Faith Under Fire

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Tears reveal the depth of feeling that Padre Daryll Moran holds for veterans. It is the suffering of servicemen whom he fondly calls, “My Boys” that informs and shapes his ministry with Forster-Tuncurry RSL Sub-Branch. He will contribute to 100th anniversary Remembrance Day services on November 11 and says the work of padres is valued by veterans and members of the Australian Defence Force serving in armed conflicts.

November 11 marks the 100th anniversary of the Armistice which ended World War I, and the role of padres has evolved during that time. How do padres support servicemen and women?

Much has changed since the dugouts of Gallipoli, where padres led the singing of age-old hymns under shells exploding overhead or provided tea and coffee on the Kokoda Track. We live in a different world; the huge majority of those who went off to World War I went from family picnics and church services, leaving the dance halls and churches devoid of men. As you read stories from Gallipoli and the Western Front onwards, there was a lot of calling out to God in times of need and death, and there weren’t many atheists on the battlefield.

Belief patterns have changed and to be relevant, so has the role. Today there are four broad areas of religious ministry, pastoral care, character training and administration, but really, pastoral care relates to all areas. In military service there is going to be fear, there is going to be grief, there is going to be moral judgements and character building. Sadly, soldiers must also deal with the loss of life and the death of mates. They must also try to cope with the things they have seen and deal with feelings of separation, loneliness, dealing with family and society, and helping veterans and serving members to do that is very much part of the role.

Padres comfort, console, and encourage the soldier’s faith and hope under fire as they face life threatening situations and are challenged by their mortality. We are there to support them with their spiritual beliefs, or lack of, and during those moments when they ask the harder questions of life, faith and what happens next.

When you reflect on the work of padres, how do you believe they work to show that God is love in the midst of so much suffering in war?

That’s not an easy one to answer. To the padre, it’s more than a job – it’s a calling from God, and they show God’s love through their care and respect for each soldier, sailor or airman or woman. In the midst of suffering and death, you are comforting the ill, the wounded and bringing Godly consultation. In World War I many soldiers would cry out to God or cry out for their mother, so bringing comfort was part of showing God’s love for them. Today we bring God’s perspective of love and encouragement and offer support through helping them when they experience feelings of anxiety, fear and stress and to deal with things such as fatigue, loneliness, separation and even boredom. 

History reveals religion to be a catalyst for choices that lead to conflict. How can we learn from the past to try to prevent division caused by religion in an increasingly multicultural society? 

You could do a thesis on that one, but historically many things, including people’s choice of religion, have been debated as being the catalyst that leads people to conflict – they have been centuries in the making, and involve personal greed, possession of land, wealth, resources, and the desire to conquer. Yes, we operate in an increasingly multicultural society, but with God as our guide we have the greatest opportunity to seek to foster Christian values, ethos, traditions and standards of behaviour.

The past and cultural division, with its many catalysts have the tendency to repeat itself, so it’s here we pray for wisdom in the way forward.

Sometimes when non-Christian people talk about God, I often hear the phrase, “the higher power” or “the big fella upstairs” and they will ask me to pray. They may not have a personal faith, but will say, “Padre, will you pray to the big fella upstairs for me?”, and that gives me an opportunity to talk on a personal level. The big fella upstairs is, of course, the God that Australian padres seek for guidance and wisdom as we operate in an increasingly multicultural society.

Why is there a need for padres in the modern defence force? 

There will always be a need for padres where “faith under fire”, character, morals, choices and lifestyles are tested, often to breaking point on the battlefield. The padres bring hope and comfort within the issues of fear, grieving mates, stress, dealing with mortality, the pressure of conflict and ultimately, death. Our soldiers are called upon to do what no other section of society does – their mission is honour, integrity, mateship, teamwork, courage, loyalty, and the traditions they strive to uphold have an ethos and value that is unique to the defence of our nation.

Here, the padres call from God is best paralleled in the gospel of John, chapter 15 verse 13. “Greater love has no-one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” Obviously Jesus did it, and when we see a 96-year-old veteran with tears in his eyes, and you ask him about his grief, he will talk about a mate, or something he had to do which didn’t sit true in his heart, and he may have carried that for 70 years. It is in that moment, when you are there and given the opportunity with Godly wisdom – you can’t do it on your own strength – that you are able to speak to that man and bring some comfort to him.

I love my interaction with our veterans, some of them are in their nineties and I call them “My Boys”. I’ve got some very great personal friendships, led many to a relationship with God and helped them to deal with issues they had carried for more than 70 years – it’s such a great honour.

Thank you.

Love Pray Do, Ainslee Dennis

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