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While the U.S. nuclear arsenal is at the center of debate among Roman Catholics today, their church may be signaling that it is determined to stay sensitive to the needs of its members in uniform.

One sign may be Pope John Paul II's appointment of three new bishops this year to assist the military's chief pastor.

Bishop Francis X. Roque will open an office in Bonn in July, becoming the first bishop in Europe for the military. The office will be part of the Military Vicariate in New York, which supervises Catholic chaplains.

Roque is a former chaplain who served in the Army 22 years before retiring as a colonel. He was in Darmstadt, Germany, Friday, his first stop on a May tour of nearly 20 military installations in Europe.

"We are trying to strengthen the links between our people in the military in Europe and the church," Roque said. "The Holy Father and the bishops are very concerned about peace in the world, and the men and women in the American military are peacemakers."

Roque will be in the Bonn office for about four months. After that, the office will be rotated among Roque and two other bishops assigned to the vicariate.

He called the new office an experiment and said it is too early to tell what effect it will have on Catholic communities in Europe.

He said he hopes to stay in touch with people and perhaps expedite paper work that is often needed for day-to-day church matters. Those matters range from the baptism of infants to annulment of marriages.

"The main thing is the quick accessibility," said Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Edward Lesko, assistant Darmstadt community chaplain. "Our people shouldn't be left in extreme trauma, sorrow and guilt (such as in an annulment). Sometimes it would take years before all the correspondence went down the line, following the people wherever they moved. It finally catches up with their priest, and he doesn't know anything about it because another priest has been handling it. He needs quick answers. Now he can do that by picking up the telephone."

Lack of access is a problem most bishops in the United States don't have. Their dioceses, or areas of responsibility, are dictated by geography.

"Our diocese is unique," he said. "It isn't-territory, it's people. Our people are all over the world and they are only in one place for a short time."

But Roque said that is only one of the unique problems posed by the military community, problems that ultimately fall to the local priest.

"There are a lot of family separations in the military," he said. "It can be a very tense job and at times a very dangerous one. The hours are often very demanding. That puts a lot of pressure upon our people, and that pressure is reflected in the local chaplain.

"The bishop is the next line in the church for the Catholic chaplains. The bishop's office is where he turns with his problems. So to bring that office a little closer is a very wonderful thing. We can talk more easily."

Roque became a priest in 1953 in Providence, R.I., and served in two parishes before joining the Army in 1961. His last assignment was as community chaplain at Carlisle Barracks, Carlisle, Pa.

The former Army chaplain recently attended the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Chicago, where the bishops voted by secret ballot to accept a pastoral letter condemning nuclear war.

Roque said the bishops were understanding of the problems facing people in the military and "almost went overboard" in the pastoral letter to express their care for military people.

"The letter shows great appreciation for the United States military," he said. "They are the peacemakers. The (pope) feels the military is a very honorable profession. We recognize the value of deterrence in the modern world and that the military has a job to do.

"But there is a great fear in the world of nuclear weapons. They make it very hard to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. The bishops reflect that fear of war and were very anxious to make a plea for peace."

Once the letter is finished and distributed, the next step, Roque said, will be to interpret it and teach it to Catholics. For those in the military, that teaching, and other administrative, spiritual and moral matters, will be handled by the military vicariate.

"We can have a bishop among us who is our next line of authority," said Lesko. "He is sitting with all the people on the line — the troops in the field — and rapping with them, helping to make decisions that have to be made. We're very fortunate."


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