Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Ambassadors of Peace: The Army Prayer Leaders

FORT BONIFACIO, Taguig City – Over the years, the role of the Army prayer leaders has become more clearly defined. 

Contrary to popular beliefs, soldiery is not only about leading people to war; soldiery is also about leading men to God.

A manifestation of this is the existence of  military chaplains who are continuously providing the soldiers  with emotional and spiritual security.

Military chaplains are responsible for keeping the country’s armed forces in the service of God. They play a vital role in upholding the spiritual and moral attributes of military men who have lived through the worst and abominable experiences and misfortunes one could ever encounter in life.

A military chaplain may be a priest, a pastor or an imam (Muslim prayer leader) who acquires an officer’s rank of a probationary 2nd Lieutenant upon joining the military for their special services.

They are considered non-combatant soldiers and are protected under the international law from any form of attack or violence by the opposing party.

They are bound to the five pillars of serving namely: the religious worship, pastoral care and ministration, moral education, counseling and social leadership.

The adventurous soldier-priest

Born as the youngest among the nine children of farmers, Major Rey Victor V. Vigo was never shorthanded when it comes to the people he could count on and could look up to.

He was born and raised in the province of Capiz by the regular church-going Vigo family. His cousins and uncles are also priests which contributed in molding him into a servant of God.

After finishing high school, he felt that he is being“called” to take on and tread the road less traveled.

He said that he was never pressured to embrace the life of priesthood and that he merely responded to the 'calling' from God.

Since his youthful years, Vigo has had this positive inclination when it comes to the military. His two brothers are soldiers and his uncle was an Army chaplain himself. 

The influence of these military relatives eventually made him fully committed to work for the military right after his ten-year seminary life.

Vigo has been serving the Philippine Army for 12 years now. He describes his 12-year experience as an Army chaplain as full of adventures.

“Unlike regular priests, I get to travel to far away provinces like Pagadian, Samar and Isabela. Aside from that, the military has opened many opportunities for me to learn and acquire more skills. I also took the Basic Airborne Course – a very memorable life experience,” said Vigo.

Moreover, Vigo pointed out that he doesn’t just have fun while doing his job, but most importantly, he gets to help those who need his support and guidance.

“It’s hard to be a soldier and I personally know this because I have lived with them and became one of them. I feel their difficulties, their sadness to be away from their families. It is our duty as Army chaplains to strengthen their spirituality, give them the will to continue, and help them understand better that they are a vital component of this country for the people depend on them,”added Vigo.

Vigo is currently assigned at the Office of the Chief Chaplain Services as the Administrative Officer. He stressed that as an Army chaplain,“Sometimes you don’t have to preach, you just have to be there.”

The Loving Army Pastor

Like Vigo, Major Daneck E. Dang-awan has been exposed to the military since he was a young boy.

His father was an Army chaplain and consequently, he spent his early childhood in military camps. He was born in Baguio but was  raised in Kalinga. 

Dang-awan shares that the Army has always been close to his heart, and so, after serving nine years as a civilian pastor, he decided to finally join the military in 2000, a year before his father’s retirement in the Army Chaplain Services.

“Being a pastor is not the only “calling” but where you will serve is also a “calling from God”. You’ll know you’re in the right place where God intended you to be in, when you feel effective and you enjoy what you’re doing”revealed Dang-awan.

Being in the military for twelve years is clearly an indication for Dang-awan that he is where he is meant to be. Since 2001, he would hop from Cagayan de Oro City and Baguio City to serve the soldiers there for more than six years.

Since 2009, he had been serving as a Post Chaplain of the Fort Bonifacio Evangelical Church located in the Philippine Army headquarters. He is married to a Christian educator and they are blessed with five children.

Dang-awan said that the biggest challenge of being a chaplain is leaving his designated areas after each term.

“It’s hard to leave a place full of people you’ve learned to love and care for along the way. It’s never easy to say goodbye and it is always a bittersweet experience,” he said.

He even fondly recounted a memory he had years ago when he was about to leave Cagayan de Oro. All if not most of the members of his congregation accompanied him till he reached the wharf just to send him off. 

He said that tears welled in his eyes by the time he bade his new friends goodbye. He was comforted by the fact that he is welcome anytime he comes back to them.  

"I have no regrets in serving the military as a chaplain. I am fully satisfied with my job because I have the rare opportunity to serve the people in my own way through the military service," he said.

“We preach, we teach, we serve our congregations, we become an instrument of hope, we give comfort through our prayers, we teach the words of God to help deepen the faith of our soldiers and at the same time we try our best to keep them grounded which is very important in this profession,” added Dang-awan.

