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January 9, 2020

The Called: Father John Bateman

Father John Bateman displays cards he received from students at Seven Sorrows School in Middletown.

Father John Bateman displays cards he received from students at Seven Sorrows School in Middletown.

Father John Bateman
Hometown: Born in Baltimore, raised in Camp Hill
Education: Herbert Hoover Elementary, Camp Hill High School; HACC, University of Pittsburgh, Temple University, Pontifical College Josephinum, Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas
Current assignment: Currently deployed with the US Air Force (PA Air National Guard) to Al Dhafra Air Base, UAE, as Catholic Chaplain

Tell me a little bit about your childhood, and how the seeds of faith were planted.

I grew up in a very Catholic family. Mass and CCD (as we called it then) were not optional, but part of the rhythm of family life. But we also spent a lot of time in Protestant churches – my dad was an organist and he often had jobs in various Protestant churches in the area, so we went to Mass on Saturday night, then the Protestant service on Sunday morning. At a young age, it rooted within me a heart for ecumenism. In fact, that experience has enabled me to work successfully in the Chaplain Corps working with various Christian denominations and other religions in a harmonious way to do one thing: care for the Airmen and their families.

Growing up, we celebrated the holidays always from a Catholic perspective. Christmas didn’t begin until December 25; we celebrated Advent by singing and lighting the Advent wreath at the dinner table each evening, then the tree finally went up Christmas Eve. For the 12 days of Christmas, each morning my brother and I would take turns moving the magi a little closer to the manger until they arrived on January 6. During Lent, the crucifixes and images of saints were covered in purple until Easter. In May, we prayed the Rosary. In October, we made bouquets of autumn leaves for the Blessed Mother’s altar.

When did you enter seminary?

I entered the seminary in 1991, one year after I graduated college, for one reason: to prove God wrong. For many years, ever since grade school, I had this draw to the priesthood; so much so that I made my parents sit in the front row at the old Good Shepherd Church so that I could see what the priest was doing. Despite this constant urging from God, I wanted nothing to do with it and tried to avoid it as much as possible.

During college, I was sporadic in the practice of my faith until a priest from Philadelphia, whom I had brought to the nursing home to celebrate Mass for the residents, asked me, “You’re Catholic, aren’t you?” I couldn’t imagine how he knew. “You knew all the answers. So, why don’t you come to church?” That simple invitation was all it took. I began to attend church regularly once again, I got involved at my local parish and began to teach Religious Ed. When I graduated from college, I called Father Bill Forrey (a close friend of my family) and spoke to him about a possible call to priesthood. That was the first time I shared the feeling with anyone. He was supportive and encouraging, but I wasn’t ready yet.

I went to work in a nursing home outside Philly for a year, where God’s call continued, most especially, through a woman named Grace. Every day, she would come to my office and ask, “Pastor, I’ve been at this church all day. Can I go home now?” And I’d walk her back to her room, which was just the next door over. But God was constantly calling. Finally, I couldn’t deal with the nagging anymore and decided I’d apply to the Diocese.

What have you most enjoyed about parish life?

For seven years, I worked as a chaplain in two of our high schools, Bishop McDevitt and Delone Catholic. I truly enjoyed my work in the high schools. As a parochial vicar, I worked with the youth groups in my parishes – many of these young people, now all adults, have become very dear friends and an important part of my life. They call me “Father,” and they, in many ways, are absolutely my spiritual children. That’s probably what I most enjoyed about parish life: working with our youth. As a pastor, it takes on a different turn. While still involved with youth, as pastor you strive to set a vision for a parish to move together in faith. In each of the parishes where I’ve been pastor (Sacred Heart, Lewistown; St. Jude, Mifflintown; St. Andrew, Waynesboro; St. Francis Xavier, Gettysburg; and administrator of Our Lady of the Visitation in Shippensburg) I’ve always tried to be a “window” that allows the light of Christ to shine through me and that welcomes people into a deep friendship with Christ in prayer, knowledge of the faith, and participation in the sacraments.

Talk about your experience with the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.

Working for Cardinal O’Brien and the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem was nothing I ever pursued. It was obvious that it was God’s plan for me. I’ll never forget sitting on my sofa in Gettysburg one evening when the phone rang. It was a priest-friend from the military who told me that he had given my name to Cardinal O’Brien as a candidate to be his new priest-secretary.  “What did you do a dumb thing like that for?” was my response.

