Father David Miloscia’s vocation has taken him from one corner of the world to another, all within the first several years of his priesthood.
Ordained for the Archdiocese of St. Louis in 2015, Father Miloscia has answered a calling within a calling as a military chaplain. With the permission of then-Archbishop Robert J. Carlson and the endorsement of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, Father Miloscia became a chaplain with the U.S. Navy in 2020.
Father Miloscia is a Navy lieutenant and for the past two-and-a-half years has served as a chaplain on the USS Ronald Reagan, stationed at the Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan. In all, he spent a total of 483 days at sea, embarking on three separate tours, largely patrolling the South China Sea.
In late January, he received a new assignment as a chaplain with the U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Smedley D. Butler in Okinawa, Japan. In that role, he will oversee the sacramental and spiritual needs of the base, primarily through three chapels located on the island. (As an aside, the Navy provides some personnel, including chaplains, to the service of the Marines.)
In between assignments, Father Miloscia returned to St. Louis on Christmas Day for a monthlong visit with family and friends. In a wide-ranging interview with the Review, he described his ministry attending to the pastoral and spiritual needs of the sailors and their families as a military chaplain. On the USS Reagan, he oversaw 10 sailors who helped manage the work of providing religious ministry, training and counseling sailors.
Before heading off to his first assignment, Father Miloscia underwent 12 weeks of intensive training at the Naval Officer Training Command in Newport, Rhode Island. That included six weeks of training with the Navy to become an officer and six weeks of chaplaincy school.
The structure and discipline found within the military are comparable to his life as a priest, he said. While the Navy is more physically demanding, it includes similar elements found in seminary formation. There are specific times seminarians have their studies, pray and eat meals, for example. It’s a similar story for life on the ship.
“I call the Reagan — this big, 100,000-ton warship — my steel monastery,” he said. “It’s a rigorous, demanding lifestyle, but it forces you to live on bare bones and to focus your whole life on your duties and responsibilities and on God.”
Discipline is the root word of discipleship, which in turn is a virtue. “Unless you do it, you won’t become disciplined, you won’t become a disciple, you won’t become virtuous, you won’t become holy,” Father Miloscia said.
As a chaplain, Father Miloscia provides care for all people, regardless of their faith background, all within the realm of his Catholic priesthood. “The bulk of our work is taking care of sailors in whatever difficulties they are going through — and there are many scenarios,” he said.
Most of the ministry involves walking with people through personal issues. “Ninety percent of the time, they’re not coming to me with religious problems,” he said. “It’s more along the lines of, ‘My grandfather died and they won’t let me go home for the funeral.’ Or, ‘My wife just left me.’ Or, ‘My son called and he has cancer.’”
It’s important that they don’t bottle up their issues, he said, likening it to walking on a broken leg. At some point, there will be a breaking point if it’s not addressed. “I may not be able to solve their problem,” he said. “But I do know by being there to listen, it helps lighten their load. They remember that they are not alone and there is someone who still loves them and cares about them. I’m there to be that empathy, compassion and support for them — and trusted confidentiality.”
Sometimes, that opens the door for deeper discussions about faith and God.
“We are all called to be missionaries to one degree or another, to be a bridge for others to Christ,” he said. “Christ is that cure that every person, without exception, needs. That is always in the back of my mind. Even though I may not be talking about the Gospel with them, I am being Christ to them with compassion and charity, and sometimes the spirit does move” them.
A need for priests
The Archdiocese of St. Louis has more than 200 active priests serving in 178 parishes with just under 500,000 Catholics. In comparison, there are about 1.8 million Catholics served by the Archdiocese for the Military Services, with almost 200 priest chaplains stationed worldwide.
Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Coffey with the Archdiocese for the Military Services noted the great shortage of priest chaplains serving in active duty, and that number continues to decline.
Bishop Coffey spent nearly 20 years as an active duty chaplain with the U.S. Navy, before his auxiliary bishop appointment in 2019. He previously served as a full-time Navy recruiter, including three-and-a-half years based in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, where he was in residence at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis. It was during that time that he met Father Miloscia, who was still in the seminary, and encouraged him to pray about a future “vocation within a vocation” as a military chaplain.
