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Standing at attention

A Jesuit priest with a PhD in philosophy reproached students in New York’s Fordham University when they said that that a plane had just flown into the World Trade Center on 9/11. He thought they were joking him. Assured they were not, he went to the window and watched in horror as New York’s two iconic towers collapsed. Upon reflection, Tim Valentine SJ says that he was very grateful to God that he was there at that moment as it changed completely the direction of his life.

This moment in world history was the reason why the then forty-three year old philosophy lecturer entered the US army. As he watched the implosion he knew with certainty that he would become an army chaplain. Not long later he was completing his training firstly to become a soldier, then an officer and finally a chaplain. Before he left Fordham one of his academic colleagues who had been in the army advised him to be very respectful of the soldiers because ‘a PhD doesn’t even begin to capture what they have’.

Fr Tim Valentine SJ completed his tertianship (final stage of Jesuit training) in May this year. It took place in the Jesuit Centre for Spirituality in Manresa, Clontarf, Dublin. He visited the Curia in Milltown Park and recorded a lengthy interview about his out-of-the-ordinary Jesuit life, with Pat Coyle of Irish Jesuit Communications.

From early in the interview it is clear that Tim Valentine has a great sense of humour. He laughs when he recalls how one Fordham student, challenged him as a result of all the homework he’d  given, ‘don’t you think I have a life?’ ‘Complaining about homework no less and she was training to be a teacher!’ he quips. And it is clear throughout the many challenging times he experienced on duty in Iraq (twice) that he never lost his sense of humour.

However, the pain of what happened on the fateful day of 9/11 is still very raw for him. Tim followed through on his interior call to join the army. During the training programme he found himself competing with eighteen year olds in physical training and work outs. When he became chaplain he helped the soldiers to see the presence of God, even in the midst of tremendous evil. He says that ‘the best part of the job was to be where the soldiers where, when they were doing what they do’ and ‘the most peace loving people that I know are soldiers.’

He also used his faith in very practical ways through conversations and encounters. He recalls one meeting with his Commander General where he supported him as he wrestled with the one burning question in his head as he went to bed every night. ‘Who of my soldiers will die tomorrow?’ His role as chaplain further motivated him to ‘exemplify and encourage in others what is most deeply humane and dignified.’

He also believes that Catholic Christians have brought a great gift to military ethics with their tradition of the ‘Just War Theory’. And he emphasizes the moral responsibilities on the shoulders of those who go to war for a just cause. ‘You leave a country in a state that is not worse than what it was when you got there. Why? Because if you devastate a country after a war, you’re sowing the seeds for future hostility to come.’

The Jesuit served in the army as chaplain for just under eleven years until recently, when he had to leave due to health reasons. His two combat tours to Iraq lasted twelve months each. His first tour was based in Camp Victory, now Baghdad International Airport, where he was a member of the Third Infantry Division.

He went from camp to camp for the Catholic soldiers and visited Abu Ghraib prison that still hosts artifacts of horror from days of Saddam Hussein. There he realised that he was in the presence of evil, with the sight of meat hooks and cases used for the systematic torture of those unfortunate to be jailed there.

Tim covered a lot of ground during his second tour, which meant encountering biblical places such as the City of Abraham and where Nineveh once stood.

As an army chaplain he did not carry a weapon but always was seated beside a soldier who did. He felt very blessed that no incident ever happened to him or his soldiers during the convoys. He did however feel the fear of God when a blind rocket loosened part of the chapel ceiling, as he was hearing a soldier’s confession.  He struggled with the reality of the situation saying, ‘Someone who doesn’t know us tried to take our lives’ and ‘If it’s my time, it’s my time’. He laughs once more when remembering that he still managed to finish the confession.

Tim found the transition to civilian life to be very easy, although he acknowledges that unlike other soldiers he never had to fire-fight or kick down doors behind which anything could be waiting. Nonetheless he sometimes feels a bit uneasy in the car alone (where’s my protector he suddenly wonders) or when driving over potholes (was that a bomb?).

He empathizes with returned soldiers who were used to charging along on duty but now who need to slow down. And he has developed great respect for the marital bond, praising the spouse who relates to their loved one with sensitivity and patience, because very often the soldier has not really ’emotionally come home’ yet. Asked what is his biggest learning in the military he says, ‘that no greater love has a man, than to lay down his life for his friends’.

The American has a deep love for music, evident in the fact that he teamed up with his brother Peter (a professional musician) to create two albums after the second tour in Iraq, 2014. He refers to his brother’s website www.petervalentine.co, which highlights their album First Things First, intended to be positive, inclusive spiritual music. Their second album Songs of the Beloved is inspired by the Gospel of John with songs such as ‘The Good Shepherd’ and ‘Simon, Son of John’.

Tim sees his music as part of a broader mission beyond priest or Jesuit. He and his brother want to ‘arouse some hunger for a relationship with God in the person of Jesus’. He is aware that a lot of the time ‘people don’t yet know that the answer is Christ’.  So he sees that pre-evangelisation is needed with people of goodwill and he and Peter do this type of evangelising through much of the music they write and play.

Tim grew up in Amityville, Long Island (the setting of the book and film The Amityville Horror) where he expressed a desire to become a priest at a young age. He entered the diocese seminary and later worked for three years as an ordained priest in a parish. Throughout much of his training, he was indirectly influenced by the Jesuits, many of whom were educators of his educators and scholars of the philosophy texts he had studied at seminary.

He was also drawn to the Society’s spirituality, finding God in all things, of the world rather than monastic. When he became a Jesuit, he was able to apply his experience of Ignatian spirituality in the encounters he had with people. In the army he conversed with a young woman soldier who was a Wiccan (pagan). She was glad he talked to her as a previous chaplain would not engage with her at all – something St Ignatius would never have done, he says.

Fr. Valentine is also keen to point out that Saint Ignatius Loyola (the founder of the Jesuits), was also a soldier. And he interestingly points out that in the Gospels,  ‘the people who got Jesus were the military people’. He reminds us that it was a soldier who said ‘Lord, I’m not worthy that you should come under my roof’, and Jesus marvelled at his faith. And at the foot of the cross it was the Roman centurion who said ‘Truly this was the Son of God.’

He speaks from experience when he says, ‘There’s a certain honesty, there’s a certain passion, there’s a certain ability to stand at attention before the Lord… attention is key and I really think we can learn from a soldier or a military person.’

The immediate future is sketched out for the talented Jesuit having completed his tertianship in Ireland. He will return to a post in teaching, at a small Catholic college next year. He will also act as chaplain and no doubt he will entertain those he meets with his music and his sense of humour even when the going gets tough. But most of all he says, ‘What I would like to think, is that wherever I go, I’ll be standing at attention and listening to the Lord’.