Msgr. Michael Butler has gone by quite a few titles over the years — Father, Monsignor, Chaplain and most recently, retired Chaplain Col. Butler.
But no matter the moniker, Msgr. Butler’s heart is with the people of God, serving them wherever the world takes him.
In July, Msgr. Butler begins a new assignment with the Archdiocese for the Military Services, serving as a Catholic priest at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C.
A longtime Air Force chaplain, he most recently served as pastor of St. Clement of Rome Parish in Des Peres. In the midst of that, he retired from the Air Force in 2018. But through a series of interactions with some of his former colleagues in the military, and with the support of Archbishop Mitchell T. Rozanski, he started to sense that God was calling him back to serving the troops.
There’s a distinction this time. In the past, Msgr. Butler was an active duty chaplain, providing spiritual guidance to all members of the military and their families of any faith background. “When I was in the military, it didn’t matter if you were a Buddhist, an atheist, a Lutheran or a Catholic, if you came to me I would talk to you and help you out in any way I can,” he said.
Now in retirement, he will be known simply as Msgr. Butler; his primary service is that of a Catholic priest, providing for the sacramental needs of the base.
“My uniform is this,” he said, pointing to his Roman collar.
Msgr. Butler’s history with the military started in the seminary when he worked as a volunteer chaplain in the Air Force for two summers. Following his ordination in 1989, he continued volunteering, and then in 1991 joined the Air National Guard as a chaplain. Later in the ’90s, he directed the archdiocesan Vocations Office, supporting young men as they discerned the priesthood.
Following attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, he served numerous stints as an Air Force chaplain, usually overseas in places including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Germany, Africa and Kyrgyzstan. He returned to the Archdiocese of St. Louis and St. Clement of Rome Parish in 2014, retiring from the Air Force in 2018.
In December, Msgr. Butler spoke with a friend at the Archdiocese for the Military Services who asked him if he would consider applying for the opening at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling.
“The civilian priest currently there is 78 and wants to retire,” Msgr. Butler said. “They have been looking for someone to put there, and there are not a lot of guys available to do this.”
The Archdiocese of St. Louis is contending with the number of active priests in relation to the number of parishes here that serve just under 500,000 Catholics. In comparison, there are about 1.8 million Catholics in the Archdiocese for the Military Services, Msgr. Butler said, but only about 8% of the chaplain corps for all branches of the military are Catholic priests.
“You can see the disparity, what a difference it is,” he said. “In the continental U.S. there are some bases that are going without priests. When you don’t have priests, and because of the sacraments in particular, how do you receive Holy Communion if a priest is not around? How do you have your confession heard? How are you to be anointed? Those things become hugely important.”
Msgr. Butler sees it as a privilege to serve the people of God in this capacity. “We see different countries, and languages and cultures, and sometimes I ask myself, what is the glue that holds us all together? And sometimes in the end I really think it’s our faith in Jesus Christ.”
Like at Pentecost, when the apostles spoke in different languages, it’s special to see God’s power and presence in ways that are surprising and yet, universal, he said. “It’s one faith, but yet it takes on expressions in different ways and cultures and institutions,” he said. “No matter where I go, they welcome me. And they don’t know anything about me except that I wear a collar and I am a priest. And you know what? That’s enough to know.”