The third century saw the adoption of other popular cult religions among the regular soldiers of the Roman empire. With these new systems of faith came requirements for priests to perform specific ceremonial duties. Early on, these priests were civilians traveling with the military. Occasionally, soldiers performed religious duties for fellow soldiers, although these duties were not their primary military role. It was this period when ideas of being close to the front lines and caring for the diverse religious needs of individual soldier started to develop.
But nothing more deeply planted the seeds of the modern chaplaincy than Constantine’s famous vision to paint a cross, a symbol of Christianity, on each soldier’s shield before entering an important battle. Michael McCormick states, “It is clear that Constantine connected his commitment to the new God with this and subsequent military successes; that commitment launched the Christianization of the empire as a whole, and the Roman army in particular.” Constantine called upon priests to perform specific duties as members of the military. From this point forward, we observe priests entering the military in what may be seen as the dedicated role of the Christian chaplain.
Examining the present century, we find that the chaplain, as both a member of the military and as a religious cleric, is serving the needs of the soldier on the battlefield in an official capacity. Chaplain (1LT) Cash writes this of his 2003 experience in Iraq:
I was in the section called the “combat train.” We were fifteen vehicles strong and consisted of the battalion’s surgeon, medical corpsmen, ammunition and food re-supply personnel, vehicle maintenance personnel, nuclear/biological/ chemical experts (NBC folks for short), and the battalion’s chaplain and RP. The combat train’s job was simple: follow directly behind the lead combat elements of our battalion with ready re-supply materials. It was the perfect place for me to be. I was almost always within sight and sound of our front-line troops, yet back far enough to monitor the situation on the communication channels and able to drive immediately to any platoon or augmenting unit that needed me.Clearly, Chaplain Cash’s opportunities as a chaplain today grew from seeds planted by the pre-chaplains and chaplains of the Roman Empire.
*This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.