Fr. Kevin J. Sweeney is the incoming pastor at Saint Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Huntington Beach. And, like other pastors, he will be sheparding a diverse parish of native Californians and transplants, as well as many parishioners of Hispanic and Vietnamese heritage.
However, unlike most priests and pastors, Fr. Sweeney is a recently retired Navy officer, a captain who spent 24 years on active duty with the United States Navy and United States Marines Corps.
Captain Sweeney, USN, is also Chaplain Sweeney who spent his military career attending to the spiritual, moral and ethical needs of sailors and Marines.
Born in Newport Beach and growing up in Costa Mesa, he and his family, including four younger sisters belonged to St. Joachim Catholic Church, where he also attended school.
Following high school, he attended St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California. After two years, he left St. John’s to discern his vocation with the Capuchin Franciscans where he finished his bachelor’s degree at Dominican School of Theology & Philosophy in Berkeley.
After graduation he spent the next eight years working in retail, even running a pipe and tobacco store before being pulled back in the direction of a vocation.
“I was at the funeral for a Capuchin priest, also a World War II chaplain, Father Columban. The Capuchin who took care of him, Brother Joe, a former Navy cook who is still alive and 90 plus years old, saluted Father Columban as he was being lowered into the grave.”
At the time, Father Sweeney said to himself, “Wow! I wonder what it would take to be a Navy chaplain.”
Bishop McFarland heard about Fr. Sweeney’s interest, who then received a call from the vocations director of Diocese of Orange accepting him as co-sponsored with the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA (AMS). He would remain associated with the Diocese of Orange while preparing for chaplaincy in the military.
AMS is an archdiocese very different from the Diocese of Orange or the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. There are no defined parishes and (the AMS) is established throughout the world, not within a defined geographic area. It serves nearly 1.8 million servicemembers and their families wherever they happen to be, on land or at sea, in Southern California or the South Pacific aboard Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard ships and stations.
Fr. Sweeney was ordained in 1994 with the understanding that he would serve for three years at a diocesan parish, San Francisco Solano in Rancho Santa Margarita, before going on active duty in 1997.
“The military part you can learn as you go along,“ he said. “But you have to be a happy priest before you even consider becoming a military chaplain. To be a good chaplain, you have to be a good priest and you have to be happy at what you’re doing.”
Fr. Sweeney explained that being part of a ship’s crew was special. “I’ve said Masses all over the world. Mass in the jungle. Mass in the snow. I also offered Mass out in the desert many times, as we did spend lots of time in the desert and other miserable places. Or try saying Mass below the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. WHOOMP! WHOOMP! as planes are taking off and landing on the deck immediately overhead.”
Fr. Sweeney said that Catholic military chaplains not only serve the sacramental needs of Catholic servicemembers, but they also work with people from all different denominations.
“We’re chaplains for the whole crew,” he said.
According to the Department of Defense statistics, at present, there are about 44 Catholic priests on active duty who are charged with ministering to Catholics in the Navy and Marine Corps. Catholics make up about 25 percent of the military, but only 8 percent of the chaplain corps.
“Some dioceses are more willing than others. For example, the Diocese of Orange has been blessed with many vocations, said Fr. Sweeney. “We’re giving back to the Universal Church.”
He noted that he is now ready to come back and be a parish priest.
“Now I’ve traded in my cammies for a cassock,” he said.
When Bishop Vann announced that he would be assigned to St. Vincent de Paul, he knew he was coming to a wonderful parish and a hardworking young priest named Fr. Gaston Mendiola.
Father Sweeney will be officially installed as pastor of Saint Vincent de Paul Catholic Church at a special Mass offered by Diocese of Orange Bishop Kevin Vann on Sunday, Oct. 31, at 1 p.m.
“I have been very grateful to know Fr. Sweeney these years, and especially to share with him his love for ministering to those in the Armed Forces, particularly the Navy and Marine Corps,” Bishop Vann commented.
“I have been able to also share with Fr. Sweeney my dad’s love of the Navy and his service in the Pacific during World War II.
“We welcome Fr. Sweeney back to the Diocese now as the pastor of St. Vincent de Paul in Huntington Beach (not far from the Pacific) where his ministry and love of the Lord has been strengthened by his years as a Navy chaplain.”