CLAYMONT – There are a few things Father John Gayton will not miss about being a chaplain in the Navy Reserves. There are those frequent haircuts, for one. And having to travel to Mississippi, which he has done for the past three years, with its tricky connecting flights.
“I’ve been stuck in the Charlotte airport many a time,” Father Gayton said this week.
But those inconveniences are overshadowed by his 23 years in the military, which will come to an end on June 29 with a retirement ceremony at Father Gayton’s parish, Holy Rosary, where he is the pastor. He will be joined by his commanding officer and executive officer from the Navy Reserves, much of his family and his parishioners. It begins at noon. Civilians are asked to wear formal dress casual. Naval personnel should wear summer whites, while other military branches should wear their equivalent.
“It’s going to be difficult to leave behind the people and the interaction because it does make a great impact on me. But at the same time, I’m at that age where I can’t keep up with those requirements anyway, so I’m happy it’s coming now to a close,” he said.
His deployments have taken him to Greece, Iraq, the Phillipines and Djibouti in Africa. In each of those locations, he served as a pastor, evangelizer and confidant for sailors and marines. It is a role he took seriously.
“Although the deployments were difficult, I liked being able to live with all the people I was serving,” he said. “It was almost like we were a village unto ourselves. And I was the pastor of everybody in the village even though not all of them were Catholics. We were all in our community. I was their chaplain no matter what religion they followed, and that was a really, really special thing to have. A special relationship.”
Since he lived among the military personnel, he struck up conversations with sailors and marines that do not occur very often in a civilian setting. It was, he said, a great opportunity for ministry and evangelization. He said Mass wherever was convenient, particularly in Iraq. Most of the time, a pile of boxes served as an altar.
“We’d pile up boxes of MREs. Or just whatever it was. It was always under cover somewhere. One was in a workout room … ooh, the smell. One place it was on a Ping Pong table.”
Father Gayton enjoyed being around the young people in the military. He will miss them “a great deal.”
“When I go there, there’s a sense of freshness. It’s a type of youth that’s committed in a particular way. When you’re around that kind of young people who are aspiring to do great things, aspiring to service, it’s just very refreshing to encounter them, and to help them when they come to you looking for counsel or advice.”
He has the rank of commander, but chaplains rarely refer to their rank, he said. There is a “wall” between officers and enlisted personnel, but the chaplain serves all of them. In order to help break down that wall, he encouraged the sailors and marines to call him something other than “sir.”
“Call me chaplain, or call me Padre, or ‘Chaps,’ or whatever,” he said. “That kind of breaks that down. Anybody and everybody can come to you. So we don’t really talk about our rank unless we have to do that on somebody’s behalf.”
With his retirement, the Navy Reserves will have one fewer priest to serve the Catholics and others in its ranks. It’s a crisis, Father Gayton said.
“There’s a humongous need now. It’s just sad, it really is. Right now, there are only 13 of us in the Navy Reserves. There used to be a hundred and some.”
The number of priests on active duty is also way down, he noted.
“The shortage of priests outside the military is even greater inside the military.”
Becoming a military chaplain is not easy, he said. There are physical requirements, and the permission of a priest’s bishop is needed. Once accepted, there are time commitments and the possibility of deployments.
Despite all that, “I would encourage more people to do it,” Father Gayton said.
He’s had to reassure people that his retirement applies only to his military service, not the priesthood. He’ll be plenty busy at Holy Rosary, where he has been pastor since 2009. Father Gayton said he scheduled his monthly military obligations during the week as often as possible so that he could be at the parish on the weekend for Masses. He likes to alternate the Masses he says each weekend so he sees as many parishioners as possible; many attend the same Mass every Saturday or Sunday.
“It takes a little bit of pressure off of me to make sure I’m covering the parish,” he said.
He may even let his hair grow out a little bit.
“Next week will be my last time having to get it cut down to the skin.”