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Top U.S. Bishop: Failure to Replace Priest on Air Force Base Is ‘Incomprehensible’

Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, gestures during a Nov. 15, 2022, news conference after being elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops during the fall general assembly of the bishops in Baltimore. (Photo: CNS/Bob Roller)

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — It appears Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, remains without a contracted priest, and may not have one for at least a few more weeks, a situation Archbishop Timothy Broglio called “incomprehensible” earlier this month.

On Sept. 6, Archbishop Broglio, head of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, revealed that the Maxwell Air Force Base contracting office would not fill the role until late September or mid-October, even though they’ve been aware of the need to fill the vacancy since April 2023.

“I call on the appropriate elected officials of the U.S. Government to assert control over the bureaucracy that is permitted to deny First Amendment rights of the men and women in uniform and their families,” said Archbishop Broglio, who is also president of the U.S. bishops’ conference.

“There is a priest to fill the position,” he added. “It is incomprehensible that it is still unfilled.”

The reason for the vacancy is the retirement July 31 of Father Linn Harbour, who had been the Catholic chaplain at Maxwell Air Force Base since 1999. Father Harbour told The Tablet Sept. 20 that he had no information on when his successor would arrive.

In the meantime, he explained, daily Mass is on hold, but he and the two priests affiliated with Air University, which is situated on Maxwell Air Force base, offer a Saturday evening and Sunday morning Mass every week. Father Harbour also has continued to oversee the chapel.

“It’s been more difficult for the people than for me,” Father Harbour said of the situation. “It’s just the way it is.”

Reached by The Tablet on Sept. 20, Taylor Henry, director of public affairs and media relations for the archdiocese, said that there isn’t an update on the situation at present, but did clarify that it’s up to Maxwell Air Force Base to determine the process for the priest assignment.

Maxwell Air Force Base did not respond to multiple Tablet requests for comment.

Maxwell Air Force Base, officially known as Maxwell Air Force Base and Gunter Annex, has a population of more than 12,500 active duty, reserve, civilian, and contractor personnel, according to its website. It’s unclear exactly how many Catholics are at the base, but a Facebook page for the “Maxwell AFB Holy Family Catholic Community” has 592 likes and 623 followers.

Air University, according to the website, graduates more than 50,000 resident and 160,000 nonresident officers, enlisted, and civilian personnel each year.

The situation between the archdiocese and Maxwell Air Force Base comes in the wake of a dispute with Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in April, after it chose not to renew a contract with Franciscan priests who had ministered at the hospital for more than two decades, instead awarding the assignment to a secular defense contractor.

The dispute was ultimately resolved in June, when the Franciscan priests were re-awarded the contract. Still, Archbishop Broglio called what happened at Walter Reed a “deplorable situation” that shouldn’t be repeated at Maxwell Air Force Base.

“The deplorable situation that loomed over the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center should not be permitted to repeat itself,” Archbishop Broglio said in his Sept. 6 statement.