“My job was to go all over the country to talk with bishops and seminarians to recruit for active duty chaplains,” he said. “Anecdotally, the bishops would tell me, ‘Father Coffey, we are sympathetic, and we know the military has its needs. But there are 20 parishes in my diocese without a single priest.’”
Because the Archdiocese for the Military Services is the only entity that gives exclusive permission for U.S. priests to serve as military chaplains, Bishop Coffey said they count on the bishops to be as generous as they can be.
“The people serving in the military are young and want to go to Mass and confession,” he said. “We have to be as generous as possible to let priests go. Any priests on active duty are on loan from their diocese or religious order for a certain number of years.”
Bishop Coffey, now retired from the Navy, serves as vicar for Veterans Affairs, overseeing the chaplaincy needs of more than 150 VA hospitals across the United States. He said most priests don’t have that calling within a calling to serve as a military chaplain, but those who do are asked to have between three to five years in parish life within their diocese first.
A honorable profession
Father Miloscia met then-Father Coffey in the spring of 2008 when he was in formation at the seminary. He noticed the priest, dressed in his Navy “summer whites,” and a friendship began.
Father Miloscia’s family roots are deeply embedded in military service. His father was an officer with the U.S. Air Force, and an older brother, Stephen Miloscia Jr., who served as a Navy rescue swimmer. Other relatives on his mother’s side of the family have served with the Navy; his father’s side has largely been associated with the Air Force.
Father Miloscia lost contact with Father Coffey, but the calling came back to him after some encouragement from his first pastor, Father Thomas Keller, whom he served alongside at his first parish assignment, Assumption in south St. Louis County.
After expressing his desire to Archbishop Carlson, he received the phone number for a Navy recruiter — Father Coffey.
“I’ve been expecting this phone call for seven years,” Father Coffey told him during that phone conversation.
St. John Paul II once said that military service was an honorable profession. “They should feel good about what they are doing and to be proud of their service,” Bishop Coffey said. “I feel blessed to have been able to serve as a priest and military officer.”
One of the greatest rewards is helping others to grow in their faith, Father Miloscia said. That includes baptizing babies, hearing someone’s confession or welcoming home Catholics who have fallen away from the faith.
He recalled a high-ranking officer who started going to Mass again after his interactions with the priest. “I’m just a little instrument — God did that,” he said.
Father Miloscia said the power of prayer cannot be overemphasized in this ministry. “There’s nothing more important than prayer,” he said. “When things get dark and difficult, I’ve had to throw myself to be dependent on God.”
Military service among St. Louis priests
There are four archdiocesan priests currently serving as military chaplains or as chaplains for Veterans Affairs hospitals:
Msgr. Michael Butler, retired U.S. Air Force chaplain, now serving as a priest at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C. (Read more here: stlreview.com/3DtHZnt)
Father Thomas Kirchhoefer, U.S. Veterans Affairs chaplain
Father David Miloscia, U.S. Navy chaplain serving with the U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Smedley D. Butler in Okinawa, Japan
Father Edward Ramatowski, U.S. Veterans Affairs chaplain
Archdiocese for the Military Services
The Archdiocese for the Military Services was created by St. John Paul II to provide the Catholic Church’s full range of pastoral ministries and spiritual services to those in the United States Armed Forces.
It includes more than 220 installations in 29 countries, patients in 153 VA hospitals and federal employees serving outside the boundaries of the United States in 134 countries. Numerically, the Archdiocese for the Military Services is responsible for more than 1.8 million men, women and children.
The archdiocese serves as the sole endorser (certifier) of Roman Catholic chaplains to the United States government. A Roman Catholic priest cannot serve within the United States military as a priest without the express permission of the archdiocese. Chaplains serve on loan from their diocese of incardination or religious order/society and are released for a term of military service.
Chaplains never become members of the archdiocese; instead, they remain subject to their home bishop/religious superiors. The only clergy incardinated into the Archdiocese for the Military Services are its archbishop and auxiliary bishops.
The following are the numbers of Catholic priests currently serving as active-duty chaplains in each branch of service around the world:
Air Force: 60
Marine Corps: 5
Coast Guard: 1
Space Force: 1
Joint Base: 1