"In the military, a priest gives a reason for the life you are willing to give."

Currently assigned to the special operations command in Alicante, Major José Ramón Rapallo discovered his priestly vocation in the midst of the daily "battle". 

Maria José Atienza-July 12, 2021-Reading time: 6 minutes
jose ramon rapallo

Photo: José Ramón Rapallo presiding at the Holy Mass.

Is not man's life on earth a militia? (Job, 7, 1). The phrase from the book of Job probably does not sound new. Even more so for those who have dedicated their lives to the service of others through the Armed Forces, and it was precisely in the midst of this world that the Commander José Ramón Rapallo saw that God was calling him to his service in the priestly ministry and told Omnes about it in an extensive interview.

Although the military ordinariate is well known, your story has the peculiarity of having seen your vocation in the exercise of your military career in which you continue your work. How was the discovery of your call to the priesthood?

-I joined the army as a volunteer at the age of 17. I have already served for 35 years. For a time, I was also an attaché of Opus Dei, a vocation of service in the midst of daily occupations, in professional work. In my case, my profession is a vocational job like the military, where you learn to give up many things and to give your life for others, if necessary. 

For many years, I was also a night volunteer at Mother Teresa's house, assisting AIDS patients when the disease was killing them with a lightning strike. More than once, those sick people told us that to go to die at the Sisters of Charity's house was to learn to love with a capital letter. Perhaps it was in this place, in the sleepless nights in their small chapel, that I saw that the Lord was asking the most of me.

Perhaps it was in this place, in the sleepless nights in the small chapel that they have, that I saw that the Lord was asking more of me.

José Ramón Rapallo

What was the reaction of the people around you: family, friends, and also in your own military unit?

-I have experienced the reaction of my environment as naturally as water springs from a fountain. They knew of my religious convictions and, in fact, in many cases they were not surprised.

In the special operations course we all have a nom de guerre, in my case, they decided to call me Templar. For the time being, they still call me Templar and I hope I don't have to hear the "Company Commander calling Raven".

For years I had the desire to study theology and I did it in a non-regulated way. Seven years ago, when I was thinking more seriously about a priestly vocation, while I was stationed in Alicante, the current Commander of the Special Operations Command, José Antonio Barriel, explained to me the existence of a military seminary and the possibility of continuing my studies.

I was assigned to Madrid. My decision was to leave the army, but the rector of the military seminary at that time and the recently deceased Archbishop Juan del Rio, explained to me the possibility of combining pastoral care with my assignment once I finished my priestly formation and that, under no circumstances, would I abandon my military status. I did so and, after five years of seminary and work, on July 25 last year, the feast of St. James the Apostle, I was ordained to the priesthood.   

In your case, with a completely "done" life, how did you live your stage of formation for the priesthood, and your ordination?

-Man proposes and God disposes. One can make many plans and think that "he has done everything in life", however, reality surpasses fiction. I remember a pilgrimage to Santiago in which we were a large group and the monks of the Cistercian convent of Santa María de Sobrado offered us one of their cells to sleep in. One of us noticed how small they were and that they had no closet and asked the monk who replied "we don't need a closet because we are passing through".

We Christians are always passing through. What should set us apart is that we know where we come from and where we are going. Mother Teresa's sisters, when they change communities, can only have as personal belongings what fits in a shoebox. The military a little more, what fits in a car, usually a family car, because you accumulate equipment that you then have to use.

I experienced my seminary formation as a stage of interior growth, of discernment, as the pier shrinks while waiting for God to do his work. "I know whom I have trusted". No one has a vocation as a seminarian and ordination seems never to come, it is a question of trust. The procession is carried inside and one thinks, if God is with me, who is against me? God knows best.   

How do you understand your life, as a Christian and now as a priest, in the army?

-Accepting the demands of military life, such as due obedience, being six or more months away from your mission family, often in situations of risk and fatigue, constant changes of assignment... we can say that it is something more than a profession.

The militia forges character, it is "religion of honest men" as Calderón de la Barca would say. A way of understanding life based on values that today are not exactly in fashion, such as the spirit of companionship, loyalty, sacrifice and, especially a transcendental value, such as giving one's life for others. For this it is necessary to know what death means: the military summarizes it in death is not the end of the road that we so often pray and sing in the act to the fallen in military units.  

