Argentina: A police officer needs to have his life very much in order, since he could perish on any given day in the line of duty

In recent times the severe economic and social crisis that is affecting many countries, combined with the existing social inequalities they suffer, has triggered a disastrous fragmentation of society. All these factors have a direct repercussion on the work of the police and security forces, who have been subjected to intense criticism on account of their actions in various countries around the world.

María Lozano, a journalist working for the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) interviews Father Nicolás Daniel Julián, the senior police chaplain for the province of Córdoba in Argentina, a pioneer in his work of pastoral apostolate to the police in the face of the major challenges facing the profession.

ACN: Why a pastoral outreach to the police? What is a specific characteristic of this particular section of society that requires a special pastoral apostolate?

Father Nicolás Daniel Julián: It is not merely a matter of providing a religious service, but rather a targeted care directed at the individual police officer within his own family and social setting and in the concrete situations that arise in his life. My work involves the pastoral, sacramental, missionary, and formative dimensions, on behalf of the Catholic faithful committed to our care. A police officer is endowed by the state with certain very specific characteristics that set him apart from others, namely authority and firearms. The police have the power to make decisions affecting the lives and liberty of others and society. It is for this reason that the Church wishes to concern herself specifically with the care, accompaniment, and support of the individual police officer. Since in a general sense it is his parish that accompanies him, in the day to day pastoral outreach of the Church, the chaplaincy seeks to accompany him in the specifics of his life. Our motto in Córdoba is: “personal accompaniment”.

Society, through its governments, entrusts this specific and important task to the forces of law and order. What  is the greatest challenge they face?
When the emergency signals sound, the police set out. Very often not knowing what they will find. It might be a situation where an old lady has lost her cat which has climbed up into a tree, or it might be a home where the father has killed his wife and is holding his children hostage and ends up committing suicide in his despair. This is the life of a policeman; sometimes two police officers go out and only one returns alive. The life of a police officer is very, very stressful.

That is why we insist on formation. We can see that a policeman has had a great deal of training. He knows what he has to do. We work on the basis of Catholic social doctrine and ethical principles and supply the why he has to do it and the how he ought to do it. Nowhere in the world, I believe, should the police officer forget that the offender is a person and that this offender also has a soul that needs to be saved.

There is much criticism of the police and security forces. Is it not also important to highlight the dignity of the police officer in respect of the duties entrusted to him?
As we say, perhaps a little crudely, in Argentina, it is his job to do the dirty work, to clean up things that aren’t good in society, to maintain order and restore it when it has broken down. It’s a thankless task, where there is a dangerous situation and the rest of society runs away, and the police have to tackle it. They not only have to be properly trained and equipped, but also inwardly armed and prepared, and be very clear in their thinking.

As you said, it is a very dangerous profession, in which anything can happen any day. How to prepare them to face this?
We tell them that they have to have their life very much in order. They need to have been able to say goodbye to their families (each day) without leaving things unsaid or undone. Many police die in the line of duty. If you do your job badly you don’t know if you’re going to lose your job or not; sometimes you may . If a baker doesn’t do his work well, then his family won’t have any bread that day. If a policeman does his work badly, someone might die, someone might lose their freedom or lose their belongings. The work of a policeman, the primary material, if you will forgive me putting it like this, is life and liberty. He is a servant of life.

This must surely be a terrible psychological burden. In practice a police officer spends the whole day waiting to see if anything will happen and hoping that nothing will happen, and so it is day after day. A good part of everybody’s life is routine, but the life of a policeman cannot be routine, because we are talking about life and liberty. This psychological burden, I imagine, can also become a spiritual burden, given the important values they have to defend. How do you address this need? How do you alleviate this burden?

A great deal of the training the police are given is focused on crime. In society, thanks be to God, there are more good people than bad. Our approach is that, while recognising everything that has to do with crime and all the specific laws, rules and procedures in regard to such crime, they should nonetheless be focused on service. This is very beneficial because it is life-fulfilling. We support them in their training, in relation to ethics and professional morality. Among other things we have composed a prayer for police officers, part of which states: “Lord, help me to do the hardest tasks without becoming hardened, the most noble acts of service without vainglory”. This is the fundamental point.

You’ve mentioned a couple of the dangers that can threaten the security forces generally and the police in particular. One of these is vainglory, the abuse of power. How do you convey this sense of a calling to service instead of abuse of power?
We speak of “helping others” and never “helping oneself”. Essentially, this is what Christ told us: that no one has greater love than he who is capable – and the policeman is capable – of giving his life for those he loves. If there is no love or conviction, it is easy to be a simple public functionary; is very easy for a policeman to succumb to all kinds of temptation, because he has authority, he has a weapon and the power to decide over the life and liberty of others. In our work of accompaniment, we work very much in the area of training – intellectual training, professional training – but we also place a great deal of emphasis on their spiritual care. Achieving a firm sense of (moral) conviction is essential; no rules of engagement, no legislation can suffice when your own life is at risk. Who would take a bullet in the head for a million dollars? We would say he was crazy. A policeman does not tackle crime for the sake of the money, to fulfil an order or a law. Only when there is a firm moral conviction do people serve unhesitatingly, even to the point of giving their lives if necessary.

Father Nicolás Daniel Julián, the senior police chaplain for the province of Córdoba in Argentina.
Father Nicolás Daniel Julián, the senior police chaplain for the province of Córdoba in Argentina.

A policeman is very much in contact with evil, with violence, corruption, robbery, people trafficking, drugs. In the midst of all these evils how do they succeed in not getting stuck in this negative view of the world?
It is not easy for them. They are very focused on looking for what ordinary people don’t see, and they find it very easily. A priest, let’s say, sees everything from the perspective of faith, he sees through the eyes of the Church, as we say. A journalist sees things from his own point of view or profession. And a policeman likewise sees things from his own perspective. They are very much exposed to the contamination of what they have to deal with, the darkness, the murkiness, the evil side of society. They are helped by spirituality and by the family, which support them because this emotional burden is a very heavy psychological weight to carry, with its long hours and inherent tensions.

So you’re saying that the family is very important for the police and security forces?
I believe this is the great shield that protects them, their family, because they want to return home clean. One policeman once told me, “I do investigations and study corpses burnt by fire. I finish my work, put on my civilian clothing and return home. I hug my son and have to help him do his school homework, as though nothing had happened. It’s not easy.” A fireman in the same quarter is sitting calmly, sorting out his equipment, doing his training, when the alarm goes off. Within 45 seconds he is dressed in his firefighter’s uniform and within a minute he is already on the road. This kind of psychological tension requires not only  technical and professional training, but also a sense of emotional and spiritual equilibrium. And we’ve had good results in this area. Our task is to support them, because for us it is a defeat when we hear of a bad cop or of one committing suicide.

Your pastoral outreach also includes the families. What is the nature of your apostolate for the families of police officers? Where does the focus lie?
It is complicated, but beautiful. Because a policeman’s life is very irregular; a third of it is spent in uniform… He begins his work at a predetermined time, without knowing when he’s going to return home to his family. He spends a lot of time outside  the home, working difficult hours. On so many occasions a policeman is not able to share the ordinary social life or important moments of his family members. Besides, Argentina is going through a difficult time economically. This means that he has to work still longer hours and spend less time at home. We try to train them not to neglect what means so much to them. I saw a policeman touch the picture of Our Lady at the entrance to the police station and asked him, “What are you saying to her?” He replied: “Lord, you take care of my own ones, since I have to watch over the others.” Marvellous, we included it in the policeman’s prayer.

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