It was three years ago that Father James Harper accepted a call to leave his diocesan duties and become a military chaplain on loan to the U.S. Navy.
So far, he has served at a U.S. Marine Corps base in California, which included a deployment to Kuwait and Iraq, and is now assigned to a Navy base in Naples, Italy.
Father Harper, a 35-year-old lieutenant, answered some questions recently by email:
Tell us about your duties in Italy
It’s much like running a parish. For Americans in an overseas assignment, it’s a blessing to have a chaplain who provides ministry in English, and who knows their background and culture. We have Mass available daily, we have youth catechesis, and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. I’m available when people need to see a chaplain, and there are some regular Navy duties too.
Have you had a shipboard deployment?
No shipboard assignments yet, although I did do some training for Catholic lay leaders aboard a destroyer. I may have ship duty in a future assignment.
This is a tense time in the world, with the war in Ukraine and other international issues. Has that affected the stress level of service people in your care?
Good Catholics here, like those back home, understand that the Church is always there for them, and they seek their life of faith as an oasis from everyday concerns. The opportunities we provide from our chapel help alleviate the burdens of many service members.
Has your work been rewarding for you personally? Has it made you a better priest?
Yes! It’s a delight to have the opportunity to serve in the military. I envision that my eventual return to civilian ministry will benefit from these experiences — the people served, and places traveled. It will help provide additional ways for me to connect with people. Also, the military chaplaincy has a bit of a missionary aspect: We have faithful Catholics routinely worshiping, but I also interact with many who are unchurched. That gives me the opportunity to witness to the Gospel outside of a chapel or parish structure.
Have you been able to get some time off to experience Naples or any other interesting places in Italy? Join the Navy and see the world, right?
Since I work weekends, I generally have a day off weekly, and I use that time to see Naples. Amazingly, Rome is just a day trip away. During my leave time, I’ve been working my way around Italy to get to know this country better. I also have a goal of sharing my exploring experiences to our U.S. personnel, especially about those places in Italy that are relevant to Church history.
In the photo above, Father Harper participates in a commissioning ceremony at his base in Italy. At right, he is seen on a bike ride with Mount Vesuvius in the background.