Gonzaga University photo by Jennifer Raudebaugh
Jesuit Father Mark McGregor makes like Atlas, enjoying a light moment during teaching at Gonzaga University. He has just deployed as a military chaplain.
Gonzaga University photo by Jennifer Raudebaugh
Jesuit Father Mark McGregor makes like Atlas, enjoying a light moment during teaching at Gonzaga University. He has just deployed as a military chaplain.
A 50-year-old Oregon Province Jesuit departed for the Middle East in late July as an Air Force chaplain. Father Mark McGregor is not at liberty to disclose his posting, but spiritually, he knows just where he is.

"It's easy to think the military is a bunch of macho guys who want to grab a gun and go off and kill people," Father McGregor said just before boarding a plane. "But there are so many thoughtful people. They genuinely want to defend the country and help people. They recognize a bigger responsibility. My question always is, who is standing to help them?"    

Father McGregor, a longtime teacher, will spend six months in his first overseas assignment. He'll likely serve at a Mideast air base, offering counsel, comfort and education to all, plus sacraments to Catholics, who make up about a quarter of the armed forces.   

Keeping an eye on the news in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, he heard of the need for Catholic chaplains and felt an inkling. His superiors, in the Jesuit way, gave him good support and advised a thorough discernment before taking action. The desire to become a chaplain emerged and abided.

Until leaving for the Middle East, Father McGregor was posted for a year at Minot Air Force Base in northern North Dakota. The isolated installation is home to multiple nuclear weapons. One young airman told the priest that perhaps God sends people to distraction-free Minot so they can fall in love with God again. The notion made sense to Father McGregor, who even now understands his call to the military as a beckoning into the mysterious divine presence.

Unlike teaching, which often goes according to a long-term plan, military chaplaincy requires agility and flexibility. "It can sometimes be an intense ministry," Father McGregor explains. "Something can happen rather quickly. Here, you work right in the moment with the person in front of you."

On the way out of the country, an Air Force doctor made sure Father McGregor was fit physically. A lawyer saw to it that his legal and financial affairs were in order. Then a chaplain came to take care of his spiritual needs.

"The military doesn't want people who aren't physically fit or who are financially jacked up," Father McGregor says. "I don't want people to go over there spiritually jacked up."

Father McGregor's identity is deeply linked to U.S. national history. He grew up in northern Virginia, close by Mount Vernon. His baseball coach and a tutor at school were Cold War military men he admired greatly. From ages 11 to 14, he and his family lived near America's great hemispheric triumph, the Panama Canal. Early on, young Mark saw his country as something to serve.

In 1976, the family came to the Pacific Northwest. He enrolled at Seattle University in the early 1980s to earn a degree in economics. The second of four children, he was a natural peacemaker and considered a career in international relations. Slowly, he sensed another summons. This time, he says, it was the Holy Spirit.

"My question was, how could I help others?" he recalls.

He entered the Jesuits in 1984, going through initial formation in Portland. For 27 years, he taught high school and college, becoming a popular specialist in digital media at places like Seattle Prep, Fairfield University and Gonzaga University.

A few years before he joined the Air Force, one of his documentaries was hailed with awards. “Posada” — which he wrote, directed and produced —examines unaccompanied immigrant youth. The priest used the film as part of the church's campaign to push for immigration reform. Along the way, he spent time as a chaplain for youths in a Los Angeles detention center.    

It was George Washington himself who asked Congress to establish a chaplaincy board for warriors. The idea from the start was to have level-headed religious support, not religious zealotry.

The military welcomes chaplains of many kinds — Jewish, Christian, Muslim and others. These new recruits go through boot camp. Father McGregor, for example, became fast friends with a Presbyterian minister.

Father McGregor is under no illusions; he doesn't top the list of people who are crucial for the military's mission. He's a support staffer, and he's just fine with that.

Unlike most military officers, chaplains keep the troops' secrets. It's the religious and civil law. That's why soldiers, sailors and airmen want to tell "Padre" everything. They have a lot to say, since military life is full of pressure that can hamper family and friendships.

"War should never be a popular thing," Father McGregor says. "There is always a spiritual cost to war. A lot of people have a weight on them surrounding family. But when you're a chaplain, they believe in your role to help them."