A chaplain is a priest or clergyman serving a group of people who are not organized as a mission or church. For example a chaplain is often attached to a military unit, a private chapel, a ship, a prison, a hospital, a parliament and so on. Many historical royal courts and noble houses also had their own private chaplains.
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History records various equivalents of chaplains from ancient Assyria onwards.
Originally a Christian chaplain had a function of serving as an aide to a bishop and various chaplains still help the pope in his ecclesiastical duties. In other circumstances their duties were limited to saying a mass in certain functions.
The first English military-oriented chaplains appeared during the reign of King Edward I, although their duties included jobs that today would come under the jurisdiction of military engineers and medical officers. A priest attached to a feudal noble household would follow his liege lord into battle. In 1796 the Parliament of Great Britain passed a Royal Warrant that established the Royal Army Chaplains' Department in the British Army.
The current form of military chaplain dates from the era of the First World War. A chaplain conducts religious services in the field and tries to maintain morale. In the British Armed Forces, chaplains are traditionally referred to (and addressed) as padres.
Christians are not the only faith to have chaplain-equivalent positions. Other religions, such as Judaism or Islam, may also provide chaplains for military service. In the United States Air Force, the Air Force Religious Pin recognizes chaplains from four of the major religious faiths. The British Armed Forces currently only employ Christian and Jewish chaplains.
Chaplains are nominated in different ways in different countries. A military chaplain can be an army-trained soldier with additional theological training or a priest nominated to the army by religious authorities. In Britain, the Ministry of Defence employs the chaplains but their authority comes from the church. In France, the existence of military chaplains has come under debate because of the separation of Church and State; however, their position has been maintained as of 2004.
United States Armed Forces Chaplains
Roman Catholic Chaplains
The United States Armed Forces are served by the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA. This Archdiocese oversees all the Catholic chaplains in the Armed Forces. Catholic Chaplains can serve in the Army, Navy, or Air Force.
In the United States, Catholic Priests are required to seek permission from their diocesean Bishop or religious superior to be released from parish or other diocesean work for at least three years. Candidates are given medical examinations to see if they would be healthy enough to serve. They are also required to fill out an application, and have letters of recommendation. The findings are presented to a board which evalulates each candidate. The application process usually takes from two to six months to complete.
Chaplains are nominally noncombatants under the Geneva Convention. Still, many of them have died in the field due to a stray bullet, during bombing or artillery barrage. Many have been decorated for bravery in action (and five have even won Britain's highest award for gallantry, the Victoria Cross). The Chaplain's Medal for Heroism is a special military decoration of the United States of America which honors military chaplains who have been killed in the line of duty.
Although the military chaplain occurs most commonly, chaplains can be attached also to educational institutions like universities and colleges, scout troops, ships, places like hospitals and prisons and on occasion private companies and corporations. Chaplains also serve roles in hospice programs and retirement centers. The term can also refer to male priests attached to Roman Catholic convents.