Canon,” which had originally been named “Catholic Street.”

“I remember playing baseball in a friend’s yard and his mother coming out the back door and informing me that I could not stay and play because I was Catholic and would be a bad influence,” he recalled.

With a heart for service, he transcended those religious barriers. He was an altar boy and an Eagle Scout. At Jacksonville (Ala.) State University, Bishop-designate Spencer earned a degree in law enforcement and served in Kappa Sigma, the social service fraternity.

“All those experiences were stepping stones toward the expression of service found in ministry and the religious life,” he said.

Commissioned an Army officer in 1973, he went on active duty a year later. For eight years, he served as a military police officer.

In 1980, Bishop-designate Spencer traded in his military uniform for a Franciscan habit. Having always been interested in social justice, he became a religious brother with the Order of Friars Minor.

In his first year as a Franciscan brother, Bishop-designate Spencer ministered in New York with Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement.

“I washed dishes at the soup kitchen side-by-side with her,” he said.

Bishop-designate Spencer, who later ministered as a counselor in prisons near Boston, acknowledged that it was highly unusual for a former military man to be so closely connected with the Catholic Worker Movement, recognized for its strong anti-war and pro-peace activism. His fellow Franciscans gave the young brother a nickname: “Captain.”

“We would sit around at nighttime on the floor and (the Catholic Workers) would run the printing presses of their newsletter,” the bishop-designate remembered. “We had wonderful conversations – challenging, enlightening and encouraging.”

It was his service as a brother that inspired him to become a parish priest. Bishop-designate Spencer turned to the Archdiocese of Baltimore, a Catholic community he had known while stationed at Fort Meade. Conversations with Archbishop Borders convinced him that he was meant for the priesthood, and he entered St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Roland Park.

“Archbishop Borders was so gentle in his ways,” he said. He was able to balance a life of activity with contemplation.”

Father Spencer was ordained May 14, 1988. 


No comments: