Franciscan priests will again serve as chaplains and ministers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland after their contract went unrenewed in favor of a private defense contractor, provoking an outcry from prominent Catholics.

“Of course, it is a source of great joy that the Franciscans have returned to the medical center and care for patients and staff there,” Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for Military Services, USA, said in a Thursday statement.

The Franciscan priests and friars of Holy Name College Friary of Silver Spring, Maryland, had served at Walter Reed for 20 years, typically providing a team of five friars six days a week to minister to patients. The U.S. Defense Health Agency now has awarded a five-year annually renewable contract to the friars to resume their service.

Their longtime ministry was interrupted two months ago when the friars’ contract for pastoral services expired on March 31, just before Holy Week. The Holy Name College Friary continued to provide services after the contract expired, actions that prompted an April 4 cease-and-desist letter from the hospital that further raised Catholic concerns.

The end of the contract and the cease-and-desist letter drew swift criticism from Broglio, who called the action “incomprehensible.” Members of Congress also voiced objections and concerns

The contract initially went to a secular defense contractor, but the Military Services Archdiocese objected that the contractor did not have the means to provide Catholic clergy. Only the archdiocese may endorse Catholic priests and chaplains and grant clergy faculties to serve in the U.S. military. 

The Defense Health Agency reopened bidding on the contract in May. It awarded the new contract to the Franciscans on June 8.

Broglio thanked the U.S. Army’s head chaplain for his help resolving the matter.

“I am very grateful to the Army Chief of Chaplains, Chaplain Thomas L. Solhjem, M.G., U.S.A., for his personal intervention and interest in resolving the question of Catholic pastoral care at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center,” the archbishop said. He moved quickly to assure the presence of additional Catholic priests from the Army Reserves as soon as the contract with the Franciscan Friars ended. He also made certain that the needs of Catholics were addressed in the renegotiation of the contract.”

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The suspension of services did not remove all Catholic services. The medical center said its active-duty Army Catholic priest in its Department of Pastoral Care celebrated Catholic liturgies throughout Holy Week and Easter Sunday.

However, at the time of the controversy, Broglio warned that a lack of adequate Catholic pastoral care “causes untold and irreparable harm to Catholics who are hospitalized and therefore a captive population whose religious rights the government has a constitutional duty to provide for and protect.”

The controversial pastoral care contract had temporarily gone to the Mechanicsville, Virginia-based Mack Global LLC, a firm that specializes in providing government clients with industrial machinery, tactical gear, and janitorial supplies, in addition to chaplains and other religious staff.

About 1.8 million Catholics worldwide depend on the Archdiocese for Military Services, USA, for their religious and sacramental needs. Archdiocese-endorsed priests serve at over 220 U.S. military installations in 29 countries. Endorsed chaplains serve at 153 Veterans’ Administration medical centers in the United States. Catholic civilians working for the U.S. government in 134 countries also depend on the clergy and chaplains of the archdiocese, but limited resources and few clergy members in service mean they are not adequately served.