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  September 3 , 2007 • VOL. 45, NO. 15 • Oakland, CA

articles list

Pastor leaves Martinez parish to become Air Force chaplain

Seminarians’ summer includes volunteering at Catholic Charities

Celebrating Sisters' years of jubilee

CRS seeks $11 million to help victims of earthquake in Peru

U.S. poverty down slightly, but Americans without health insurance continues to rise

Faith-based investors say proposed rule could gut shareholder rights

Hundreds remember slain journalist at funeral Mass at St. Benedict’s

Father George Alengadan observes jubilee

Concord, Alameda parishes offer opportunities for spiritual growth

Bioethics seminar Oct. 3 in San Francisco

Sister John Marie Samaha, SHF












Pastor leaves Martinez parish
to become Air Force chaplain

Father Neal Clemens is greeted by parishioners on the steps of St. Catherine Church after his goodbye liturgy.


Father Neal Clemens has exchanged his busy life as a pastor in Martinez for what he hopes will be a combat zone in either Afghanistan or Iraq. On Aug. 20, he began officers’ training as a military chaplain at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama.

He knows there is possible danger awaiting in his new ministry, “but I wouldn’t be happy unless I answered God’s call. I’ve always given in to that call, even when it wasn’t the direction I expected my life to take,” said the 45-year-old priest.

He was a pastry chef in the Russian River Valley for 10 years before studying for the priesthood. For the past four years he has served as pastor of St. Catherine Parish, where he worshipped as a boy. He said his decision to enter the military as a chaplain and a counselor developed gradually, just as his previous callings as a chef and a priest did.

“A year and a half ago, I would have said, ‘no way,’” said Father Clemens. His father served in World War II and often spoke of its pain and horror to his kids.
Father Clemens doesn’t believe that Iraq is a just war, and he is no great lock-step admirer of the military. Yet, he realizes the necessity for a country to keep a military force in readiness and he prays that “the outcome in Iraq will lead to a peaceful world.”

He started inching towards the military chaplaincy in 2005. God “began working gently and persistently,” he said, nudging him to notice the troubled, depressed young people who were returning to the East Bay from military assignments, especially in Iraq.

“They’d come home and people around here wouldn’t know what they went through. I’m interested in helping them become healthier before they come back home.”

During his six-year stint as a chaplain, Father Clemens will help the troops address the pain of separation from friends, family, and home as well as other psychological and spiritual effects of serving in the military. He said he’s grateful that he speaks some Spanish, so he can help the many Hispanics currently serving in the military.

After the month’s training in Alabama, he will report to Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, where he will replace a chaplain who has been reassigned to England.
Father Clemens expects to be deployed to a combat zone in January 2008.

Although one senses eager anticipation in Father Clemens, “it’s been hard to leave,” he said wistfully, thinking back to his farewell Mass on Aug. 12, which was concelebrated by Bishop Allen Vigneron and Bishop Emeritus John Cummins.
He remembers the warm parish party, filled with family, friends, parishioners, and members of the two previous parishes where he served — St. Michael in Livermore, and St. Joan of Arc in San Ramon.

He said he was quite touched by the group’s response to his request that they not say goodbye, but instead tell him, “God bless you for what you are doing.” During the farewell liturgy, everyone stretched out their arms in a special blessing.

Leaving his 81-year-old mother was “not easy,” said the priest, “but God’s call is first.” One of his last wrap-up tasks before driving to Alabama was purchasing a computer for her “so she can e-mail me.”

Father Clemens added a light, familial note: When he went for his physical, he checked out in better shape than many of the 20-year-old recruits. He attributes this to the friendly competitive streak he and his brothers kept up over the years while they ran and lifted weights together.

The priest plans to return to parish duties in the East Bay when he completes his chaplaincy.




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