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Don’t Give Up the Ship! Spiritual Warfare with Navy Discipline

On a frigid December evening in 2012, thirty-five of us lowly officer candidates at Navy Officer Candidate School (OCS) line up outside the base’s dining hall in Newport, Rhode Island. After another grueling day of military drill practice, academic classes, and inspection preparations, we are salivating at the thought of dinner. At the entrance, United States Marine Corps (USMC) drill instructors are waiting. “Say my ditty,” one of them says menacingly in his gravelly voice, with the iconic Smokey the Bear hat brim pulled low over his eyes. My stomach drops, as I know what is coming next. It doesn’t matter how loudly we say it; the result is always the same.

At the top of our lungs, the officer candidates respond, “D-I-S-C-I-P-L-I-N-E! Discipline is the instant willing obedience to orders, respect for authority and self-reliance!” After another thorough ten-minute thrashing at the hands of the drill instructors in the form of squats, sit-ups, pushups, and flutter kicks for not saying this chant loud enough, we officer candidates are finally admitted into the dining hall for dinner.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the discipline that Navy OCS instilled in me provided useful tools to help me grow in the daily practice of the Faith. If we break down each piece of the OCS definition of discipline, it reveals much in how all Catholics can join the fight alongside St. Michael the Archangel, patron saint of the military, in our everyday struggle against evil.

  1. Instant Willing Obedience to Orders

We are all clearly called to submit to God in all things. God’s authority is endless, and we should therefore always be considering God’s will, as we pray in His name, “Thy will be done.” On its face, this is probably a simple concept to most Catholics, but how do we build in ourselves the ability to consistently do God’s will obediently?

One practical way to do this is by making regular confessions. By going to confession on a regular schedule, we keep ourselves honest and hold ourselves accountable. In this way, we are frequently (and hopefully honestly) asking ourselves if we have been obedient to God in our lives.

In the Navy, obedience is paramount. If sailors are not obedient to orders, the Navy fails, and in worst-case scenarios, our shipmates perish. Much like the Navy, the whole Catholic Church as the Body of Christ suffers when individuals are not obedient to God’s orders. As lay Catholics, our mission is to get our families and ourselves into Heaven. In his Divine Intimacy meditations, Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen says of obedience:

This is the great value of obedience: to unite man’s life with the will of God: to give man in every circumstance, the opportunity to govern himself, not according to his weak, fragile will, which is so subject to error, blindness, and human limitations, but according to the will of God.[1]

Our Lord Jesus Christ showed us the perfect example obedience to the Father when he entered His Passion after asking that “this chalice pass” in Gethsemane. For our part, by willingly obeying God’s “orders” in the form of His commandments and through the teachings of the Holy Catholic Church, we follow Jesus’s example and take steps toward our own sanctification. The more we willingly obey God, the more we begin to restore ourselves more perfectly in His image and likeness and work toward the restoration of the Garden of Eden as it was before mankind’s first act of disobedience. So too when sailors are willingly obedient to orders, the Navy thrives.

  1. Respect for Authority

In the military, respect for authority is paramount to “good order and discipline.” This is reflected in what is often called the “chain of command.” This is the structure in which lawful orders are given. Although not always as rigid among the laity, we also have a chain of command in the Catholic Church. From the papacy to the cardinalate to the episcopacy to the priesthood to families and single persons, we all play a role in carrying out God’s orders. The highest respect must obviously be for the Holy Trinity. But surely, we are also called to respect the teaching authority of the Catholic Church and its leaders.

At its essence, being a Navy officer is about ensuring that your sailors are ready at all times to carry out their duties and perform the tasks of the nation entrusted to them. However, if an officer causes his sailors to be disobedient to the mission, either through negligence or maliciousness, the officer is at greater fault. So too is it in the Church. Jesus reminds us in Matthew 18:5–6:

Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and be drowned in the depth of the sea.

Just as it is in the Navy, the higher one is in God’s chain of command, the greater the responsibility. Here, Our Lord emphasizes the role leaders play in the lives of the faithful at all levels and reminds us that our successes and failures as leaders will be remembered on the Last Day. It is imperative that each of us in this chain of command knows his role and executes it to fulfill God’s will on Earth. Parents must properly catechize their children, priests must properly catechize their parishes, and bishops must ensure orthodox teaching in their dioceses.

  1. Self-Reliance

The third piece of the OCS definition of discipline is “self-reliance.” When humans and institutions fail us on Earth, we must be ready to fight the good fight. It can be easy to look at the state of the Catholic Church today and become quickly disheartened. With rampant liturgical abuses in parishes around the world, allegations of financial abuse at the Vatican, and an institution still reeling from the sex abuse scandals, our leaders have not always inspired trust. But as we say in the Navy, “don’t give up the ship!” We must fight back, alongside St. Michael the Archangel and St. Joseph, Terror of Demons. Even when others fail us, we must pick up the cross for our families.

At times, it is easy to become distracted by disappointments in the institutional Church. We spend endless time reading blogs and listening to podcasts that disparage the Church and its leaders. While it is important to be informed about what is going on in Catholicism, often we better serve our families, the Catholic Church, and ourselves by taking up the “arms” of spiritual warfare. There are many tools we can rely on ourselves to implement in our lives: daily rosaries, the Divine Office, fasting, and daily Masses, to name a few. If we make the commitment to use some or all of these tools, we make a conscious decision of the free will to follow God in our daily lives. We will also more easily recognize when sinister forces of evil, often through our Western culture, are trying to get us to disobey His direct and lawful orders.

After 13 weeks at OCS, officer candidates are transformed from people of diverse backgrounds, with no military bearing, into commissioned officers in the world’s greatest Navy. They take an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, with the understanding that they could lay down their lives in doing so. Similarly, when we participate in the Sacrament of Confirmation, we promise to live by the tenets of Catholicism. This is not just a casual promise, but a promise to follow Jesus and to be judged by it. By practicing a disciplined Catholic faith, we can all hope to be capable of being granted the salvation that Jesus wants us to enjoy with Him.

Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil; May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; And do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host, by the power of God, cast into hell Satan and all evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

[1] Divine Intimacy. Fr. Gabriel of Mary Magdalen, OCD. 2019 edition. pp. 343.

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