Passionists, Patriotism, War & the Draft

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by Rob Carbonneau, C.P., Ph.D.

As the Passionist provincial during World War I, Fr. Clement Lee faced an important decision. Law and patriotism called for Passionist seminarians to register for the draft. At the same time, if many seminarians and priests were drafted, it could jeopardize vocations for the future as well as the developing seminary educational system in the Province. Did the provincial use creative management or was he unpatriotic? You decide.

The following letter was sent to the Rector of Scranton:

May 25, 1917

On the 18th of May an Act was passed by Congress authorizing the President to increase the fighting forces of the Country by means of selective draft. In pursuance of this the President has proclaimed that on June 5th all male persons between the ages of 21 and 30 inclusive shall register according to the prescribed regulations. From the list of those who register will be selected a sufficient number for the army and navy.

As many of our Religious are between the ages of 21 and 30, it will be necessary for them to register on June 5th, and therefore we have made diligent inquiries into the matter, considering how they should answer the various questions and what claim should be made for exemption. According to the Conscription Act of Congress both our priests and our students are exempted from military service as it is stated in Sec. 4 that “regular or duly ordained ministers of religion, students who at the time of the approval of this Act are preparing for the ministry in recognized theological or divinity schools shall be exempt from the selective draft herein prescribed.” Enclosed herewith is a marked copy of this Act together with a Registration Card and Registration Regulations.

In order to avoid all misunderstanding I direct that the Father Rector of each monastery communicate at once either by letter or personally with the Bishop of the Diocese and ask him to class our Monastery as a Divinity School so that if the Bishop is questioned by the civil authorities he may assure them that our Monasteries are theological or divinity schools.

So that there may be uniformity in the answers of our religious to the registration questions, let those concerned conform to the following:

Answer Question No.1 by giving religious name (not the baptismal name) and the family name.

Answer Question No.2 by giving the address of the Monastery.

Answer Question 7 as follows:

  1. priests answer: “Roman Catholic Priest.”
  2. students answer. “Student.”
  3. brothers answer: “Auxiliary Brother.”

Answer Question No. 12 as follows:

  1. priests answer: “Yes, duly ordained priest.”
  2. students answer: “Yes, divinity student preparing for the priesthood.”
  3. brothers answer: “Yes, member of the Religious Order of the Passionists.

With regard to the novices, let them give the Monastery as their permanent home address and answer the questions as directed above for our students. In answering Question No. 12, let them say: “Student preparing for priesthood.”

With regard to the boys at the Preparatory College, we have decided that they shall not go home for registration, but register in Baltimore giving the Monastery as their permanent address. They have been adopted by us as seminarians and the vacation in the summer is considered in the light of a privilege. In Overbrook [Philadelphia] and other places the seminarians are considered residents of the place with the privilege of suffrage, etc. Let the boys answer Question No.1 by giving their full name; Question No.7 stating simply “Student”; Question No. 12 by “Yes, Student preparing for priesthood.”

As a large percentage of those who will be drafted will be of our Faith, the duty of providing for their spiritual wants devolves upon the Prelates of the Country. The Government contemplates the appointment of 1000 Chaplains of whom 450 will be Catholic priests. In order to supply this demand each Diocese has been requested to furnish a specified number of Chaplains, and some Bishops have already requested our assistance.

We feel it is our duty to assist the Bishops in supplying this need and to do our share in providing for the spiritual wants of our Catholic soldiers. One important consideration urges us to act promptly, namely, that priests not regularly appointed to the office of Chaplain will have no official position or recognition in army circles. The spiritual needs of the Catholic soldier can be properly attended to only by priests incorporated in the regular service. Let the Fathers therefore who desire to enter upon this apostolic work for souls make known their intention to me so that when the call comes the names of those who have been approved may be sent to the Bishop.

Priests who volunteer their services must be under forty years of age and in sound physical condition. When approved by their ecclesiastical superiors and accepted into the army, they will rank as first lieutenants.

In conclusion let me once more urge upon all the brethren the duty of praying continually for the speedy conclusion of the war and the restoration of peace. Let us besiege heaven with our prayers so that God may finally reward our perseverance with the blessing of peace. In the meantime let us continue devoted to our Country, loyal to our President, and above all loyal and devoted to God

Wishing you all every blessing,
I remain, Devotedly yours in Christ
Clement [Lee] of St. Peter, Provincial

A year later: On April 11, 1918, newly elected Passionist provincial Justin Carey sent a Circular Letter to all the Brethren of the Province on World War I. The main points of the letter follow.

He called for “a whole hearted response to the plea for loyalty” on the part of Passionists because “our very Religion teaches us that it is a sacred duty to be loyal to one’s country in war as well as in peace.” Flag and Cross stood “side by side.” Concretely, continued the letter, he urged all Passionists that conversations public and private should extol loyalty and daily prayers should be offered to end the war. War shortages having led the people to “retrench.” Likewise the Passionists must follow “first, the motive given to every citizen, namely what he retrenches or saves will help provide for the dire need of others; secondly, because the actual financial condition of the Province,” had begun to deteriorate and the Province being “heavily in debt.” Specifically, that meant the building of the Dunkirk Preparatory School was slowed down. Passionist seminarians at the time, noted Carey, were from “among the poor,” without the means to pay the one hundred dollars per annum, and at the same time, “there has been a notable decrease in the applications for missions and retreats,” which at that time was the “primary means of support.”

Paradoxically if the rate of religious profession continued, even with a money shortage, “there is an imperative need of another monastery….[W]ith war opening the eyes of everybody,” continued Provincial Carey in the circular letter, frugal lifestyle, increased solicitation of missions and retreats, as well as an admittance “preference” will be given to Prep Students who can pay, were to be the priorities.

Finally, the provincial urged all religious to

“see in the cruel war the hand of Divine Providence….The world has grown wanton in crime. Men had become intoxicated with material prosperity…. For what have their science and philosophy done for them? They have enabled them to invent the most murderous weapons, guns, and cannon, to build the most powerful battleships, to construct the most ingenious aeroplanes and submarines for the destruction of human life…can we be surprised that the wrath of God has come upon us?”

In conclusion, Carey encouraged the Passionists to “seek refuge in His Sacred Wounds from the wrath of His Father. Let us pray not only for ourselves, but for our beloved country and for the whole world.” [Both documents are from the Scranton Monastery Archives]

Every era has its moment of challenge for leaders. The good of the Church must be considered. The good of the Passionist Congregation must be weighed. Loyalty as citizen and follower of the Gospel must be discerned. Decisions have implications for all in the Congregation and the Church.

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