Being a spiritual leader is what it means to be a chaplain in a military unit. Knowing how to give reasons for what we do and why we do it.

José Ramón Rapallo

The army, on the other hand, is a school of leaders where the maxim is to serve Spain. Today we talk about many types of leadership: ethical leadership, toxic leadership, leadership in values... But when we talk about giving one's life, we enter another dimension. That is where spiritual leadership comes into play, which neither stars nor stripes give you.

Being a spiritual leader is what it means to be a chaplain in a military unit. To know how to give reasons for what we do and why we do it. It is to speak of the transcendental value of life that you are willing to give and that is so hard to accept, but that in the military is absolutely necessary. Without forgetting that the chaplain is there to serve those who serve.

Currently you continue your work in the Army and you are a priest. What is your day-to-day life like? How do your colleagues welcome the presence of a priest in the ranks?

-Last year, after ordination, I was assigned as parochial vicar to a parish in Alcalá de Henares and collaborator in the military prison of Alcalá-Meco and other units. In these assignments I exercised my priestly ministry until the end of September 2020. In October of that year I was commissioned to Iraq, where I have remained almost until May 2021. At present I have been assigned to Alicante; there is currently a chaplain, I join in a few days and desire to work will not be lacking.

My experience as a military priest deployed on mission has been developed in the last seven months. A task that I consider the fundamental reason for the existence of the religious assistance service, today, in the army, without taking into account the Guardia Civil or Police.

In the Baghdad detachment where I was stationed there was no Catholic pater. Every two or three months the American pater, who was in Erbil, would come for a few days. The Chapel was multi-confessional, although a part was reserved for Catholic worship, where the construction of a Tabernacle was promoted, on the occasion of the beginning of the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament that we had every Thursday and which was attended by the whole base and, especially, by a community of Filipino workers.

A very special moment was the visit of the Pope which was a reason to pray especially for the country. We were fortunate to have the Auxiliary Bishop of Baghdad who celebrated the Mass of St. Thomas in Aramaic. We also celebrated several Patron Saints: the Immaculate Conception, St. Barbara, Christmas. During Holy Week, the Spaniards built a cross with which the Stations of the Cross were performed. A choir and confirmation catechesis were organized, where 11 Spaniards were confirmed.  

The Holy Mass was generally in Spanish and English. But also in French or Italian, depending on the number of attendees from each country. Since October, besides spiritually accompanying all those who came to the chapel, being available for confessions and particular Mass intentions, I have celebrated several Masses for deceased family members of different nationalities who died during the mission.

More than once, foreign soldiers here in Baghdad have told me how lucky they are to have a priest. I remember a Canadian who told me that in his city there was no Catholic priest and he could only receive the sacraments infrequently. We are not aware of how lucky we are in Spain.

You have participated in various international missions. As a Christian and military man, how do you live faith, hope, charity.... in those destinations where the risk, physical at least, is greater?

-The Pope speaks of a "Church going out", of being in permanent mission. What better example of a missionary than the army, which is permanently prepared to go out wherever it is needed. The military priest, the pater, as he is affectionately called, besides being a spiritual leader, has as his mission to know how to accompany, to know how to listen and to know how to understand. Just the presence of a priest in such distant places is already very important; the vast majority is grateful for it and sees it as something necessary. In fact, all the armies deployed in missions with a sufficiently large contingent have their religious assistance service.

I have been able to see how the death of a family member is experienced in a very different way, being far away and not being able to accompany with presence. Spiritual assistance, in these cases, does a lot of good, accompanying, consoling and listening. 

The military priest, the pater, as he is affectionately called, in addition to being a spiritual leader, has the mission of knowing how to accompany, how to listen and how to understand.

José Ramón Rapallo

We priests on mission are fortunate to be available 24 hours a day and to know, very closely, the problems and concerns of those who are there. When you talk to them, as a general rule, there is an interest in knowing and deepening their spiritual life.

You learn to value what you have when it is missing. All of us who are on mission miss our family, but you realize that the bonds created, because of the conditions of life, the distance... are not forgotten.

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