The Passionate Military Imam

Aside from pastors and priests, the Philippine Army has imams as military chaplains. One of the only two soldier-imams is Major Adzramien T. Sahisa of the 1st Infantry Division.

A native of Sulu and a true-blooded Tausug, Sahisa was raised as a devout Muslim by his parents – a policemen and a housewife. 

He grew up learning the teachings of Islam at such an early age which become the greatest influence in his life. His moral upbringing guided by the Islamic tenets had shaped him to be the man that he is today.

He imparted that being an imam is not a profession but an obligation to Allah. As an imam, he believes that it is his duty to render his service to the Muslim soldiers of Philippine Army. 

He revealed that his motivation in joining the military was to find out if there were truths to the negative publicity and allegations thrown against the AFP.

To his relief, upon joining the military in June 2008, he realized that the rumors about  the prejudices against the Moro Filipinos don't really have basis. 

He said that the wrong perceptions about the Moros can be corrected through closer coordination among various religious groups.

As a military imam, he had been assigned to various units in Zamboanga peninsula and Sulu where he participated in various military operations, supporting the soldiers in running after the Abu Sayyaf bandits. After his first service in the front lines, he felt he was a true soldier.

Also part of his duty as a military chaplain is to conduct Post Trauma debriefing on the wounded soldiers and the families of those soldiers who died in action.

Sahisa considers the Army chaplains as the ones who have the best positions in the military for they have dual personalities – a soldier and a chaplain serving both God and the people.

He also noticed that most civilian Muslim religious leaders, especially in the far-flung areas in Mindanao, are very hesitant to join the Army.

“My greatest hope is for other Imams to be part of the Army Chaplain Services and help achieve a peaceful Mindanao by serving the people through the noble profession of arms,” he said.

The Philippine Army Chaplains

They might be few, but the significance of the chaplains in the military couldn’t be quantified. They hold that much positive influence in the spirituality and morality of the soldiers who go to combat at any time without the guarantee of coming back out of it alive and whole.

In a sense, these Army chaplains are heroes in their own way. They are the ones who fill the holes that need filling, heal the hearts that need healing and bridge the gaps that need crossing.

At the moment, there are a total of 28 chaplain officers in the Philippine Army. Out of these, twenty-three are Catholic chaplains, two Protestants, two Muslims and one Aglipay assigned all over the country.

Although the initial title given to a newly appointed chaplain is a 2nd probationary Lieutenant, advancement in rank among chaplains is definitely attainable just like other soldiers.

As of today, one chaplain holds the rank of a full Colonel. There are two Lieutenant Colonels, eleven Majors, twelve Captains and two probationary Lieutenants.

For an applicant to qualify as a chaplain, he should be should not be more than forty years old, must be physically and mentally fit.

For Catholic priests, they must send their endorsement letter from the Bishop to the Commission on Clergy which will then send it to the Chief Chaplain Office of the Armed Forces of the Philippines for evaluation and processing.

For Protestant pastors, they must obtain an endorsement from their ecclesiastical heads to be sent to the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, while Imams should be endorsed by the Office of the Secretary General or Mufti of Darul-Ifta.

The essence of being a military chaplain

The Philippine Army respects every soldier’s religion and his right to practice his faith in accordance to Article III Section 5 of the Constitution of the Philippines or the Freedom of Religion. For this reason, the Army has chaplains who will provide spiritual services to the soldiers who belong to various religious denominations.

The Chaplains see to it that they uphold the spiritual and moral attributes of our military men and one of the roads to attaining their objective is through heading the religious activities soldiers could partake in.

This includes the imminent observance of the Holy Week or what Filipinos call Semana Santa. The upcoming religious event is one of the busiest times for the chaplains as they officiate and head all the lined-up activities in various units of the Army.

They officiate various  religious events like masses, vigils, communions, processions, Lenten Recollection, Blessing of Palms, Station of the Cross, Washing of the Feet, Pabasa, Easter Salubong and even Senakulo--- all intended to strengthen their faith as Catholics.

The Philippine Army recognizes the importance of the Semana Santa thus provide its soldiers the opportunity to practice the said religious event, but also through the chaplains who lead them spiritually.

The same custom is also implemented for other religions like Islam. During the celebration of Ramadan or the Islamic month of fasting, there are also special religious services the Imam provide for the Muslim soldiers.

With the presence of the Army chaplains, the soldiers are assured that their spiritual needs are addressed. 

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