Vickroy: Chaplain back in Tinley to share tales from the front
By Donna Vickroy firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dvickroy September 28, 2012 2:36PM
Chaplain Chris Doering oversees a memorial service during military training at Fort Bragg, N.C. -- Supplied photo
Updated: November 1, 2012 6:26AM
The first time Army chaplain Father Chris Doering jumped out of a plane, he spun like a top.
He was at Fort Benning, Ga., training with the 82nd Airborne Division.
“I was the first man out, and my knees were knocking,” he said. “You’re supposed to make a dynamic exit. You’re supposed to kick out and keep your body tight so you don’t spin. I just stepped out and started spinning. I did it all wrong.”
That he would do something of the sort at all is what so many find endearing about Doering, who served at St. George Parish in Tinley Park until 2004.
Despite his beard and earring, or perhaps because of them, parishioners embraced him from the start. Doering seemed to possess those golden qualities that make someone a natural leader: charisma and relatability. When people talked, he listened and seemed to understand. His sermons were relevant and often humorous. It helped that he played the guitar and was both a Bears and a White Sox fan.
When he enlisted in the Army in 2010, it was only further proof that “Padre Chris” was special.
Though Doering left Tinley Park eight years ago, first to head to Our Lady of Victory Church in Chicago and then to join the troops, many of the Southland faithful still kept tabs on him, praying for his continued success and, more recently, his safe return from Afghanistan.
Before he left the country last year, he said Mass to a packed house at St. George and attended a special send-off reception.
Back from the front
Last Sunday, Doering surprised the St. George congregation again when he stopped by to officiate the 10 a.m. Mass with Pastor Ken Fleck.
“There was an electricity and an excitement when people found out he was back,” Fleck said. “Everyone was just very happy to have him back safe and sound.
“I’m always encouraging parishioners to keep enlisted men in their prayers. Father Chris reminds us in a special way of those people who are serving.”
Doering, 39, said he’d wanted to serve in the military since he was a kid. A few years ago, he realized the clock was ticking. So he went on a diet and enlisted.
He is one of just 10 military chaplains from the Archdiocese of Chicago serving.
When he first landed in Kandahar in September 2011, he said, it took him a week to wrap his head around the fact that he was in Afghanistan.
During his year on the front lines, Doering said he was dispatched to remote outposts via helicopter. He’d stay anywhere from 45 minutes to several days, serving whatever brigade was in charge of a particular area.
“It was like doing mission work in that you went to the people, wherever they were. In a parish, the people come to you on a scheduled basis,” he said.
In addition to saying Mass for Catholics and assisting at memorial services, Doering helped soldiers of any denomination deal with loneliness, separation anxiety and the ongoing fear of what was to come.
“The scariest thing for me was the possibilities,” he said. “Just the fact that anything can happen at any time.
“I was lucky. On every mission, any kinetic activity was either ahead of me or behind me.”
He quickly came to admire the soldiers’ poise and ability to stay cool under pressure.
“They don’t lose focus on their mission,” he said. Even amid the chaos of an IED explosion, he said, the soldiers maintain their concentration.
“Many lives were saved by soldiers helping injured soldiers,” he said.
Though serving on the front is a 24/7 operation, Doering said there is down time. He’d brought along a beat-up guitar and would strum a few tunes with the guys whenever he could.
Road to priesthood
Doering attended Quigley North High School, Niles College and Mundelein Seminary. He has a bachelor’s degree in Latin and a master’s of divinity degree.
He was ordained in 1998 and served as associate pastor at St. George when Pastor Don Cahill succumbed to cancer in 2002. The death propelled Doering temporarily into the top position, until Fleck came on board in 2003.
In helping the St. George flock through that difficult time, Doering endeared himself even more to his congregation. Parishioners enjoyed his down-to-earth sermons, his love for singing Johnny Cash and the fact he was a fan of Harleys. He once said he doesn’t own one because he couldn’t afford it and “my mom would kill me.”
Warm and endearing
Dave Cetera, of Tinley Park, a member of the St. George choir, said: “A lot of people really like him. He was so different, with his earring and his beard. He was this big burly guy who was funny and genuine.”
Cetera said military service brought a notable change in the priest. Not only did Doering return from the war zone clean-cut and trim, having lost nearly 90 pounds, but “he seemed so much more mature when he spoke,” Cetera said.
During the homily, he talked about how the military experience brought him more in tune with the struggles of real people.
“He seemed excited to be back in a church, where he didn’t have to yell over helicopters and generators,” Cetera said.
While the people of St. George welcome Doering with open arms, the padre says the feeling is mutual.
“The St. George community is unbelievably warm and welcoming,” he said. “It was a great community long before I showed up.”
Doering was scheduled to be back at Fort Bragg this weekend. He has one year of military service to go, but he doesn’t expect to be sent back to Afghanistan, at least not with his current unit.
Right now, he is focused on returning to the “new normal.”
“I asked some of the guys who’ve been back for awhile how long it takes before you feel like yourself again,” he said. “Some said it happened right away; others said it can take up to a year.”
Patience, he said, is the key.
“We don’t always get things on our own schedule,” he said. “I’m just grateful for the experience.”