My father, Major Henry Carleton Swift of the Cameron Highlanders, Ottawa, was a big admirer of chaplains. Though raised Anglican (or C of E, as it was called back then, even in Canada), he was not a deeply religious man. But as an officer in charge of much younger men in the European theatre of World War II, he was always grateful to have a chaplain on hand.
He told a tale of returning from a reconnaissance excursion to find most of the young troops he had left waiting behind dead or dying, their shelled jeeps in flames and the few survivors wounded and dazed. He was fine at tending to casualties, removing the fallen and getting the rest of the men back to safety, but he had trouble answering the agonized questions of those who remained.
“I was happy to leave that to the padres,” he said. They knew how to tackle the big questions of why young, good people fighting for a just cause must die, why a soldier’s minor error must kill a close comrade and how—specifically recalling the liberation of the Nazi war camps—human beings could treat other human beings with such cruelty.
He was grateful for what the chaplaincy calls its “ministry of presence,” quietly tending to the moral and spiritual needs of soldiers, whether believers or not. The chaplains in the Canadian armed forces were all good sports, “men’s men,” he used to say. “A lot of the troops came from rough backgrounds and used very unvarnished language, but the padres took it in their stride.” They knew the words came out from force of habit, stress, fear and need, with no intent to offend the men of the cloth.
Most of all, Dad admired the padres for fearlessly working alongside the soldiers at the front. For unlike those in prisons, schools and hospitals, military chaplains live the lives of soldiers, sailors and air personnel—and meet all the same expectations, except for bearing arms.
Sadly, Dad died by his own hand a few years after the war. Perhaps if he had had the continuing counsel of those watchful wartime padres, he might have lived.
Dad would have turned 100 this year and I think he would have been pleased to see his daughter involved in a salute to the honourable calling of the military chaplaincy. Whether they enter the military from the clergy or the clergy from the military, their crucial ministry of presence is dedicated to the well-being of our troops.
Diana Swift is an interim staff writer at the Anglican Journal and author of a book on the Royal Canadian Legion.