Former Navy Chaplain Speaks with Midshipmen

Written by MIDN 4/C Nguyen-Phuoc

Photo from “The Boston College Chronicle”, taken by Gary Gilbert

“What do you know about chaplains and what do you want to know?” asked Father Robert L. Keane. Responses from the midshipmen ranged from “conducting religious services” to an understanding of “a certain level of confidentiality”, points that were further elaborated upon during his guest lecture on 30 March 2016. Father Keane, a Roman Catholic priest with a diverse academic background ranging from philosophy to French language and literature, shared his experiences with the BU Midshipmen on his role in the fleet, on shore, and how he came to join the Navy.

Father Keane’s Naval career began when serving as the chaplain to the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps unit at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. At the persuasion of the Holy Cross NROTC unit’s Commanding Officer, Father Keane ventured down the pipeline towards becoming a Catholic Chaplain for the Navy, beginning with basic chaplain training in Newport, Rhode Island. It was here that he learned everything on the “right collar”, referring to his rank insignia. As naval officers, chaplains are held to the same high standards as other naval officers in regards to knowledge and physical fitness standards. He commissioned in May 1989 as a Lieutenant due to his years of ministry experience prior.

Besides learning about his route towards becoming a Naval Chaplain and his stories during his years working with the “green side” and the “blue side” (referring to the Marine Corps and the Navy), the most significant lesson embedded in the midshipmen was that chaplains are a resource that should be utilized, regardless of personal beliefs or religious affiliations. Father Keane emphasized that during his time underway, he would partake in “productive loitering” or walking around and talking to members of the crew. By establishing a relaxed relationship through this method, rather than sitting with an open door in his office, he created an environment in which sailors and marines could feel comfortable talking to him about their problems in full confidentiality. To further communicate his approachability, at times he would fold over his insignia rank, showing instead only his “left collar”, the cross insignia, and tried to find a balance between the two sides of his uniform. Although he is a Catholic chaplain, Father Keane not only provided the spiritual needs for Catholics, but also accommodated the religious and spiritual needs for sailors and marines of other faiths, such as recommending religious headgear to be worn on behalf of a sailor in certain cases or contacting other chaplains to visit and conduct religious ceremonies for sailors and marines.

When asked about how to deal with morality and faith versus the nature of the military’s work, Father Keane acknowledged the dissonance and responded with the solutions of communication and simply talking to someone. Chaplains will not only provide religious support, but also moral support through confidential counseling and discussion. Father Keane reiterated that chaplains are a resource that should be utilized for a range of issues that may arise. Junior officers need to be aware of all resources available to them, as well as available for their sailors and marines, in order to help the climate of their command and the members of the command.

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