The Padre

Chad - The Soul Zone

The Chaplaincy service does vital work within the Defence Forces, especially overseas, providing pastoral care and a friendly voice in time of need.

Fr Robert ‘Bob’ McCabe -Padre 98 Infantry Battalion (Chad)

Fr McCabe celebrating Mass in Camp Ciara
Fr McCabe celebrating Mass in Camp Ciara

I would imagine as chaplain you would rate Christmas as one of the highlights of your trip?

Certainly. For a start Christmas was very different here. At home as a priest Christmas begins in the second week of November, whereas here it didn't really start until December 21st when the Irish engineers erected the Christmas tree and the carpenters finished the Crib. Everyone's Christmas boxes from home had arrived by container on December the 12th and while a fair few people ‘hoovered’ everything up straight away, a good few kept theirs unopened until Christmas morning.

Spending Christmas away from home is always difficult even for experienced troops, and we had a large number of first-timers. It is particularly difficult for parents, fathers and mothers, with small children at home. However, those for whom it may have been most difficult appeared to get most involved, taking part in the choir, playing music, or helping with the RTE broadcast, among other things.

The tree became a real focus for the 12 days of Christmas. We illuminated it on Christmas Eve, on New Year’s Eve, and at Little Christmas on January 6th. We also moved the tree around the camp for various events.

We celebrated Mass with the APC Coy at the IDP camp in Koloma on Christmas Eve before returning to Camp Ciara for midnight Mass, which was held at ten past nine in the evening. On Christmas morning we celebrated a dawn Mass at ten to six. The sun rose above the horizon just as Communion began and the small group in attendance later said they would never forget that moment.

The Padre's Fr Robert McCabe & Fr Pat Mernagh
The Padre's Fr Robert McCabe & Fr Pat Mernagh

I believe that not all the contents of the Christmas boxes that came out from Ireland were consumed here?

No, there was a surplus that was collected by the lads from the cookhouse, which we gave to the nuns from a convent in Abeche for distribution to the poorest people in their area. The decision was made to give it to the nuns rather than give out in the local area as we were afraid it might end up for sale in the local markets and be identifiable as having come from the Irish camp.

Morale seems very high, is there any secret to achieving this?

Not really. Every trip is different. For me though it’s the little things that add up. I take photographs and print out greeting cards, I like to put an extra bit of thought into the homily at Sunday Mass and like to have a ‘thought for the week’. One thing with this trip that I think has worked well has been our ‘TGIF’ (Thank God it’s Friday) Mass that we held at 7.30 on every Friday evening, which was followed by a mug of tea and some apple tart provided by the lads in the cookhouse. Building a sense of community is essential to morale and that, I think, is the main role of the chaplain, along with providing an ear and a safe place for people to come and discuss any problems or worries that may be bothering them.
The French use the term ‘cohesion’, which I actually prefer to our own ‘esprit de corps’. For them cohesion is the act of getting together merely for the sake of getting together. Through sharing food and laughing and joking together and talking about their worries, experiences and common interests, they build the cohesion that binds the unit together.

The Church in Camp Ciara
The Church in Camp Ciara

This is a ‘dry’ mission; do you think that aspect has been successful?

I think the facts speak for themselves; this has been an incident free trip. People knew coming out here that there was no drinking and they were prepared for that. Anyone here would appreciate why the policy was introduced given the very tough nature of the job, which often involves five days’ patrolling in very harsh conditions in very high temperatures.
Large numbers took part in a run organised on St Stephen’s morning and that night most of the battalion attended a concert arranged by the lads themselves and it was great to see everyone listening to the acts rather than shouting and talking to each other over the music. I don’t know if either of these would have been such a success if it hadn’t been a dry mission.
I also think people are going home fitter and healthier than they would have otherwise and, in particular, our young soldiers are learning that they can have a really good time without alcohol being involved, a lesson that would be well learned by young people at home in Ireland.

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