Army Padre Colonel Guy Bélisle describes ‘Walking day-to-day with the troops’
By Second Lieutenant Natalia Flynn, Army Public Affairs
Ottawa, Ontario — Outgoing Canadian Army Command Chaplain Colonel Guy Bélisle’s profound dedication towards his troops as an infantry officer inspired him to pursue a calling as a military chaplain.
Col Bélisle, who has been with the Army Headquarters as the Canadian Army Command Chaplain since 2015, is now looking forward to a new position as Director, Royal Canadian Chaplain Service as of July 1, 2018. In preparation for that position, he was promoted to his current rank on June 13, 2018.
Colonel Bélisle’s career in the CAF began in 1986 when he served with the 1st Battalion of the Royal 22e Régiment for 12 years.
During this time, he deployed on the first rotation to Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992. During this deployment, Col Bélisle earned the Medal of Bravery for ensuring the safety of people who were under fire from enemy snipers.
In later years, he also held a Regular Force Support Staff position with the Fusiliers de Sherbrooke and was Commanding Officer of the CAF recruiting centre in Sherbrooke, Quebec.
In 1998, he answered a different call and went on to study theology at St. Paul University in Ottawa. Between 2004 and 2012, Padre Bélisle served as unit chaplain at 2nd Canadian Division Support Base Valcartier and at the Canadian Forces Leadership and Recruit School in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu. He was deployed with the earthquake relief mission in Haiti in 2010 and supported troops in Afghanistan on the last combat mission from 2010 to 2011.
In 2012, Padre Bélisle became Formation Chaplain for Maritime Forces Atlantic before being posted to Army Headquarters as the Canadian Army Command Chaplain in 2015…
Below is an abridged account of a recent conversation with Padre Bélisle.
What made you choose a career as a padre in the military?
It was a personal journey that inspired me to want to do more for the people that I serve. I remember when I was an infantry officer, my bosses would often comment on how close I was to my people. My first impulse was always to take care of my soldiers, and after meeting some really devoted chaplains, I realized that it was my calling to join the chaplaincy. My primary focus as a chaplain is to make sure that people are well – to support them, to walk with them, to journey with them, because I think a chaplain can be part of the success of a mission by making sure that our people are happier, and that they have an opportunity to increase their spiritual resiliency.
What kind of things as a padre do you offer to the troops to provide them with the tools to increase that resiliency?
Our unit chaplains are always close to the ground with their units, doing a very personal ministry of presence, walking day-to-day with the troops, creating bonds to make sure that there’s a trust between the chaplain and the members. When that trust is there, when they have an issue, a personal issue, a family issue, a mental health issue, they will be more likely to be say, “I need to talk to the padre.”
So, we’re there to walk with our people and listen to whether they need something. Yes, there’s a religious side to our work, depending on your denomination – we conduct baptisms, funerals – but very often we’re there to direct members to the right resources, to make sure they have the right support, such as access to a social worker, doctor, and so on. Families often come to the chapel on the weekend, so we have the chance to connect with them, talk with them, support them. The unit chaplain will deploy with the unit, but other support chaplains also stay behind to take care of the families, if they are in need.
There’s also a definite motivational aspect to our work. When you’re going on deployment or on an exercise, your family usually stays behind. There are ups and down to military life and sometimes a member may call a padre, saying, “I’m not feeling well,” or, “I’m feeling sad,” and we’re there to say, “Ok, keep doing what you’re doing. It’s important.” Motivation is very important and the relationship between the members and the chaplain is very important. This also goes for the relationship with the chain of command, whom the padre also advises. It is very important to make sure that we work together for the well-being of our people. So, we’re not alone in the care-taking role.
What is the process of becoming a military padre?
There are two ways to become a chaplain. First, you can be a civilian pastor. For this you need to complete a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in Theology or Divinity, plus we require proof of two years’ experience in a civilian parish. Depending on your denomination – diversity is one of the main things that our Chaplain General believes is very important – the journey will not be the same, but there are similarities. This is basically the most common way to become a chaplain.
In my case, I was an infantry officer without all of those degrees, so they sent me on a program for six years. I completed my Bachelor’s degree in three years, did a one-year Master’s program, and spent two years in a civilian parish. After that I came back to work. It was a long journey, but it was worth it.
What are the main aspects of your job here as Army Command Chaplain?
I used to be a unit chaplain, and then a brigade chaplain, so during that time, you’re very close to the people. You’re on the ground all the time – exercises, deployment—and it’s great.
After some years, the chaplaincy branch said, “Ok, you’ve got enough experience to have higher responsibility, to take care of the chaplains.” So, I am like the padre for the padres. It’s my job to make sure that they have all the support and resources they need, to make sure they can do their ministry on the ground. What I do is still very much like what any officer does, which is to make sure that all those under my command are taken care of.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in your career as a chaplain?
The most difficult thing is when you lose someone. I’ve been to Afghanistan; I’ve been to Haiti after the earthquake, and we lost some of our colleagues. And it means that during that time, we have to walk with the family who lost their loved one and it’s hard.
I know the chaplain needs to be strong during those situations, but we are human. It is very, very difficult and even more difficult when you personally know the person that just passed away, or who was seriously injured in Afghanistan. We are trained to do it, but in the end, we are human; we have feelings and emotions.
How did you bridge those challenges? Where did you find your comfort?
My primary focus is on taking care of people. When you’re supporting a spouse after a soldier has died, it’s a period of about three weeks – the repatriation process, the funeral, the taking care of the family afterward – and when your focus is entirely on the person in need, it helps you a lot. And very often, afterwards, they’re going to say, “Thank you padre for your support. You were there 24/7, listening, supporting, helping.”
This has helped me to do what I have to do. People come back and they realize after the fact, “You know, the padre was an important person through that difficult situation in my life.” This feeds me and it’s an equally challenging and rewarding aspect of my job.
Can you describe a favourite memory from your career?
The deployments – when you’re on the ground with the people, in the rain, dust, mud, and trenches. Most of the time I spent in Afghanistan, I was outside the wire because I wanted to be right there with the people in those difficult times. They were pleased to have us over there.
Even if we don’t carry a weapon, even if we’re not supposed to fight the enemy, we were there for them; to make sure that they were fine. For example, when they were coming back from patrol or they’d been under fire, and you can sense something’s off, so you would ask “Hey, are you ok?” They might say “No, Padre. I need to talk.”
So you take time with that person. If you think they need more, you can send that person to a social worker, to a doctor, so they feel that somebody is going take care of them, 24/7. Because we are there 24/7. It’s very important. Whether in garrison or on deployment, members can call the padre at two o’clock in the morning, and we will have a padre there for that person.
What are some of the projects that are going on for the Chaplain Services group?
The military pilgrimage to Lourdes in France was one of the big events for us this year because it’s part of our training on spiritual resiliency. You can talk about spiritual resiliency with a PowerPoint presentation, but how do you actually build it from the inside? Building your character, your strength – the inside strength – helps you deepen your own spiritual path.
One thing we’re very respectful of is the journey of spirituality of each person. It doesn’t matter if that person is a Jewish, a Muslim, a Christian, or non-believer, we will welcome them, walk with them and listen and support them. It doesn’t matter because we’re very open to diversity.
Do you have any advice for people who might be soul-searching and considering becoming a chaplain?
We’re in need. We’re very short-staffed. For sure, it needs to be a spiritual journey. You need to love the people, to love your people and be ready to put time in. Some people are going to need a long time, long hours of listening and being there.
You have to be ready to give a bit more, to feel inside that you want to be there for the people.
Article / June 15, 2018 / Project number: 18-0146
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