Prior to his 1995 ordination as a priest for the Archdiocese of Washington and the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, Father Gary Studniewski served in the U.S. Army, achieving the rank of captain. The priest – who is currently the pastor of St. Peter Parish on Capitol Hill and this year celebrates the 25tth anniversary of his ordination – said it was while stationed at Andrews Air Force Base (now Joint Base Andrews) that he discerned his religious vocation.

“I had been developing in my relationship with Christ and the Church over eight years of military service. Military faith communities and priest chaplains were an important part of that development,” he said. “The chaplain, Father Ed Deimeke (now a retired chaplain and priest of Albany, New York) was a terrific community leader and a great encouragement to me. He did ask me about becoming a priest at about the same time I became involved with the Cursillo movement in the Archdiocese of Washington.”

Cursillo is an 80-year-old Catholic movement founded in Spain that builds Christian communities focused on piety, action and study. It takes its name from the Spanish Cursillo de Cristiandad, meaning “Short Course in Christianity.”

“I became heavily involved in that movement and made many Christ-centered friends from across the archdiocese. Some of those friends also started to indicate that I might have a vocation as a priest,” Father Studniewski said. “So, it was really a one-two punch that got me to seriously consider a call to priesthood – an invitation from a priest and the community.”

A native of Toledo, Ohio, and the son of Richard and Alfreda Zarecki Studniewski, he began preparing for the priesthood in 1989, and studied at Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Maryland and the North American College in Rome. After his ordination, the priest, who turned 63 on Aug. 5, spent a short time as parochial vicar at St. John Parish in Hollywood, Maryland, prior to beginning an 18-year stint as an Army chaplain.

“What I discovered in military ministry is very simple, but beautiful: our men and women in uniform, making great sacrifices and enduring many deprivations and hardships, greatly value the presence of the chaplain, someone who mediates the presence of God to them,” he said, adding that Catholic military personnel “are particularly thankful for the presence of a Catholic chaplain.’

Through his chaplaincy, he said, “I discovered that I was something like Jesus in the boat with the disciples on a stormy sea. It didn’t matter so much what I said or did – it was that I was in the boat, or the aircraft or in the convoy. Many military members are not religious at all and yet even they respected the chaplain with a living faith who could pray with them, for them and give them encouragement and spiritual support.”

In 2001, Father Studniewski was stationed in the Sinai Desert in Egypt ministering to the Multinational Force and Observers, a 13-nation peace-keeping mission that the United States participated in as part of the Camp David accord in the early 1980s. While there, he led a memorial service for all the Americans who lost their lives on 9/11. “It was a powerful moment,” he recalled.

One of the difficulties of being a military chaplain, he said, was “it was tough for me to put down roots or to form strong bonds with people because military communities are in a constant state of flux… I guess I just wish that I could have stayed in place longer at each location since it seemed I would just be starting to make a difference and then you’re moved again.”

Father Gary Studniewski (Archdiocese of Washington photo)

After leaving the chaplaincy in 2014 with the rank of colonel, Father Studniewski resided for two years at Assumption Parish in Washington, D.C. In 2016, he was named administrator of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Newtowne, Maryland. In 2017, he was named administrator of St. Peter’s Parish on Capitol Hill, and one year later named pastor there, a post he still holds.

One of the big differences between being serving as an Army chaplain and serving as a parish pastor is “civilian pastors don’t jump out of airplanes,” Father Studniewski joked.

“But seriously, chaplains are effective to the extent that they are where the troops are, sharing the misery, the danger, the hardships. That is what endears the chaplain to the troops,” he said. “As a civilian pastor, it is bit more of a challenge to have that ministry of presence where the people are at. Everyone is more spread out and less unified in the civilian community.”

Since the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic and the need for quarantine and self-isolation, Father Studniewski said he discovered that “in addition to the obvious disease and death, the COVID environment has taken a toll on human relationships.”

“Virtual connections are wonderful, but they cannot supply for the lack of physical contact with our brothers and sisters in Christ. St. Peter’s is normally such a vibrant community with so many people participating in worship, educational and service programs,” he said. “The greatest challenge has been how to stay connected with people with all of the restrictions in place.”

He added that “preaching to an empty church was the weirdest thing I’ve ever had to do, and I hope I never have to do that again…  I now know not to take the assembly for granted ever again.”

As he considers his quarter century of priestly ministry, Father Studniewski said that “the best part of being a priest is ministering to the people of God through the sacraments, and particularly, the Eucharist. Christ is so powerfully present to us in those sacramental encounters and I feel so blessed to be an instrument of that presence – and the joy, and strength and comfort that come from being united to the Lord.”

“We all know that we need to extend ourselves to others to live a fulfilled life. We all need to find our way to serve others, to love others. The priesthood is such a beautiful vocation to do that because you are offering not merely your own love and service, but the love and ministry of Jesus Christ.,” he said. “To encounter people in their ups and in their downs, to be able to enter into the life of people and their families, this is a joy. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to enter into the lives of people, to bring Christ to people and people to Christ.”