Preaching in the Pentagon

The Metro door swooshes open. Father Mark Baron, MIC, steps inside the train, takes a seat, and prepares himself as he does each day that he's scheduled to celebrate Mass inside the Pentagon.

He meditates on the daily Gospel reading. Then, he prays to the Lord and the Blessed Virgin Mary for the wisdom to deliver the right words in his homily.

Late last year, the Marians of the Immaculate Conception were asked to take over the celebration of weekday Mass inside the Pentagon, one of the largest and - arguably - one of the most important office buildings in the world. The Marians jumped at the chance.

"I felt this would be a good way for the Marians to serve our country, especially in a time of war," says Fr. Mark, the House Superior at the Marian Scholasticate on the campus of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

The Marians divvy up the Pentagon's weekday Masses with their friends, the Dominican friars. The Marians cover the Pentagon Mass three days a week. The Dominicans handle the other two days.

Father Mark insists the distinctive task doesn't rattle him - much - even though daily Mass at the Pentagon can include colonels, captains, majors, even four-star generals, and even though he's charged with bringing the Prince of Peace to people presently charged with executing two foreign wars. He's not panic-stricken, even though the Gospel reading on this day - Monday, June 16 - is from Matthew 5:38-42, a challenging reading under any circumstances, particularly so in the Pentagon, headquarters of the United States Department of Defense.

In the reading, Jesus says to His disciples, "You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. ..."

Father Mark, a former member of the ROTC at Purdue University, knows he has a tall task ahead of him. He sits back in his seat on the train and takes a moment to quietly formulate his thoughts. If there are any butterflies at all in his stomach, he'll see to it they fly in formation by the time Mass begins at 11:30 a.m. In the meantime, during the 45-minute ride from Catholic University to the Pentagon, in Arlington, Va., the train passes through a veritable gauntlet of graffiti, including several exhortations to "STOP THE WAR."

No place quite like it
Father Mark can appreciate the irony of this special ministry. But the real irony, he says, is that, in many respects, preaching inside the Pentagon is no different than preaching at a parish anywhere across the country.

"I'm not telling them what policies to make or how to fight the war in Iraq or Afghanistan," says Fr. Mark, 38, who was ordained in 2004. "I am there to preach the Gospel."

He pauses. He looks out the window for a moment. Then he says, "You know, the thing is, every country has a right to defend itself. I don't know what moral dilemmas the employees in the Pentagon face on a daily basis. All I can do is to try to stir up the faith. I don't look out and see colonels or majors or captains or generals in the pews. I see God's people, and they are in need of being ministered. Everybody is a sinner. Everybody is in need of God's mercy. Everyone is in need of being perfected in charity - in love of God and love of neighbor. So preaching at the Pentagon is really no different than preaching anywhere."

But of course, he'll agree there's no place on earth quite like the Pentagon.

More than 25,000 people are employed there. During the Cold War, the Pentagon was considered "Ground Zero" for a Soviet nuclear attack. And its tiny chapel in the southwest side of the five-sided behemoth is located at the very spot where terrorist hijackers crashed a Boeing 757 at 9:37 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, killing 184 people.

Father Mark gets off at the Metro's Pentagon stop and heads up the escalator where armed guards standby at a security checkpoint. An officer waves him through a scanner. Then, Fr. Mark makes his way through another security checkpoint, then inside to the 17.5 miles of corridors that comprise the spokes and rings of the Pentagon.

'A point of impact'
"Hello there," says Curtis Lager, when Fr. Mark enters the chapel. Curtis, an employee at the Pentagon, volunteers his services to help prepare the chapel for Holy Mass.

Though some Pentagon staff members lament that the chapel is too small and that its thick maroon carpet and dropped ceiling give it an air more reminiscent of a funeral home than a house of worship, it's better than the alternative - an auditorium where services were held in the years before Sept. 11, 2001.

And everyone seems to appreciate the chapel's poignant placement - at the impact point of the hijacked plane.

"It emphasizes the fact that when things get bad, and when you lose control over your situation, the One who is in control is God," says Msgr. Philip Hill, senior chaplain of the U.S. Army, who served a critical role in getting the chapel built.

"This chapel - celebrating Mass here - helps me to get through the day," says Paul Brady, 40-year employee at the Pentagon, who's sitting in the pews, gently spinning his walking cane in his fingers. "It's a place of peace and quiet and sanity."

Father Mark goes back into the sacristy where he hears confessions before Mass. The chapel slowly fills with people, including John Dickhute, who works in Army logistics.

"I come in here to not only spend time with God, but to get reinvigorated and to remind myself that God is in charge and all of my successes are because of Him" he says. "When you work in this building you need a lot of help to get through the day. There's a lot of stress in the work we do, and we appreciate the Marians have come in and helped out."

"I know that if I don't take the time to fill myself, spiritually, I can't help and serve others. So having Mass here is really crucial to the work I do," says U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Amy Malugani, an employee in public affairs. She says she goes to Fr. Mark for spiritual direction. "He's been a breath of fresh air for me. His energy, his perspective, it's refreshing."

Transcend evil
About 50 people are attending Mass today. In his homily, Fr. Mark relies on his devotion Jesus' message of Divine Mercy - how God's mercy is greater than man's sin, and how we are called to receive His mercy and extend it to others.

"The world is a place where evil flourishes," Fr. Mark says. "We may wonder, Can it get any deeper? Can it get any worse than it is now, with all the moral disorder that we experience domestically and internationally?

"But the Lord gives us a response," Fr. Mark says. "How do we respond to evil? When the Lord says don't resist it, he's saying to transcend the problem of evil. We are to fight evil by growing in mercy. As we grow in mercy, we break the grip of evil in our lives. God allows us to transcend the problem of evil in this world - not that we don't fight it. We are to conquer evil with the power of good. Through our virtue, we can help make the world a better place. We can bring the light of God, the grace of God into the world. We can bring healing into the world.

"The hope of heaven helps us make that virtuous response. Evil is powerless in the face of virtue," says Fr. Mark. "It is powerless in the face of God. Evil cannot conquer someone who is committed to God."

Several people - civilians and military alike - nod in agreement.

"But evil has its day sometimes," Fr. Mark hastens to add.

The singed stone on the other side of the chapel walls give proof to that.

After Mass, Paul and John both linger. Both men lost friends in the attack on Sept. 11. The plane cut through the office space occupied by the Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel and continued 80 feet into the Navy Command Center, where Paul works.

"I heard the concussion," says Paul. "I felt the shockwave. It's a miracle I'm still alive."

John, whose task it was to help procure body bags following the attack, recalls the haze of smoke.

"It's a smell I'll never forget," he says. "It must be what hell smells like - the jet fuel, the burnt building, the burnt bodies."

When Fr. Mark emerges from the sacristy, Paul invites him to see the Reflection Room, built around the corridor. It's a quiet room with a bench facing an upended slab of stone into which the victims' names are carved. Once there, Paul points with his cane to the names of people he knew.

He tells Fr. Mark he's had a difficult time dealing with his anger at the hijackers. "The hatred gets a grip on you," he admits.

"Divine Mercy breaks the grip of evil," Fr. Mark says. He pats Paul on the shoulder. "We'll pick this topic up again tomorrow at Mass," he says.

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