PROVIDENCE — As much as Father Lukasz J. Willenberg misses being part of a regular parish family back home in the Diocese of Providence, where he served as assistant pastor at St. Luke Church in Barrington, ministering to members of the U.S. Army as a military chaplain for the last eight years has brought him an unparalleled level of joy.
In 2013, nearly five years into his priesthood, Father Luke, as he is affectionately known, was granted permission by Bishop Thomas J. Tobin to serve the Archdiocese of the Military Services so he could serve his newly adopted country while continuing to serve as an incardinated priest of the Diocese of Providence.
A competitive triathlon athlete, the native of Dzialdouo, Poland, was well-prepared physically to enter the military world, where he quickly found the opportunity to speak acronym-filled language, wear the same uniform and share the same risks as his fellow brave warriors “humbling and rewarding.”
“Our service members and their families have a spirit of selfless service and a willingness to sacrifice for a cause bigger than themselves and that is noble and worthy of respect,” Father Luke told Rhode Island Catholic as Veterans Day approached, and he was settling in and unpacking for yet another new assignment. This posting has brought Father Luke, who was promoted to the rank of Major on Oct. 1, to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where he will minister at the Field Grade level to Green Berets.
This is his second stint with the Special Forces community, known for being the most experienced and most skilled “quiet professionals.” Such chaplaincy assignments require the best the Army has to offer in terms of spiritual resiliency, physical fitness, mental toughness, technical proficiency and moral character.
His previous assignment was at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where for 14 months Father Luke served as a chaplain in the Basic Training Unit, welcoming 600 new recruits each week for a 10-week cycle of training, shaping the future of the Army.
“It was such a great opportunity to be there for these ‘kids,’ serving them, hopefully enriching their lives, and bringing them the sacraments on a daily basis,” he says.
The best part of the assignment for him was the celebration of one Sunday Mass which attracted more than 1,300 trainees, blessing him with the opportunity to share the Eucharist with so many faithful at once. He looked forward to that Mass for a whole week in anticipation of the chance to bring Christ to so many who expressed feeling “tired and burdensome,” as they ran through their drills.
Over the course of his military chaplaincy, Father Luke has served the spiritual needs of his fellow troops in several precarious situations, including his posting to forward operating bases in Afghanistan. It was there, in 2014, that the triathlete organized the restive nation’s first officially sanctioned Boston Marathon Afghanistan, a year after completing the stateside race himself with a commendable time for the world-famous course.
“I think I have God on my side,” Father Luke joked in a 2014 telephone call with Rhode Island Catholic from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, where he finished the race in 2 hours, 44 minutes and 59 seconds, about 11 minutes faster than his 2013 finish in the Boston Marathon.
Two years later, in 2016, Father Luke would further demonstrate his physical fitness prowess by breaking the record for completing the fastest 12-mile march by any soldier ever to graduate from the U.S. Army’s elite DeGlopper Air Assault School in Fort Bragg, N.C.
Then the Second Battalion Chaplain of the 3rd Brigade, 82 Airborne Division’s 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Father Luke broke the existing long-standing record by a full seven minutes, finishing the pre-dawn trek in one hour and forty-two minutes.
The foot march served as the final endurance test in a grueling, 10-day training course in which only 65 of the more than 100 soldiers in the class graduated the “Go” or “No Go” system. As part of the course, soldiers were subjected to everything from time-competitive rappelling — including a 90-foot “Hollywood Rappel” out of a hovering UH-60A Blackhawk helicopter — to employing the skills needed to order a 9-line MEDEVAC or call-in air support. The march was the capstone of the training known as “the 10 hardest days in the Army.”
In 2017, Father Luke, along with his army team, finished in first place at the Bataan Memorial Death March, a difficult 26.2-mile trek through the white gypsum dunes of the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
The team competed in and won the co-ed military heavy division which required that all members carry a 35-pound rucksack throughout the course. Their finishing time of 6:26:57 was more than 30 minutes faster than the second-place team in their division.
As much as these physical exploits showcase the speed, strength and teamwork through which the U.S. military defends the nation’s freedom, the members and their families also rely upon military chaplains to help them strengthen their spiritual lives as well.
The Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA (AMS) is entrusted with the pastoral care of 1.8 million Catholics in the United States and around the world, including men and women serving in the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Space Force and Coast Guard, along with their families; patients in Veterans Affairs Medical Centers; and employees and families of the U.S. Federal Government outside the borders of the United States.
In congratulating Father Willenberg on his selection as Major in the U.S. Army, The Most Rev. Timothy P. Broglio, Archbishop of the Military Services, USA, commended him for the sacrifices that he’s made in his service.
“Mindful of the many, personal sacrifices you have had to make, as well as the selection process, I am well aware of the significance of your accomplishment. Your recognition as an outstanding chaplain-officer by your superiors well reflects the esteem of the good people whom you serve,” Archbishop Broglio said in a congratulatory letter to Father Luke on his promotion.
“Above all, I am thankful to you for the gift of your priesthood and the gifts of your pastoral service in the Apostolate of the Military to the men and women and family members of the United States Army,” he continued. “Your promotion, well deserved, will increase your responsibilities; indeed, higher rank brings with it greater duties. Remain always, as well as first and foremost, a priest after the model of Jesus Christ, the High Priest and Good Shepherd.”
Father Luke, 41, said it is definitely “a calling within a calling,” for him to serve the spiritual needs of the service members and their families.
“It’s a gift that I don’t deserve and never will, but a gift for which I am grateful every single day,” he says. “I have been prayerfully reflecting on the generosity of our loving God who called me to priesthood, his grace, and his divine providence that led me to share my priesthood as an Army chaplain.”
With Veterans Day approaching on Nov. 11, the national holiday is also a call to action for those who live in freedom to show their gratitude to veterans and their families by offering their service to others in their communities, parishes and across the nation and the world.
“On this Veterans Day we salute our veterans for the noble cause, the great cost and the personal commitment they have given to keep our nation the home of the free and the brave,” Father Luke says.
“Given this opportunity to serve as a Catholic Priest of the Diocese of Providence, I will continue to strive to be the best chaplain that fits into the core values and deepest convictions of the United States Army.”