Updated: Apr 6
The following story appeared in the Feb. 12 issue of the Idaho Catholic Register
MOUNTAIN HOME – Air Force Chaplain Major Father Onyema Okorie has heard confessions, celebrated Mass, and ministered to the sick around the world, including areas where most would fear to tread. A joyful priest with an immense smile, it is not hard to picture him gently baptizing a baby in a serene chapel. It is also not difficult to imagine the peace his kind yet strong demeanor must bring, as he holds the hand of someone dying from shrapnel wounds in a war zone.
Father Okorie arrived at Mountain Home Air Force Base in May of last year and quickly made connections with Bishop Peter Christensen and clergy in the Diocese of Boise. (Catholic military chaplains are under the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, and their bishop, Archbishop Timothy Broglio.
“Our military is a part of God’s family, and we need the support of the Church. I really appreciate the support of Bishop Christensen,” he said. Clergy throughout the Diocese of Boise have been very welcoming, he said.
Before Mountain Home, Father Okorie served in the United Kingdom and, prior to that, in Germany. In 2007, he served in Iraq.
Father Okorie was recognized by the Air Force in 2008 for being a “premiere combat chaplain” and for “amazing ministry to isolated forces,” including Special Forces, according to Stars and Stripes newspaper.
“Personally, it has been truly a rare privilege as a chaplain to serve our U.S. military personnel in combat or war zones during my deployments,” he said, adding that he is “often humbled by the faith and resilience” of the men and women serving in the military.
Affirming the adage that “there is no atheist in the foxhole,” Father Okorie said that most every-one turns to faith when in combat zones, praying for God’s protection and to make it home safely to family and loved ones. Their faith connects them to family, he said.
Father Okorie believes his call to the priesthood came even before he was born. “After reflecting on my life experience, I would say my vocation started in the womb,” he said.
He is from southern Nigeria, which is predominantly Christian and more peaceful than northern Nigeria where some priests are being kidnapped and murdered for their faith.
Father Okorie is the fourth and youngest child in his family. Two months before he was born, the doctor warned his mother that her son was so large that she might not be able to birth him safely. She prayed and, despite his size, he was born without emergency intervention. She named him “Onyemau-chechukwu,” which means, “Who knows the mind of God?” It was easy to choose the priesthood, he said, because he was surrounded by such faith.
His parents, especially his mother, were involved in church life, and his childhood memories are of being at home or at the church. “That’s how I got recruited,” he said.
Nuns in Catholic school taught him from pre-school through the elementary grades. In fifth grade, the Sisters gave him an assessment test because he was so bright. He skipped sixth grade and went to minor seminary from seventh grade through high school. After graduating with his bachelor’s degree from seminary college, he transferred to the Diocese of Fresno, Calif., where he was ordained in 1999.
His call to the military chaplaincy came on Sept. 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked by terrorists.
His bishop was reluctant to let him go, but Father Okorie knew he was called to the military. He chose the Air Force, enrolling in Officers’ Training School and then to the Chaplain Basic Corps. While serving in the Air Force, he earned his master's degree in mental health counseling.
“Ministry in the military is very different from the local parish. It is a very multi-faith environment,” he said. “Chaplains have to learn to work with one another and serve the multi-faiths we have here in the military.” All air-men and women and their families are served, no matter their beliefs, he said.
Father Okorie is the Acting Wing Chaplain, while the Wing Chaplain is deployed elsewhere. He oversees all chapel worship, programs and events. He supervises all the chaplains as well as the Religious Affairs Airmen, civilian employees, contractors and numerous volunteers who help with chapel programs and events.
Many military families live off base, thus it is important for them to feel accepted and to have a sense of belonging in their parishes, especially because most military families live away from home and extended family, Father Okorie said. “Military families just want to be welcomed and included. Let them know you appreciate their service,” he said.
After 17 years in the chaplaincy, Father Okorie is convinced that the spirit of self-sacrifice is one of the greatest virtues a community can learn from military families. Men and women are in the military because they want to serve something bigger than themselves, he said. “They sacrifice a lot. They are always willing to help. They are often deployed during major family events. They miss birthdays and ceremonies. Thank God for video and livestreaming,” he said.
Parishes will find that veterans and military families are great volunteers. “They love to serve and never get tired of serving,” he said.
While there are differences between being a parish priest and a military chaplain, there are commonalities to addressing the life experiences of all the faithful.
On vocations to the priesthood, for example, Father Okorie said that fam-ily life is still the primary training field for vocations. “Parents influence their children in the choices they make. I grew up knowing the Church was very important in the life of my family. I knew that God meant everything — for me, that was the foundation.”
What parents view as important is what children will see as important, Father Okorie said. “If not for my family, I probably would have been a doc-tor or a lawyer,” he said. The priests and nuns in his parish and schools also influenced him as role models.
Parents, he said, need to plant seeds of faith in their children when they are young. Whatever a child is called to do later in life, the seeds of faith are planted and will eventually be of help. “Trust me!” he said, “that Catholic guilty conscience will kick in, and they will go to church on Sunday morning.”
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