Franciscan priests and friars are once again ministering to patients at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center two months after the news of their contract's expiration led to an outcry among Catholic leaders and religious freedom advocates.
In a statement released Tuesday, Archbishop for the Military Services, USA, Timothy Broglio, announced that the U.S. Defense Health Agency awarded a five-year contract to the Franciscans at Holy Name College and Friary in Silver Spring, Maryland.
The priests served as chaplains at the Bethesda, Maryland-based hospital for nearly 20 years before their previous contract expired earlier this year and was awarded to another organization.
He described it as "a source of great joy that the Franciscans have returned to the medical center [to] care for patients and staff there."
"I am very grateful to the Army Chief of Chaplains, Chaplain Thomas L. Solhjem, MG, USA, for his personal intervention and interest in resolving the question of Catholic pastoral care at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center," Broglio added. "He moved quickly to assure the presence of additional Catholic priests from the Army Reserves as soon as the contract with the Franciscan Friars ended. He also made certain that the needs of Catholics were addressed in the renegotiation of the contract."
Walter Reed National Military Medical Center is one of several medical centers within the Department of Defense and the DHA whose pastoral care lies within the ecclesial jurisdiction of the Archdiocese for the Military Services USA, "the only Catholic authority for endorsing and granting faculties to Catholic priests and chaplains to serve in the U.S. Military."
The archdiocese is headquartered in Washington, D.C., not far from the Walter Reed campus.
The new contract with the Franciscans, awarded on June 8, enables five friars to take turns ministering to hospitalized Catholics at Walter Reed six days a week.
The new contract comes two months after the non-renewal of the Franciscan friars' previous contract with Walter Reed in favor of a contract with a for-profit secular defense contractor made headlines.
The previous contract with the Franciscans expired on March 31, which caused the Archdiocese of Military Services great concern because Holy Week was slated to begin two days later.
While Walter Reed insisted that it was a "welcoming and healing environment that honors and supports a full range of religious, spiritual, and cultural needs" that featured an "ordained Catholic priest on staff," the archdiocese countered that the Catholic military chaplain in question was "in the process of separating from the Army."
Mack Global LLC, the secular agency awarded a contract with Walter Reed instead of the Franciscans, listed the services it provides as "chapel support, religious education coordinators, non-personal chapel support, hospice chaplains, and other religious staff."
The company employs "ordained ministers and experienced leaders as pastors, priests, musicians, teachers, trainers and volunteers who favorably pass the background check application according to the Department of Defense Instruction." Archbishop Broglio maintained that the company "cannot provide the necessary service" of Catholic ministry.
In response to the backlash from the archdiocese, the First Liberty Institute and the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, Walter Reed told Catholic News Agency that it was "reviewing the contract and unable to provide specifics."
Tuesday's statement from the Archdiocese of Military Services indicated that the USDHA "reopened bidding in May," and the bidding process culminated last week in the form of a new contract with the Franciscans.
Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: email@example.com