It was a bitter cold evening in Prague, Czech Republic. On the main entrance steps of the Military Church of St. John of Nepomuk, three members of the Czech army guard of honor stood stoically on each side of the door with rifles and fixed bayonets. The Prague Castle Guard regimental band brass sextet — which normally only plays for state ceremonial events — added to the formal ambiance.
Eighty spiritual leaders dressed in military service uniforms or distinguished liturgical garments, and representing 31 NATO member and partner nations, entered the 18th century baroque church for the opening ceremony of the 22nd annual International Military Chief of Chaplains Conference Jan. 31.
The event is designed to strengthen the partnership between U.S. European Command and its partner nations. This year’s IMCCC was co-hosted by the Czech Republic and EUCOM.
The four-day conference is a place in which chaplains from different countries and religious backgrounds can share lessons learned and connect through mutual understanding, respect and friendship.
The last day is traditionally a cultural excursion and gala. The gala guest speaker was EUCOM Director of Policy, Strategy, Partnering and Capabilities Air Force Maj. Gen. Paul Shafter.
“It was standing room only,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Bryan Bautista, EUCOM senior enlisted advisor for the command chaplain. “I witnessed the camaraderie and the bonds of old — and the making of new — friendships. In my 20 years as a religious program specialist for the Navy, I’ve never seen anything like this, and it’s a great honor to be here.”
At the start of the conference, Archbishop of Prague Dominik Duka welcomed the delegates and acknowledged dignitaries: Minister of Defense of the Czech Republic Alexandr Vondra, and Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Czech Republic General Vlastimil Picek.
The first day closed with a prayer for peace, incorporating the prayers of Islamic cleric Imam Ali Eddaoudi of the Netherlands; Chief Rabbi Peter Joel Totha of Hungary; and Chief Chaplain (Col.) Jan Kozler, ACR and IMCCC host coordinator. All three spiritual leaders seemed to give their interpretation of the prayer as a sign of mutual respect for each other.
This year’s IMCCC theme was “Challenge: Military Chaplain as Ethical Advisor.”
For the next two days, the clergy and a panel of experts engaged in a respectful debate on a chaplain’s role as an ethical counselor.
“The study of ethics and the role of chaplains as ethical advisors in the military are critical for us to look at right now,” said EUCOM Command Chaplain (Air Force Col.) Brian Van Sickle.
“Whether it is the strategic political decisions made by our governments to engage in conflict or strategic military plans … or it may be in the counseling of the actual service member in the fighting of that war, ethics is involved at every level,” he said.
The clergy was mainly made of up chiefs of chaplains, mostly in the rank of general. The panel, however, included noncommissioned officers this year, a historic break from tradition.
Among the panel members were Command Sgt. Maj. Ludek Kolesa, ACR, NATO Supreme Allied Command Transformation; Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Balch, U.S. Army, NATO-SHAPE; Chief Master Sgt. Charles D. Johnson, U.S. Air Force chaplain assistant and AF career field manager; and Sgt. Maj. Tommy Marrero, U.S. Army chaplain assistant, senior enlisted advisor. The NCOs offered their perspective on ethics and brought the voice of the troops to the top spiritual leaders.
The chiefs of chaplains also talked about the role of chaplains in today’s military. Like their U.S. counterparts, most international military chaplains are noncombatants and provide spiritual advice to their troops at their home base and on the front lines.
Learning about this role was helpful to Military Ordinary of Lithuania Gintaras Grusas, a first-time delegate at the IMCCC, concurrently in the process of selecting a military chief of chaplains for his country.
“I’m finding this conference a very good place to dialogue with other chaplains facing similar challenges,” Grusas said. “I’m looking for cooperation between the chaplains and I’m finding that here.” The conference also provided attendees with a forum to develop relationships with other chaplains.
“Continued collaboration with other delegates from all over the world and the exchange of experiences on how to train chaplains for missions in other countries is priceless,” said Sten Elmberg, chief chaplain of Sweden’s armed forces.
“This is my 13th [IMCCC] and I wouldn’t miss a conference,” he added.
Next year’s IMCCC will be in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina.
For more information on the 2011 IMCCC, go to Facebook.com and enter ‘Military Chaplains in Europe’ in the search field.