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Canada Nov. 18, 2017

Elevating military chaplaincy a nod to religion's importance

By Deborah Gyapong

Maj.-Gen. Guy Chapdelaine (centre), a Roman Catholic priest and former brigadier-general, receives the insignia of his new rank from Gen. Jonathan Vance (left) and Lt.-Gen. Charles Lamarre. (Deborah Gyapong / CCN)

OTTAWA (CCN)—The promotion of Canada’s chaplain general to major-general is being seen as a recognition of the significance of Canada’s military chaplaincy.

Maj.-Gen. Guy Chapdelaine, a Roman Catholic priest and former brigadier-general, received his epaulets Nov. 7 from Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance and Lt.-Gen. Charles Lamarre.

“I’m very humbled by this promotion; it was unexpected,” said Maj.-Gen. Chapdelaine in an interview. He said Vance mentioned a few months ago he wanted to elevate the chaplaincy. 

“It’s really the chaplaincy through this promotion that was elevated, not myself as chaplain general,” he said. “It’s a recognition of the importance of religion, especially with the new policy of the Canadian Armed Forces: Strong, Secure, Engaged.”

The policy takes a “holistic approach” to well being and health that includes “spiritual health” for personnel and their families, including a suicide strategy and the importance of spirituality to develop spiritual resilience, he said.

As an example, Bishop Scott McCaig of the Military Ordinariate led a military delegation of more than 60 people on a pilgrimage to Lourdes at the end of May, said Maj.-Gen. Chapdelaine.

“It was one program that we had for spiritual resilience especially for those who are injured, for Canadian Armed Forces members and families who want to find a way to deepen their faith.”

The aim, he said, is for families facing adversity "to reflect on the spiritual aspect of our life and the importance of spirituality,” he said.

“Our faith helps us to cope with difficult moments in our life,” he said, citing as examples divorce, illness, PTSD, the death of a loved one, the illness of a child, or the death of soldiers, including suicide.

He recalled how at this year’s Remembrance Day ceremony he prayed for all those who have considered or attempted suicide.

“It’s important to be open on these questions, to give our soldiers all the possible tools” for spiritual and physical health, “to help us to cope with difficult situations we can meet in our military life and in life in general,” Maj.-Gen. Chapdelaine said.

Since Gen. Vance took over in 2015, the chaplain general has been invited to participate in the Armed Forces Council that includes all the commanders of the various branches: Air Force, Navy, Army, and Special Forces. It also includes advisers such as the reserve adviser and the judge advocate general, he said.

“I think I’m the first chaplain general to be invited,” Maj.-Gen. Chapdelaine said. Previously, the chaplain general was invited to give the council a 10-minute briefing once a year.

He is “now around the table” in the role of an “adviser rooted in this committee,” he said. In addition, he now meets with the chief of the defence staff every three months on “moral and spiritual issues relating to the well-being of members and their families.”

The interfaith team of military chaplains greeted the promotion with “a very positive reaction,” said Maj.-Gen. Chapdelaine. “It was a morale booster.”

Along with the promotion of health and spiritual well being is an acknowledgement of Canada’s religious diversity. “We are anticipating a growth of the chaplaincy in numbers,” Maj.-Gen. Chapdelaine said. “That is why recruiting is very important to us.”

“I would like to see chaplains coming from other religions that are not represented in the chaplaincy: Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh chaplains,” he said. “We find them in the different police forces. I would like to have the same thing in the Canadian Armed Forces.”

At the same time, “we need to find the right people with the right education to work in the chaplaincy, as we have all the standards for our Christian, Jewish and Muslim chaplains.”

In 2019, his office will have new positions for three chaplains who will work on new programs to develop spiritual resilience in the life of Armed Forces personnel and their families, he said.