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What makes a good Chaplain?

What makes a good Chaplain?

Chaplains were selected by the leaders of the different denominations in New Zealand, and then, provided that they passed the medical examination, were sent into camp. It should be remembered what a large number of chaplains was needed to staff the page 129 three Services in their home and overseas establishments and that this made great demands on the Churches, for the supply of recruits to the Christian Ministry was almost entirely stopped by the war. and every chaplain had to be taken from a civilian post. In spite of these difficulties the Churches were prepared to send their best men to serve with the armed forces; to make this possible older men came out of retirement and the civilian clergy often had their work doubled, besides acting as honorary chaplains to troops stationed in their districts.

The Churches were prepared to send their best men, but how were they to decide who were most suitable for chaplaincy work? Obviously a chaplain had to be of the right age, enjoy good health. and generally give the impression of having those qualities that would appeal to men. This is a very vague description. The right age? A chaplain should not be too young. It was desirable, almost essential, that he should have had several years' experience in the Christian Ministry.

But what was the maximum age to be? In the days of peace the prime of life is often thought to come at the age of 40, but that is old for the Army. General Freyberg once said that he would like to have all his battalion commanders under 30 and his company commanders under 25. By the end of the war his hope had largely been fulfilled and these young officers were very successful. The rigours of campaigning severely tested any man over the age of 35. From this it would be easy to infer that the ideal chaplain should enter the Army in his thirties, but in the 2nd Division there were several chaplains who had served in the First World War and yet were fit enough to serve with combatant units in the 1939–45 War. These men included Bishop Gerard. Padres McKenzie, Buck. Moore, McDowall. and Harawira, and mention has already been made of Padre Rangi serving alongside his three sons in the Maori Battalion and Padre McKenzie giving good service until the age of 56. It would seem fairly easy to suggest a minimum age, but the maximum would depend upon the individual concerned. Provided he had health and strength and a youthful outlook he was young enough.

Some chaplains and many soldiers were so anxious to serve overseas that in their medical examinations they withheld important information, and much trouble was caused by the arrival of recruits page 130 in the Middle East who proved quite unfit to face the rigours of desert life and battle conditions. Under these circumstances Padre McKenzie was fond of saying that a chaplain was no use unless he could march twenty miles with ease. With due respect to a great leader that statement is only a half-truth. Except on a few occasions, notably in Crete, soldiers were seldom called upon to march long distances during a campaign. Certainly they had to face physical hardship such as artillery bombardment, irregular meals, nights without sleep, and the rigours of the weather, but experience has shown that a strong will is more important than a strong body when such conditions have to be experienced. It was the strongest man physically who first succumbed on Scott's journey from the South Pole, and in modern polar expeditions men are selected as much for their mental as for their bodily strength, while in warfare there has been little to suggest that great athletes have any monopoly of endurance.

So much for age and health. What about the more general characteristics which fit a man for chaplaincy work? The answer must be equally vague. In the First World War there were many surprises. For example, in the British Army competent authorities were surprised by the immediate success of clerical dons dragged from the universities and their world of libraries and abstract thought. They often proved more adaptable and did better work than men with much practical experience in industrial parishes.

No doubt certain gifts and talents were of great value. The gift of preaching has always been one of the strongest arms of the Christian Church, and chaplains so endowed were able to give forthright sermons couched either in soldiers' language or in faultless English which commanded immediate attention and provided their congregations with new inspiration and a better grasp of the eternal truth. A knowledge of history was a great asset in the chaplain's work, while the gift of tongues was invaluable. It came in handy when dealing with prisoners of war. it enabled many chaplains to run foreign language classes in the soldiers' leisure time, and some Roman Catholic chaplains did great service to the Division in Italy by their knowledge of Italian. Some had the gift of writing, notably Father Walsh, and contributed to the military journals and the excellent pamphlets of the AEWS.

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A chaplain found his work made easier when he could show proficiency in some sport for by refereeing and playing games he came to know his men very well. Perhaps the greatest gift of all was to be a ‘good mixer’, to have the ability of making friends easily and quickly, for so much of Army life was spent amongst strangers. An imposing and terrifying list could be composed of the qualities needed by the ideal chaplain but such a list would give a false picture. A man did not have to have unusual gifts to be a good chaplain. It was sufficient if he had average health, was between the ages of 30 and 50, and was a sincere and hard-working Christian clergyman. Provided this type of man was used in the right way he was bound to succeed.

Imagine such a man arriving in the Middle East. He would have a few weeks in Base Camp to get his bearings in a foreign country and then would be posted to a combatant unit with the Division. Here he would get to know one body of men well. He would find and make his own opportunities for work, and after some experience in action, the soldiers would discover his sincerity, faith, and friendliness, and by the very warmth of their acceptance of him supply an atmosphere in which he could give of his best. Under these circumstances a chaplain did not have to have any great ability in preaching or possess any outstanding ‘parlour tricks’. It did not matter much if he was a poor preacher, no good at sport and rather shy, for if he was game in action, industrious in his visiting, and sincere in his life he was bound to succeed. However, if such a man was left too long in a Base job, where he could never experience the warmth of unit corporate life or have much chance of showing his own innate quality, he might begin to lose his self-confidence and become less and less useful to the Department.

There were failures, and occasionally a man broke down at a critical time. Sometimes a man was definitely not suitable for chaplaincy work and there was only one solution to this problem: to send him straight home, for there is no place in the Army for a bad chaplain. This solution caused difficulties, for the Senior Chaplain had the delicate and unpleasant job of deciding that the man was no good and of acquainting him with the fact, and then he page 132 had to convince the Army authorities that the chaplain must be replaced at once by a new man from New Zealand.

Some men broke down in spite of being good chaplains. A chaplain can give of his best only for a limited time and then inevitably he has to pay for his separation from opportunities for quiet study and regular prayer. His useful life can be prolonged, and was prolonged, by the many excellent courses and special amenities arranged for chaplains. But even then there is a limit, and the following times might have been set as the maximum service of a chaplain in the Second World War: two years with a combatant unit, one year with a non-combatant Divisional unit, one year at Base, and then back to civilian life. Probably three years' total service would have been better than four.

There is ample evidence in the two wars to support this thesis, but if it was put into practice it would demand in the first place that the Senior Chaplains were in the closest touch with their men and ready at the first sign to order their transfer, and secondly, that the Army authorities were prepared to co-operate in this endeavour to keep the chaplains' team full of fresh and energetic men. In a war there are always occasions when soldiers have to be pushed and worked beyond the limits of sound economy. The winning of a certain battle may be more important in the long run than the continued efficiency of one division or of one body of men. but under this head it should be realised that the normal useful working life of a chaplain is of limited duration. General Slim has said: ‘Courage is an expendable quality. If there are continued calls on our courage we begin to overdraw. If we go on overdrawing we go bankrupt—we break down.’ This statement might still be true if ‘chaplaincy work’ was substituted for the word ‘courage’.

The preceding paragraphs have suggested that no very special qualifications were needed for an Army chaplain. It was enough if a man had sufficient experience as a clergyman, average health, and was what might be called a good Christian. But it would be a poor Chaplains' Department composed entirely of this rather colourless type, and certainly the New Zealand Chaplains' Department abounded in and was enhanced by its many ‘personalities’, who together made a strong team when their different ages, ex- page 133 periences, and talents were blended. It was certainly a good team. Did it achieve its purpose?