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Priest Takes Religious Service Where Needed Most
by U.S. Naval Base San Diego
November 2, 2022

The military has supported the religious needs of service members for as long as our country has recognized the need to have a military. Since the birth of the Continental Army, Navy and Marines in 1775, chaplains have served alongside service members on and off the battlefield and battleship. Like many in our all-volunteer force, military chaplains answer a call to serve, however, in a slightly different way from a typical service member.

Though military chaplains have a non-combatant role, their mission is to tend to the spiritual, mental, and emotional needs of men and women in uniform where they serve.

“Spiritual fitness is a critical aspect of readiness for our force,” said the 28th Chief of Navy Chaplains, Rear Adm. Gregory Todd. “The spiritual fitness is an ethos, a way of life that requires constant exercise. Leaders cannot do the hard work of spiritual fitness for individuals, but they can model how a warrior attends to spiritual fitness, create an environment where the warrior is encouraged to grapple with tough questions, and provide the “gym,” the “trainers,” and the “exercises” that will facilitate true character development.”

Father Keith J. Shuley, a Catholic priest and recently retired Navy Chaplain, is approved by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services to serve Naval Base San Diego (NBSD) as a contract Roman Catholic priest. Since January, Shuley has been providing religious care to Catholic Sailors by conducting faith-specific services across the bases, the waterfront, and other Fleet concentration areas. This demonstrates the Chaplain Corps’ flexibility, which is critical to the success of the Department of Navy's Strategic Plan for Religious Ministry.

August 5, 2022 - Father Keith J. Shuley, a contracted Catholic Priest assigned to Naval Base San Diego, conducts Catholic Mass on the flight deck of amphibious transport dock USS Somerset (LPD 25). Father Shuley conducts weekly Catholic Mass on board Somerset and supports the religious needs of Sailors at operational commands across the waterfront. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Austin Hais)
August 5, 2022 - Father Keith J. Shuley, a contracted Catholic Priest assigned to Naval Base San Diego, conducts Catholic Mass on the flight deck of amphibious transport dock USS Somerset (LPD 25). Father Shuley conducts weekly Catholic Mass on board Somerset and supports the religious needs of Sailors at operational commands across the waterfront. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Austin Hais)

“One of the things that was immediately recognizable to me is how many people want to talk to the Catholic priest who's dressed like a Catholic priest,” said Shuley.

Shuley makes himself available by going to where the Sailors are. “When I’m sitting outside for priest availability, people will join me of all paygrades and of all components,” said Shuley.

Aboard USS Somerset (LPD 25), homeported in San Diego, a required assessment of the crew’s religious needs highlighted a challenge for a ship without an assigned Catholic chaplain.

“We realized about 25 percent of our ship’s force is Roman Catholic, and almost half of our incoming officers were Catholic,” said Lt. Edwin Handley, Somerset’s command chaplain. “So, we started thinking about what we could do to facilitate for the needs of the Roman Catholics on our ship.”

Shuley heard about Somerset and reached out to Handley to see how he could help. They decided to provide a Mass on Ash Wednesday for the Catholic community.

This demonstrated a great opportunity to expand Catholic services in a way that the Navy Chaplain Corps and the Archdiocese for the Military Services envisioned. “This is fantastic, this is exactly what the fleet ministry model is supposed to encapsulate,” Shuley said.

After resounding positive feedback from Somerset’s Catholic congregation, Handley and Shuley kept the weekly Mass throughout the Christian seasons of Lent and Easter. Afterward, Somerset was not ready to part ways with Shuley, and he has since held Mass aboard the ship every Friday.

Shuley regularly offers that he is there to help and assists Sailors in need wherever they are. He is seldom still, and is constantly moving about base to see a Sailor who requested to see him to them at their workstations, outside of their command, at the clinic before a medical appointment, or wherever best suits the Sailor.

Shuley’s success aboard Somerset is one of many examples of the flexibility of the Navy’s religious ministry strategic plan. The Navy is diverse, its working conditions are dynamic, and the needs of Sailors vary. Shuley’s visits to the various operational platforms and commands across NBSD and Naval Base Point Loma bring the ministry to Roman Catholic Sailors. He hosts various services, from baptisms and funerals to counseling and Mass, in order to meet Catholic-specific religious requirements of Sailors and their families where they are needed most.

“Military chaplains are really an extension of the outreach of the local parishes,” Todd explains. “We are here to care for our young people who join the military; we get to be present with military members in good times and bad, representing a divine presence and the support of folks back home.”

Navy religious ministries continue to provide spiritual, mental, and emotional care to Sailors. Often Sailors just need someone to talk to, and Father Shuley does what he can to make himself of service to those in need. That’s his calling, he said, to “be a priest, be a shipmate.”

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