It happened just before Holy Week: Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the nation’s preeminent medical provider for veterans, issued a “cease and desist order” to Holy Name College, an order of Franciscan Catholic priests and brothers.
The cease and desist order says the priests cannot provide any religious services on the medical campus, and it was issued March 31, on the eve of the most sacred week of the Christian faith, when many Catholics attend services throughout the week to remember and pay tribute to the last days of Jesus as a mortal human. The week leads up to Easter Sunday.
The Franciscan brothers have provided pastoral care to service members and veterans at Walter Reed for nearly 20 years, according to the Archdiocese for Military Services.
The Franciscans’ contract for Catholic Pastoral Care was instead awarded to a secular defense contracting firm that cannot fulfill the statement of work in the contract, the Archdiocese reported. The Archdiocese did not name the secular agency.
“As a result, adequate pastoral care is not available for service members and veterans in the United States’ largest Defense Health Agency medical center either during Holy Week or beyond. There is one Catholic Army chaplain assigned to Walter Reed Medical Center, but he is in the process of separating from the Army,” the Archdiocese said.
“It is incomprehensible that essential pastoral care is taken away from the sick and the aged when it was so readily available. This is a classic case where the adage ‘if it is not broken, do not fix it’ applies. I fear that giving a contract to the lowest bidder overlooked the fact that the bidder cannot provide the necessary service. I earnestly hope that this disdain for the sick will be remedied at once and their First Amendment rights will be respected,” said His Excellency, the Most Reverend Timothy P. Broglio, J.C.D., Archbishop for the Military Services.
Walter Reed issued a statement on Saturday that skirted the issue of why the relationship was ended:
“Tomorrow, Catholic Easter Services will be provided to those who wish to attend. Services will include a celebration of Mass and the administration of Confession by an ordained Catholic Priest,” the hospital statement said. “For many years, a Catholic ordained priest has been on staff at WRNMMC providing religious sacraments to service members, veterans and their loved ones. There has also been a pastoral care contract in place to supplement those services provided.
“Currently a review of the pastoral care contract is under review to ensure it adequately supports the religious needs of our patients and beneficiaries,” the hospital statement continued. “Although at this time the Franciscan Diocese will not be hosting services on Sunday parishioners of the Diocese while patients at our facilities may still seek their services.”
Elizabeth A. Tomlin, Esq., General Counsel of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA (AMS), has reached out to the contracting officers at Walter Reed numerous times throughout Holy Week asking for the Franciscans’ Catholic ministry to be reinstated at least through Easter. Walter Reed National Military Medical Center has not responded to these requests from the Archdiocese, she said.
“While Walter Reed’s chaplain office claims Catholic care is being provided during Holy Week, the AMS maintains that without Catholic priests present at the medical center, service members and veterans are being denied the constitutional right to practice their religion,” the organization said.
“Walter Reed National Military Medical Center is one of many medical centers within the Department of Defense and Defense Health Agency whose pastoral care lies within AMS jurisdiction. The refusal to provide adequate pastoral care while awarding a contract for Catholic ministry to a for-profit company that has no way of providing Catholic priests to the medical center is a glaring violation of service members’ and veterans’ Right to the Free Exercise of Religion. Especially, during Holy Week, the lack of adequate Catholic pastoral care causes untold and irreparable harm to Catholics who are hospitalized and therefore a captive population whose religious rights the government has a constitutional duty to provide for and protect,” the Franciscan order said.
The Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province is the largest of the seven provinces belonging to the worldwide Order of Friars Minor in the United States. Since their founding in 1901, they continue the vocationally oriented St. Francis’s mission to make the Gospel message alive in the contemporary world. The Franciscans as a group of orders for both men and women were founded in 1209 by St. Francis of Assisi.
The Walter Reed Army Medical Center is located in Washington, D.C., and served more than 150,000 active and retired personnel from all branches of the United States, plus members of Congress and presidents.
Photo credit: Archdiocese of the Military. Archbishop Timothy Broglio (center) celebrates Ash Wednesday Mass at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, MD, on March 2, 2022.