Tuesday 20 August 2019

The new life of Brian

Fr. Brian at his Ordination in Blackwater Church in 2005with his parents and grandmother.
Fr. Brian at his Ordination in Blackwater Church in 2005with his parents and grandmother.
Fr. Brian Whelan playing for Blackwater in 2009, tackling Peter Walsh of the Volunteers.

By Esther Hayden

With a new posting as chaplain to the Royal Marines Fr Brian Whelan is leaving Wexford town after nine years of ministry.

Fr Brian, a native of Blackwater, was ordained 10 years ago having studied in Maynooth and bar a year spent ministering in Enniscorthy he has spent all of his time in Wexford town.

Last week Bishop Denis Brennan formally announced that Fr Brian will leave the parish in August having taken a post as chaplain to the Royal Marines in England.

He starts officer training in Dartmouth in early September and will undergo an initial 10 week training process where he receive the very same basic officer training that all new recruits do. Following on from that he will undergo military training before being assigned to a particular troop of marines.

'I will have the exact same training as everyone else does followed by commando training so I do all the rough and tumble; all the endurance and physical stuff. The only thing I won't do is weaponry training but as chaplain I am non combative. I'll be taught how to make a weapon safe but that's it.'

With a rigorous application process for the highly coveted post of marine chaplain there can be no doubt that his own fitness played a part in his successful application. In his mid 30s now Fr Brian is a keen fitness fan having played hurling up until last year and he runs and cycles.

Fr Brian said that since January he has been going through the application process having received the blessing of Bishop Brennan to apply for the posting. As part of the application he underwent medical and physical testing, aptitude tests, psychometric testing and in-depth interviews.

He also completed a two day interview course which focused on leadership abilities.

Of the nine people that completed the two day course only five were successful, one of whom was Fr Brian meaning the Marines gain is Wexford loss. 'It was a rigorous enough process', he said. Despite the arduous testing he said 'there was never any guarantee that I was going to get the chaplaincy'.

Since he took the post many people have wondered why he chose to apply for a job with the UK armed forces as opposed to the Irish Defence Force.

'There was no apparent vacancy in the Irish Defence Forces, There are 14 chaplains in the Irish forces, mainly Catholic and there was no immediate vacancy. Even if there was (a vacancy) I wouldn't necessarily get it because there may have been others that expressed an interest and they would be ahead of me on a first come first served basis.'

For many a posting which could potentially bring him to war torn countries may have seem like a surprising move but Fr Brian is quick to point out despite the different nature of the chaplaincy his first and foremost role is as a priest and not a solider. 'First and foremost I will be a priest, that's the role and that's what people see the role as. That's my calling. Even thought I will be doing a bit of training I won't be combatant.

'This is a change, not a turnabout. I'm going to be a chaplain. I'm not going to be a soldier.

'I wanted to do something different. I wanted to go abroad and have a broader variety of experiences which this will offer because it is with the armed forces rather than the defence forces. Because it is with the Marines after training I will be assigned to a commando unit and will act as chaplain to them. There are a few different units and I don't know which I will be assigned to.

'At the moment the UK is not involved in a war so I won't be going to the front line.'

'I've been in Wexford town for nine years which is longer than people imagine at this stage. I wanted a change. I wanted to see other aspects of ministry and life. There are a variety of ministries, parish ministry is just one aspect of it. There are hospital chaplains, school chaplains, prison chaplains and military chaplains.

'Looking at all those I thought this (military chaplain) would be something I would be good at as well as being enjoyable and interesting. It will be a different opportunity and different experience.'

With Catholics making up 20 per cent of the Royal Marines Fr Brian will look after sacramental life for them, performing baptism, weddings and funeral where necessary in addition to the Eucharist and confession. However he will also play a large role to the other 80 per cent giving spiritual and moral guidance in addition to any necessary counselling.

'I am there to support people who work in the Marines. They go through tough times, they have seen or will see battle, may have seen people seriously injuries or die or may have been injured themselves as well as dealing with the ordinary stresses of lives. I am there to support them in that'

Fr Brian said that despite people's surprise at his decision to move to England his family, friends and parishioners have been very supportive although he admits that his mother would prefer to see him remain in Wexford. 'My mother would be much happier if I was in Wexford wrapped in cotton wool! But she is very supportive of me and she know that I want to do this.

'My brothers and sisters (four of each) are also very supportive and think this will suit me well and will be something I will be good at. People, in general, are surprised that I am wanting to do military chaplaincy in the UK and that I am going to leave a relatively comfortable existence in Wexford and maybe go to trouble spots but again everyone is very supportive, wishing me well and are sorry to see me go.

'I have been receiving cards and calls from people wishing me luck.

'I will miss Wexford, I'll miss the parishioners, and all the people who have been very good to me, and I've been very fortunate to serve here, alongside Fr's Jim, Michael and Aodhan.'

Having studied in Maynooth, Fr Brian may well have taken to military chaplaincy earlier in life had he taken on board the advice of the then vice president, Hugh Connolly, who is the current president. At the time Hugh had said that army chaplaincy might suit Fr Brian but back then it was parish ministry that called him.

Fr Brian said Bishop Brennan has been a great help throughout the process saying 'he was very open to the idea. I couldn't have done this without the help and support of the Bishop. He is sorry to see me go but he sees the value in it. He knows how many Irish have worked in the UK armed forces and sees it as a positive that any Irish priest wanted to become a chaplain to them.'

Fr Brian will finish his parish ministry in Wexford on August 2 and on September 7 will start his training in Dartmouth. However he will still be a familiar sight around Wexford and expects to get home on a regular basis. 'A lot of people have family living and working in the UK. I'll be doing no differently.'

Although there are certain diocese in Ireland experiencing a shortage of priests Fr Brian said Ferns is currently not in that boat. 'At the moment there isn't a shortage of priests in this diocese and with falling numbers going to mass there isn't the need. Catholics elsewhere also need priests and they also need them within the armed forces.'

The initial commission is six years but it can be cut short if this is something Fr Brian would like and similarly it can be extended, pending fitness and medical health, up until the age of 55.

Wexford People

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