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Serving church, country ‘an honor,’ says priest promoted to general in Air Force Chaplain Corps

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (OSV News) — At Blessed Sacrament Parish in Tallahassee, Father Peter Zalewski is a busy and beloved pastor, tending to the activities of his church community and the local Catholic school, the largest primary school in the Pensacola-Tallahassee Diocese.

But the pastor also serves in the Air Force Chaplain Corps, and with his Dec. 14 promotion to a one-star, or brigadier, general, he now holds the highest rank in the military of any Catholic priest.

On his one day off a week, he’ll be tending to meetings at the Pentagon or elsewhere in Washington, because he now serves as the primary adviser to the chief of the National Guard Bureau on religious, ethical and morale issues.

As a general, Father Zalewski will provide guidance and programs directing National Guard chaplain personnel and supporting Army and Air Guardsmen.

The Dec. 14 promotion ceremony at the Florida National Guard Headquarters in St. Augustine was the culmination of Father Zalewski’s nearly 40-year life in the military, which began in 1984 as a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

In the early 1990s, he deployed in major military operations, including serving as an intelligence officer in Operation Desert Storm in the first Gulf War. He was following in the footsteps of his father, who served two tours in Vietnam, but he also pursued a military career with encouragement of his mother, who helped him appreciate the meaning of serving the Armed Forces.

The Florida native eventually heard the call to pursue the priesthood instead of Air Force pilot training, so in 1992 he became a seminarian for the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee. He also became an Air Force chaplain candidate.

At his promotion ceremony, Father Zalewski thanked his parishioners at Blessed Sacrament, as well as St. Dominic in Panama City, Florida, where he was previously pastor, for always supporting his dual responsibilities.

“Thank you for your support,” he said. “We have to protect those who protect us. So, thank you for allowing me to do that. That means a lot to me.”

Father Zalewski’s remarks were reported by Catholic Extension in an article on its website, www.catholicextension.org.

The priest’s connection to the Chicago-based organization is twofold. He serves on its mission committee, which helps Catholic Extension increase its impact and awareness around the country. He also has involved his parish in raising financial support for various Extension initiatives over the years.

But the priest also was a beneficiary of Extension’s funding of seminary education when he was in formation to be ordained for the Pensacola-Tallahassee Diocese.

Each year, Catholic Extension supports 400 seminarians on their path to the priesthood by providing scholarships that help struggling dioceses pay for seminarian tuition as well as room and board.

After his ordination in 1997, Father Zalewski began serving as a parish priest in his diocese and as a military reserve chaplain at bases in the Florida Panhandle. He would eventually be deployed again in 2008 as a “wing chaplain” to Al-Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, serving military personnel supporting U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“He knows that the many sacrifices of our service members have created a toll — physical, mental and spiritual,” Catholic Extension said. “Father Zalewski recalls his visits to military bases over these past years where he would encounter young soldiers wearing prosthetics, reminding him of what they gave on the battlefield.

“More troublesome, still, are the wounds that are not visible. Father Zalewski laments that despite many efforts within the services, suicides among military personnel are not decreasing and more needs to be done to stem this tide.”

Father Zalewski said, “It’s been an honor to serve my country in the military, and an honor to serve the Catholic Church in America through Catholic Extension’s mission committee. I see that many of our service members come from rural communities — so Extension is a direct contributor to their spiritual well-being and strength.”

Roughly a quarter of all active-duty military personnel are Catholic, Extension noted, but “as a general, he will serve people regardless of their religious affiliation. … His job will be to ensure that these young, self-sacrificing men and women, who have given so much to our country, have the spiritual care they need.”

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