August 1, 2014

Father Winters eager to welcome ‘all as Christ’ as Air Force chaplain

Father Darvin Winters said his time spent as an Air Force Reserves chaplain in Antarctica in early 2013 helped him “have a better appreciation for God as the Creator of Earth and the universe.” Now, he’s beginning another dream experience—as a full-time chaplain for the Air Force. (Submitted photo)

Father Darvin Winters said his time spent as an Air Force Reserves chaplain in Antarctica in early 2013 helped him “have a better appreciation for God as the Creator of Earth and the universe.” Now, he’s beginning another dream experience—as a full-time chaplain for the Air Force. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Growing up as a self-described “wayward kid” on the east side of Indianapolis, Father Darvin Winters never expected that he would one day represent his country and the Catholic Church on a joint task force mission to Antarctica.

Nor did he imagine that he would receive a medal for his efforts and, more importantly, that the experience would draw him even closer to God.

Yet that’s what happened after Father Winters—at the time an Air Force Reserves chaplain with the Indiana Air National Guard in Terre Haute and pastor of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle—was asked to provide religious support during a National Science Foundation mission at McMurdo Station in Antarctica.

“Seeing the beauty of Antarctica, I have a better appreciation for God as the Creator of Earth and the universe,” Father Winters says in recalling his experience there in early 2013.

“People would think Antarctica is always cold and snow, but when I arrived, I was amazed at the beauty of the terrain, the mountains and the wildlife—including penguins and whales. It just reiterated that we’re not here by chance. A higher power has his fingerprints on all of this. Every night for a week, I would sit in the chapel, look out the window and think, ‘What a magnificent God.’ ”

His 35 days there earned him the Air Force’s Antarctica Service Medal. Now, he’s beginning another dream experience—as a full-time chaplain for the Air Force.

‘I didn’t think I could make it through’

That dream has intrigued him ever since he heard a presentation about military chaplains while he was in formation for the priesthood at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., in the late 1990s.

He listened as auxiliary bishops of the Archdiocese for the Military Services told a group of seminarians that there was a great need for chaplains in the armed forces.

“Certain aspects of that life appealed to me—the structure of the military, and the ability to travel and see different parts of the country and the world,” says Father Winters, a 1991 graduate of Father Thomas Scecina Memorial High School in Indianapolis.

After he was ordained in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis in 1999, Father Winters received permission three years later from then-Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein to become a chaplain in the U.S. Naval Reserves. Training included eight weeks of boot camp.

“You learn to serve in the field, but you never touch guns,” Father Winters recalls. “It was so bad that one night another priest and I were picking up another chaplain off the floor because he was having a panic attack.

“And there was the night I called my father crying, telling him I didn’t think I could make it through. My father said I needed this all my life. I made it through. When I look back on all that training, it makes me realize that with the grace of God and our own effort, you can do anything.”

Through the grace of God

A year later, he switched to the Air Force Reserves because it offered more opportunities as a chaplain in the Midwest. Ever since, he has been a full-time pastor in several parishes in the archdiocese while also fulfilling his part-time commitment as a military chaplain.

A major in the Air Force, he has served at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, helping with the Wounded Warriors Project, an organization that strives to help wounded veterans lead successful, well-adjusted lives.

The 42-year-old priest has also been deployed to the Air Force base in Kyrgyztan, a country in central Asia that borders China and is north of Afghanistan.

“I heard a lot of confessions for those in the Army National Guard who were going and coming from Afghanistan,” he says. “One of the marvelous things is that when we ask for God’s forgiveness, especially through the sacrament of reconciliation, it’s there, and we know we’ve been forgiven.

“The other thing that stands out is acceptance. Working as a military chaplain, I’ve met a lot of interesting people. While you may not necessarily agree with them, one of the mantras of the Air Force chaplain is to serve all, and that can only be done through the grace of God.”

Father Winters says he has also experienced grace through Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin.

“In a meeting with the archbishop, he graciously offered me the opportunity to do this full time,” he says. “There’s an initial three-year commitment, and the archbishop has left it up to me after that.

“I’m really a missionary to the military. Across the board with all the services, there is a shortage of chaplains. There are about 300 Air Force chaplains on active duty, and only 50 are Roman Catholic priests.”

Helping young adults find God

Father Winters is especially looking forward to one part of his role as the lead chaplain at the Air Force base in Grand Forks, N.D.

He believes it will allow him to continue one of the ministries he enjoyed while serving as pastor of St. Paul the Apostle Parish —the ministry of serving young adults that he experienced at nearby DePauw University in Greencastle.

“I’ll be ministering to young men who find themselves away from home for the first time,” he says. “I’m looking forward to that because of my four years here working with college students. That has really reiterated the fact that a person’s years after high school are critical years when people discover who they are religiously and where God fits in the picture.”

Father Winters knows that reality personally from his formative years. He remembers the lessons he learned from the Benedictine monks during his college years at the former Saint Meinrad College.

“They taught me the Rule of St. Benedict. It says to welcome all, that all guests should be welcomed as Christ. And I tie that in to the people I serve.

“No matter where an individual is in their faith journey, we are to welcome them as Christ. And that’s a challenge. People present themselves to us with their brokenness and their different temperaments. As a Catholic priest and now as an Air Force chaplain, I plan to welcome them all as Christ.” †

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