Catholic Navy chaplain shares story of Iraqi conversion

cnairak031207pp Fr. Bautista, Joe Burns, and an unidentified soldier

Recently, CNA had the opportunity to send a writer to the Anbar Province of Iraq to cover the experiences of a Catholic chaplain working in the trenches. What follows is his recounting of the amazing encounter he had with this apostle in the desert.

Father Bautista: Apostle in the Desert
Joe Burns, War Stringer

A few weeks ago, I returned to the U.S. after spending a week with Army troops in Iraq.  More specifically, I spent six and a half days with my son’s outfit, the 63rd Ordnance Company stationed at Al Taqaddum.  Al Taqaddum is a former Iraqi airbase, nicknamed TQ, and lies about 50 miles west of Baghdad in the Anbar Province near Ramadi.  My son Mike and I spent the first three days in Baghdad while I was processed for my press pass and then waited for a helicopter to become available to take us to TQ. 

Al Taqaddum is covered in dust. In some areas where vehicles had repeatedly driven, the earth was ground down to a fine powder several inches deep (I was tempted to look for Neil Armstrong’s footprints!).  The dust in this part of Iraq is so prevalent that it hangs in the air at all times of the day and night, clinging to clothing, nostrils and eyes. 

On the second day at Al Taqaddum, I was privileged to attend Mass said by Fr. Jose A. Bautista-Rojas, a Navy chaplain who ministers to the Marines and soldiers at TQ and in the Ramadi area.  It was a hot, dry, windy and desolate day.  

In the 30 minutes prior to Mass, Fr. Bautista discussed recent events of the day with the three of us: my son Mike, his commander Captain Tom Heilman, and myself. 

The setting for our conversation was a makeshift wooden chapel, sparsely furnished with the plastic chairs we sat on and a small white table for an altar. Being inside this simple chapel was like finding an oasis in the desert.  What made this oasis most refreshing was the time we spent with Fr. Bautista, a man of irrepressible good humor, joy and generosity.

The events of that morning for Fr. Bautista included a Mass he had just conducted in Ramadi at a Marine detachment.  What made the Mass unique, was that his “congregation” consisted of one lonely Catholic Marine.  When Father Bautista arrived in Ramadi along with his personal bodyguard, a strong young, well-armed Marine, he visited a detachment of eight men, only one of whom was Catholic.  Undeterred, he told the Marine he would be happy to say Mass for him.

The young Marine confided to him, “You know Father, back in the States, I didn’t go to Mass that often, but out here I find myself longing to go to Mass again.  But I’ve been here for seven months and you’re the first Catholic chaplain I’ve seen.”   Fr. Bautista spent some time listening to his story and asking questions about his family.   Then he said Mass for this single Marine, in the presence of countless angels and saints who rejoiced with them.

As Fr. Bautista continued speaking with us, he described the fascinating story of a young Muslim woman who was entering the Church under his guidance through the RCIA process.  Her story was moving.  While working with Americans, this woman, who must remain anonymous, was touched deeply when she realized that the U.S. medical personnel not only treated wounded Americans and Iraqi civilians, but also treated wounded enemy combatants, including one who was known for having killed U.S. Marines.  As she put it, “This cannot happen with us.”  

This dramatic extension of mercy even to enemy soldiers caused her to take the next cautious step.  She asked Father Bautista to “tell me more about Jesus.”  As Father described Jesus and his life in the Gospels, one thing stood out among the rest for the Muslim woman he called “Fatima” (not her real name) and that was how kindly Jesus had related to, as she put it, “the two Mary’s.”  Fatima was moved to see how Jesus deeply loved Mary, his mother, who was sinless, but also how Jesus deeply loved Mary Magdalene, who was “a great sinner.”  As these discussions continued, Fatima reached a point where she said to Father Bautista, “I want to become a Christian.”

Since Father Bautista sees himself as a chaplain for all troops, not just Catholics, he decided to introduce Fatima to other chaplains from Protestant and Orthodox backgrounds.  After some time had passed, Fatima returned to Father Bautista and said, “I want to become a Catholic like you.”  When Father asked her the reason for her decision, she said, “You were the only one who told me about the other Christians, so you left me free to decide for myself.  That’s how I knew this was the right decision.”

As their catechetical lessons developed over time, Fatima’s family discovered her plan and was warned sternly by her father that if she continued on this path, she would be disowned by the entire family and would never have contact with them again.  At this point, Father Bautista became concerned for Fatima’s well-being and cautioned her to look carefully at the consequences of her decision and to think seriously before continuing her path into the Church.

Fatima paused for a moment and then looking intently at Father Bautista asked, “Do you give up so easily on Jesus?”  The question took Father aback for a moment, but then he thought, “This is incredible; this Muslim woman is already bearing witness to me about how important my own faith is!” 

As he related it, this woman’s question had caused him to give greater thanks for his faith and for the great privilege of sharing Christ with others.  Fatima is currently continuing the RCIA process with great courage and joy. 

In a wonderful irony, the first words she will hear spoken during the Liturgy of the Word in the Rite of Acceptance will be those spoken to her great ancestor, Abraham: “Leave your country (and your kindred and your father’s house), and come into the land I will show you” (Gen 12:1). 

After sharing this moving testimony, Father Bautista excused himself to prepare to celebrate Mass for us.  Moments later, as he led us in the prayers of Mass, I was struck by how blessed I was to be present in this moment, in the ancient dusty land of Abraham, who so willingly offered his only son to God.  Now, together with Abraham and his son, Isaac, with all the angels and saints, with our own brave son and his commander, we returned to this same land and heard these magnificent words:

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“Look with favor on these offerings and accept them as you once accepted the gifts of your servant Abel, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, the bread and wine offered by your servant Melchisedech …”

Here, in the same treeless, windy, dusty desert from which God had called Abraham, Christ had returned.  Now, through the hands of his servant priest, Father Bautista, a perfect offering was made to fulfill the offering attempted by Abraham.  And through this same priest, the Good News that was foretold to Abraham now returned to his homeland to bear witness to a courageous Muslim woman; a woman who was willing to sacrifice everything to know this Jesus who forgives even his enemies and who loves even the sinful Mary.

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