I gained a tremendous appreciation for the Holy Land and the work of the Order during my tenure. Our Christian brothers and sisters in the Holy Land, the true “living stones” of Jesus’ Holy Land, are under constant pressures, if not outright persecution. We don’t often think about who the Christians of the Holy Land are, but they are people not only in Israel, but many, many Christians in Palestine, Jordan and on the island of Cyprus. My work with the Order helped me to gain a much greater appreciation for the plight of our Christian brothers and sisters there, and the URGENCY of our support for them – material, financial and spiritual. It is why pilgrimage needs to be an important part of the life of Knights and Ladies of the Order: to SEE the situation on the ground, to touch those “living stones,” our brothers and sisters.

You have a Licentiate of Canon Law. How did the decision for those studies come about?

Further studies was not anything I had imagined. When I was called to serve Cardinal O’Brien in Rome, he told me (and Bishop Gainer) that I should go back to get another degree, because I would have adequate time to study. So, I met with Bishop Gainer who asked what I would like to study. I spoke of the many people coming for spiritual direction and thought that a degree in Spirituality would help me, as I worked with people. Bishop Gainer, with a smile, said, “Yes, that would be nice. I’d like you to study Canon Law.” Not what I expected, but I knew it was what the Diocese needed, so I willingly began my studies.

Because I was only home for a few months (I arrived home from Rome in July) before deploying, my work at the Tribunal didn’t get too involved in marriage cases. However, I was assisting in developing policies and recommendations for Bishop Gainer on how to approach more difficult pastoral issues. I was helping with annulment cases by conducting interviews for the cases. I was available to help the Tribunal with whatever work they needed.

What prompted you to military service?

I had always wanted to join the military. While in high school, I applied for an Air Force ROTC scholarship at Penn State, which I didn’t receive. So, being young, I just moved on to something else. During college, several of my friends were in the Army, and I wanted very much to serve our nation just as they were. During seminary, I asked our bishop at the time if I might be able to pursue military chaplaincy. Back in those days, we were not blessed with the number of vocations we have now; we were a total of only about eight men in seminary, so the bishop really couldn’t afford to have someone leave the Diocese for military service.

Back in 2011, Bishop McFadden wrote to all the priests asking if someone would be interested in serving in the PA Air National Guard out of Middletown. I quickly responded. I gratefully accepted the opportunity and in 2012 went to OTS (Officer Training School) at Maxwell AFB in Alabama, then to Chaplain School at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. In early 2013, I deployed to Landstuhl military hospital where I served our wounded and recovering military members.

What is your role as military chaplain?

My roles vary depending on where I am. In this current deployed situation, I am the only military Catholic priest in the entire country, and so I provide Catholic Mass and sacraments to all the Catholics on this base, as well as an Army post in a nearby city and even assist with Mass at the local Catholic Cathedral in Abu Dhabi. However, while the priest for our Catholics, I am a chaplain for ALL the military members. The Chaplain Corps speaks of being “squadron focused” – so much of our ministry is being present in the various squadrons and shops, building relationships with the airmen so that when/if there are concerns or issues, they have an already established rapport with the chaplain, regardless of their denomination, spiritual background or even if they are people of no faith. This way, they can easily enter into a counseling relationship with the chaplain. It is exciting work here.

You’ve served the people of God in a variety of ministries.

Each assignment and each ministry has been deeply rewarding, and in each I served God’s people in a different way: the parish as the “father” of the family; in the Tribunal as the advocate for justice and truth; with the Cardinal as a “son”; and with the Order as a facilitator. Yet through it all, only one title strikes to the heart of what my service to God’s people is all about: “Father.”  While my time with the Cardinal and the Order was an incredible experience, there is one thing I missed: being a pastor. Being present to journey with a parish community of faith, building one another up, growing in our understanding of the faith, celebrating the sacraments together, experiencing together the joys and sorrows of daily life, watching the children grow… that is where my heart is rooted.

Would you like to offer a message or greeting to the people of the Diocese of Harrisburg?

Firstly, THANK YOU for your support. I’ve received numerous notes, messages, and (from one former parish and parishioners) 11 boxes of supplies and goodies that the people of the parish collected for me to hand out to our troops here at Al Dhafra Air Base. You have no idea just how important your support is to us! Thank you!

Secondly, I can’t wait to come home and receive a new assignment. When I return after deployment I’ll return to Seven Sorrows and the Tribunal. Then, when assignments are made early this summer, I’ll receive a more permanent assignment from Bishop Gainer. Right now, only God knows that that assignment will be. But I am confident of two things: it will be where God wants me, right now, to be serving God’s people; and I will do it all with the heart of a priest – with the strength of Jesus’ Most Sacred Heart.

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