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Soldier, chaplain, shepherd
Auxiliary Bishop Rick Spencer of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services wears many hats.
Fr. Eric Albertson | For the Catholic Herald
Fr. Eric Albertson | For the Catholic Herald
Bishop Spencer during Mass in Afghanistan.

He is a priest, a soldier, an Army chaplain and yet he is also a bishop, serving as an auxiliary for the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services. Chaplain (Col.) Rick Spencer wears many hats besides his zucchetto, including the Army patrol cap, the field “boonie” cap and an Army combat helmet.

A former military police officer commissioned in 1973, he answered the call to the priesthood in 1980 and was ordained for the Baltimore Archdiocese in 1988. Having served initially in the Army Reserves, he later joined the active force and served with distinction in many varied assignments, including Bosnia, Egypt, Korea, Germany and multiple combat deployments to Iraq, making him no stranger to the battlefield.

Answering the call from Rome, he was ordained a bishop in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., Sept. 8, 2010. Unique in the history of the military archdiocese, he has retained his status as an Army chaplain in the Reserves, allowing him to deploy in support of combat operations and provide needed sacramental and spiritual support to troops in the forward areas.

His most recent deployment landed him at the largest military base in Afghanistan, Bagram Airfield, in support of one of his former combat units, the 1st Cavalry Division. In his well-known and energetic style, Bishop Spencer hit the ground running, generously providing pastoral care, visiting the wounded, celebrating Mass and administering the sacrament of confirmation to Catholic troops stationed at Bagram. He also traveled north to administer confirmation to the American Catholics located at Camp Marmal in the German sector.

Bishop Spencer said he always finds it humbling and rewarding to work and serve in a “joint environment” — one that includes the Air Force, Navy, Marines, as well as the Army. Although his roots are with the Army, as a military bishop his concern is for all branches of the service.

“The privilege to support the different branches with pastoral care, and seeing them work together to bring peace, stability and hope to the people and nation of Afghanistan is very rewarding,” he said.

Yet the reward goes both ways. The Bagram congregations, made up of the different branches, all commented how special it was to have the bishop celebrate Mass for Advent and the Christmas season. The media has not been covering the war here as it has in the past. Although tremendous success occurred last year, the fighting is still very intense. Bagram was hit with indirect fire several times during the bishop’s visit, helicopters routinely brought in the wounded, and multiple ramp ceremonies and memorial ceremonies were conducted to honor the fallen. The long hours and continuous combat operations, the cumulative effects of grief, and the emotional strain associated with caring for the wounded take their toll. Most of these troops have deployed multiple times.

Sometimes it takes a little more grace when the spiritual need is so great, perhaps only the grace and presence a bishop can bring, one who possesses the fullness of the priesthood, one who is soldier, chaplain and shepherd.

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