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Navy cancels Catholic Masses at San Diego-area bases while other religious services continue

The chapel on Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego. (U.S. Navy/TNS)

Catholic Masses at San Diego-area Navy bases have ended because the Navy, in what it says is a cost-cutting move, has declined to renew its contracts with Catholic priests, and there are not enough Catholic chaplains on active duty to fill the void.

Protestant services on bases, which are led by active duty chaplains, will continue, said Brian O’Rourke, a Navy Region Southwest spokesman.

The changes to the Navy’s religious ministries are part of a national realignment announced on Aug. 20. It is unclear how many priests this will affect.

“The Navy’s religious ministries priority is reaching and ministering to our largest demographic — active duty Sailors and Marines in the 18-25 year-old range,” O’Rourke wrote in an email. “To meet that mission, the Navy has had to make the difficult decision to discontinue most contracted ministry services.”

In the Navy message announcing the change, Vice Adm. Yancey Lindsey, the commander of Naval Installations Command, said it differently.

“We have a responsibility to use our limited resources wisely in meeting the needs of our personnel,” wrote Lindsey. “Therefore, we will reduce redundancies and capture efficiencies by realigning resources,” noting that religious services will be cut at bases where those services are readily available in the surrounding community outside the base.

To Rev. Jose Pimentel, a priest who has led services at Naval Base Coronado and Naval Air Station North Island for eight years, the loss of his parish isn’t just a personal loss — it’s a loss of the First Amendment rights of service members on bases.

“One issue is discrimination (and) another is the violation of your right to practice your religion,” he said when reached by phone Friday.

Pimentel was notified Aug. 19 that the Navy will not exercise the final two years of his contract, citing “funding constraints.” His last day is Sept. 30.

While the Navy has an active duty component of clergy — the Chaplain Corps — the number of Catholic priests among them is small, reflecting a worldwide shortage of Catholic priests. To make up for that shortage, the service contracted with priests to lead Catholic services on U.S. bases.

Those contracts are the ones being canceled.

O’Rourke acknowledges in his statement that the change predominately affects Roman Catholics.

“We know change can be difficult for our existing on-base congregations, but ask for understanding, patience and support from those faithful civilians and retirees who, in their heart of hearts, want what is best for our uniformed service members and their families,” O’Rourke said. “Military chaplains are working closely with local parishes to assist the faithful in finding new congregations.”

Contracted priests at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake and at Marine Corps Recruit Depot will stay on, however, because service members at those locations don’t have options for church outside those bases.

Catholic services on overseas bases and on Navy ships also will continue.

Members of the Coronado and North Island parish say the community they have formed around the base chapel can’t be replicated elsewhere.

“It’s a Navy chapel — a community thing,” said Anne-Marie Miley, a retired Navy pilot who said she has volunteered at the chapel for 11 years. “We get to meet up with other retirees and active duty personnel. The church out in town has a large congregation; it’s much more personal to go on base.”

Richard Haas, a retired Navy Captain who said he has attended chapel at Coronado for 30 years, agreed.

“It’s part of being in the military — the camaraderie,” Haas said. “To me it’s synonymous, you all have a common thread — you served in the military.”

Catholics on active duty also have needs many civilian priests can’t accommodate, Pimentel said. Sacraments such as Holy Communion, confirmation and marriages can be challenging for service members and their families when balancing deployment schedules.

“It’s hard to quantify what I do,” Pimentel said, saying he’s done everything from performing weddings and baptisms to counseling families of service members who died by suicide.

“I’m a 25-year veteran of the Navy and Air Force, so I can provide a certain level of support they wouldn’t get from the civilian side,” he said.

Pimentel and those who attend Catholic services said there is still a high demand for Mass.

“Between three services, I serve about 250 to 400 people on the weekends,” Pimentel said.

Parishioners who spoke with the Union-Tribune questioned the fairness of Catholic services being canceled while Protestant services will continue.

“I don’t understand; the Chaplain Corps has gone to great lengths to be inclusive,” Haas said. “Why deny Catholic members the right to hold their worship services? For a service member on (Coronado) or North Island to go out in town to find a priest — it doesn’t work that way.”

Bill Bartkus, a retired Navy senior chief, has been attending Mass at North Island for 40 years. He said the loss of Catholic services is discriminatory.

“It is unfair,” he said. “I’m very sad that I can’t go to Mass anymore on the military base where I’ve been going 40 years. I’d like to stay in my own military community. We know each other.”

Miley said she hopes the Navy finds a way to keep offering Mass on the base, whether it’s with contracted priests or bringing in active duty Catholic chaplains based on local ships.

“I don’t know what the other options are,” she said. “It’s harder to reopen once it’s closed.”


© 2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.