Standing reverently, a small group of Catholic priests study the ancient relics before them — pieces believed to be from the cross Jesus died on — which were brought to Rome by Saint Helena.
The men converse only in hushed voices, out of respect for others in the room at the Basilica of Santa Croce.
Eventually, members of the group shift their gazes to other pieces of history in the dimly lit room, each man feeling humbled by the artifacts’ importance.
Recently retired Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Stephen Voyt bows his head and closes his eyes, his mind filling with thoughts of “What if?”
“What if I can’t recover from my wounds, my time in war?”
‘What if I died today — will I have made an impact? Would I have left this world better than it was when I entered it?”
Separately, all of these questions have been present in Voyt’s thoughts at some point in his life, but now he’s actively doing something to answer them.
Voyt began his quest for answers and healing when he started a three-month sabbatical at the Pontifical North American College in Vatican City. There, Voyt is taking part in a program called the Institute for Continuing Theological Education, which is designed to allow each of the 33 priests attending to reflect on their decades of service — some of the participants have served as priests for as many years as Voyt has been alive — nearly 55 years.
As Voyt stands in the church, facing the cross and relics, parents and children walk around the former chaplain. While the children look up to their parents for guidance as they walk around the church, Voyt’s mind is elsewhere.
Contemplating his “what ifs,” he stands temporarily motionless, recalling a time when someone looked up to him for guidance. A Soldier, who was severely injured by a bomb blast in Iraq, looked up from the stretcher Voyt was carrying and asked a question that echoes in the priest’s memory.
“Father, will I ever walk again? Tell me I’m going to walk again, father,” the Soldier pleaded.
On that day years ago in Kirkuk, Iraq, Voyt knew he needed to be strong for the Solider, similar to a doctor, and not show emotion. “His spine was severed, but I had to give him hope without making any promises. I told him, within a day he’ll be in Germany.”
Though this happened years ago, Voyt had chosen to focus on helping others at his home station of Moody Air Force Base, Ga., instead of reflecting on his time in Iraq, seeing men and women injured. The spiritual leader never gave himself an opportunity to process what he had seen or been through during that deployment.
Chaplains are sometimes like doctors who make the worst patients — they tend to resist seeking help with their own struggles, Voyt said. Chaplains and doctors “always think they can take care of themselves.”
Having served 11 years as a civilian priest and then 20 years in the Air Force, he’s helped thousands of people along their spiritual journeys. This sabbatical is Voyt’s first true break in more than 30 years.
According to the Air Force Chief of Chaplains Office, the service has roughly 60,000 Catholic Airmen but only about 59 uniformed Catholic chaplains. The unbalanced ratio of chaplains to Airmen has left the priest worn down.
“You can only keep that up for so long. It’s like revving your engine at 100 percent. What happens after a while? Well, it breaks. You need to move it back down to a lower speed so you can do basic maintenance,” he said.
Voyt and his fellow chaplains recognize the need for a person to maintain their spiritual fitness, which happens to be one of the sabbatical program’s primary goals.
“We always talk about the whole person — the physical you, the mental you and the spiritual you,” Voyt said, referring to the Air Force’s pillars of fitness. “The spiritual side — that’s a whole third of who you are. Spirituality, to me, is feeling that you’re in touch with something greater than yourself.”
In addition to the many Catholic Airmen, retired Air Force Chaplain Col. Robert Bruno said he made time for every Airman’s spiritual needs, regardless of his or her faith.
Only months earlier, Bruno completed a five-year project instituting a religious respect program at the U.S. Air Force Academy. The program offers academic and scenario-based training to all cadets and faculty, ensuring they understand and respect each Airman’s right to choose their own faith, or no faith at all.
“When I was a major, a colonel, who wasn’t Catholic, came up to me and asked, ‘Father, got a moment?’” Bruno said. “We always have a moment.”
“I’d like your blessing,” the colonel said.
“He knelt down in front of me for a blessing, then went off to war,” Bruno recalled. “I served all Airmen, regardless of their faith.
“Really, most times we’re not of the same faith. (Anyone can have) an issue with a spouse, a supervisor, an issue trying to balance time with family and mission — any number of things that have nothing to do with religion. We don’t need to be the same faith in order for me to help Airmen spiritually.”
Spiritually preparing service members to deal with the stressors of war is where Voyt received his great job satisfaction. But deploying alongside of them six times was something he equally felt the calling to do; saying he wanted to do the job that was “greatest in need.”
“We had four Soldiers whose Humvee was hit, and they burned up alive,” Voyt said, the images still etched in his mind. “So, they brought the remains of the bodies to the morgue and said, ‘Father, one of them is Catholic. Do you want to anoint them?’ We usually don’t anoint dead bodies, but for the families back home to know that their son or daughter got last rights, you go in there. We couldn’t tell if the bodies were male or female. Seeing the burnt body was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. That’s one of the things I need to process through.”
At the end of Voyt’s Air Force career, he realized how much he had given of himself and how little he had left for himself to grow.
Coming here, “I want to get back to the basics in my own training,” Voyt said. “My education is 30 years old. Through our classes, I’m getting updates in education and learning new trends in theology. But also, I get to reconnect with certain things like discipline of prayer. When you get to be a workaholic, you sometimes forget you need to take time out each day to pray.”
During the three-month course, the students attend classes on theology, visit historic locations in Vatican City, Rome, and as far away as Israel, but a key element to this time of recovery is the fellowship between the priests.
“Being here, around 32 other priests, where the average ordination time is roughly 30 years, allows for me to see some of the struggles that they’ve gone through, with many of the struggles being the same,” Voyt said. “Finding out what has worked for them, and hearing that, gives me a good idea what I can do going forward.”
Anyone who has served in the military knows the sense of brotherhood that exists among one another. Voyt said the priesthood is no different.
“When you’re a priest, you live in a glass house. But here, we have a place where you can just be yourself,” Voyt said. “In the military, we have a band of brothers. In the priesthood, we have our brother priests. They’ve made the same commitment, they’ve taken the same vows and they’ve faced the same struggles. When you’re a priest and you take the vow, it’s for life.”
After Airmen retire, they’re faced with a decision — live the retired life or find another job. Though Voyt could live the retired life if he wanted, and for a few months, he plans to while camping in the Northwest, he wouldn’t feel right. Not while he has something left to give, and now while there are still people to help.
“I’m not ready to sit back with a fishing pole in my hand,” Voyt said, recalling the promise he made to his bishop to return to the church after his Air Force service.
Standing in front of the cross at the Basilica of Santa Croce, Voyt raises his bowed head and opens his eyes as he contemplates his path ahead. Although his Air Force uniform has been replaced by a priest’s uniform, he realizes his desire to serve and mentor Airmen still burns as strong as ever.
“What needs to be done? I can contribute. I can do something that can make a difference in the lives of others,” Voyt said.
This summer, Voyt will return to the Florida panhandle, where he spent his childhood and where his father was stationed during his Air Force career. There, Voyt will begin his second chapter in life, serving the people and service members in the area.
“I can do what needs to be done. I still have decades left to help,” he said. “That doesn’t end just because I hang up the Air Force uniform. Now I wear a black uniform with a collar.”
[Editor’s note: This program is not endorsed by the Air Force. The retired Airmen featured in this story used their Montgomery GI Bill to pay for this education. Additionally, each Air Force chaplain, regardless of their specific religion, is authorized one trip each year to meet with their specific religious headquarters staff. During that trip, the chaplains come together with their civilian religious peers and leaders to discuss updates in training, to network and to help one another with any challenges.]