Vickroy: Beloved Padre Chris surprises St. George flock
It wasn’t the first rodeo for Army Chaplain Christopher Doering.
The priest who cut his teeth at St. George Parish in Tinley Park had learned a lot during his first tour of duty in Afghanistan two years ago.
He knew to embrace the calmness, no matter how restless it could make a soldier, particularly one on guard duty struggling to reconcile the need to be alert and the need to show restraint.
“At my age, being bored means everybody goes home,” said the 41-year-old member of the 61st Cavalry, 4th Brigade Combat team.
Sure enough, on his first visit out of Camp Clark during his second tour last year, that lesson was reinforced.
“I always stop at the guard tower, just to chat with the guys and see how they’re doing,” Doering said.
On this day in Chamkani all was quiet.
“The guard told me he was bored. He was sick of watching nothing; he wished something would happen,” Doering said.
An hour and a half later, something did.
A guy wearing a suicide belt approached the base and met his maker, taking two American soldiers with him.
“I was in the technical operations center and heard the blast,” Doering said. “Next thing I know I’m doing combat (first) aid right then and there and putting (injured) bodies onto litters (stretchers).”
One soldier was killed instantly, another died later. Several were injured.
It was just as traumatic for the man whose duty it is to help relieve the stress of others.
“The guys always ask me who I talk to after something like that,” Doering said. “I try to process the feelings in a healthy fashion. Go through the necessary grieving and do a whole lot of praying.”
Doering was back in Tinley Park on Sunday morning to assist at 11:30 Mass. Before service, I sat down with him in the pews of the church that gave him his first following, a following that persists to this day, even though Doering left St. George in 2004 to become pastor of Our Lady of Victory Church on Chicago’s North Side.
As members stream in on this cold, snowy morning, they stop and smile at the familiar face — the man they call Padre Chris.
“You’re back, you’re safe,” longtime parishioner Mary Souta said, embracing Doering. “You should go on TV with your weight-loss success.”
“K-rations will do that for you,” Doering said.
So will determination. In 2010, Doering made the decision to act on a lifelong dream of serving in the military. He lost some weight, got in shape and enlisted.
For how long depends on the cardinal, he said.
“Chaplains can be called at any time. I’m happy to abide by his wishes,” Doering said.
Before he left for boot camp, though he’d been gone for years, the St. George flock gave the guitar-playing Doering a rousing send-off, calling it PadrePaloosa.
Doering came back to St. George for a special service after he finished his first tour in Kandahar in 2012.
Now he was back again, to share tales of the front, catch up with old friends and to present a young Boy Scout with some very special commendations.
Last summer, when Jacob Jung learned Doering’s base was in need of basic supplies, the aspiring Eagle Scout with Troop 911, sponsored by the Tinley Park Police Department and American Legion Post 615, embarked on a campaign to fill the need.
The sophomore at Lincoln-Way North High School ended up collecting more than 6,500 items, including toothbrushes, baby wipes, drink mixes and bags of candy. The items arrived in Khost province last August.
Back stateside, Doering had some gifts for Jacob. Among them, a hat, a license plate, a 506 Star Brigade patch and a challenge coin.
“The challenge coin is a huge honor in the military,” he said. If you’re presented with one, you’re expected to carry it everywhere. Being caught without it on your person could result in an order to do pushups or buy a round of drinks, Doering said.
Doering also signed the papers that made Jacob’s mission an official Eagle Scout project.
“This is the icing on the cake for Jacob,” his mom, Janeen Jung, said. “This has been an amazing experience for him and for everybody.”
St. George Pastor Ken Fleck said he is not surprised that so many church members keep up with Doering’s whereabouts.
“Many people still remember him with fondness,” Fleck said. “He was a great preacher. He had down-to-earth stories and he preached the Gospel in a way that touched the hearts of many. He’s always welcome here.”
Fleck said as soon as he heard Doering was back in town, staying with his parents until he heads back to Fort Campbell next week, he called.
And Doering was only too happy to visit.
“This was my first assignment,” he said. “Most first assignments are almost like a honeymoon. People are very welcoming. But these folks have been tremendous.”
St. George, he said, is the perfect place to get one’s start. Not only is there plenty of work — Masses, weddings, baptisms, funerals — but the congregation doesn’t expect one to be a jack of all trades.
Unlike most parishes these days, where priests are expected to be part-time plumbers, carpenters and electricians, Doering said St. George “wants their priests to be priests. That’s good because I missed boiler repair class.”
Despite the church’s large size, he said, it maintains a family feel.
“There are multiple generations here,” he said.
But mostly, he said, “They just accept you for who you are, faults and all.”
When he started, Doering wore an earring and had long hair and pork chop sideburns. He played the guitar and was often seen off duty wearing a Harley-Davidson T-shirt, which led to the rumor that he rode a motorcycle.
“Not true,” he said. “No motorcycle, but I do like Harley shirts.”
The people of St. George seemed to relate to his anecdotes and analogies. Although, he said, it probably helped that he was both a Bears and a White Sox fan.
“I was blessed to have such a good start,” Doering said. “Even my little sister said, ‘They love him like we do.’ ”