Babylon & Beyond

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IRAQ: Navy chaplain stays on the move in far-flung Anbar

October 1, 2008 |  1:30 am


Father Paul J. Shaughnessy has a unique congregation: spread out over 32,000 square miles in Iraq's Anbar province, about the size of South Carolina.

Shaughnessy serves troops of all religions in numerous outposts in the far-flung province as the Catholic chaplain for the Marines' Regimental Combat Team 5. At the mega-base at Al Asad, a Mass may attract a hundred or more Marines, sailors, soldiers and others; at a tiny outpost on the Syrian border, he recently performed Mass for a single Marine.

Now in his fourth deployment to Iraq, Shaughnessy, a Jesuit, keeps on the move: by Osprey (when available), by regular helicopter (when necessary) and sometimes by slow-moving overland convoys (done at night as part of a U.S. policy to give back the roads to Iraqis.)

The goal, Shaughnessy said in a telephone interview, is presence. The more times the troops see him, the more comfortable they are, more liable to open up with the issues that bother them, the less reluctant to discuss faith.

"When you're with them all the time, you're not as threatening," he said. "They're not worried you're going to hit them with religion."

As the pace of the U.S. mission in Iraq slows down, Shaughnessy said, the Marines have become "more contemplative, more interested in their relationship with God." He's taught a class about the references to modern Iraq in the Bible.

"Outside of Israel, Iraq is cited more times than any other region in the Bible," said Shaughnessy, 58, a native of Worcester, Mass., who worked for the FBI before entering the seminary.

And it's not just religion that piques the interest of the young Marines and sailors. A common question is about the definition of priestly celibacy. "When I tell them, the reaction usually is, 'Are you kidding me?' " he said.

Like the rest of the regiment, Shaughnessy will return this winter to Camp Pendleton. And after that?

"I've always wanted to see Afghanistan," he said.

— Tony Perry

Photo: Father Paul Shaughnessy, Catholic priest and Navy commander, says a prayer for a solider on the eve of battle in Najaf, 2004. Credit: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times

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