“Oh yes, I had a love for the sea and used to enjoy watching the warships coming in and out of the harbour and really wanted to join the Navy, but I was also attracted to discipleship and people noticed that, so here I am today!”
Father Danny Hernandez, Chaplain to the Forces, declares all these years later, based at the King’s Chapel (bang opposite my apartment next to the Convent in Main Street – so I guess we are neighbours!). Danny tells me his upbringing was not unlike that of any other Catholic family on the Rock where they attended Mass every Sunday. “So come one Christmas Day when I was 15 or 16, the late Bishop Rapallo spoke to me about the possibility of joining the priesthood and I went away to think about it. I recall my parents weren’t too keen on the idea but after giving it much thought I took the plunge when I was 17 and ended up in the English College in Valladolid in Spain. I remember arriving there and noticing the building looked like a prison, but despite that sort of initial shock, I knew it would be okay, because ‘if God wants me here, he will look after me,’ I thought.” Tough decision no doubt, considering studying to become a priest involves six years of hard graft swotting up on theology, philosophy and all that’s involved to help you become a worthy servant of Jesus Christ and the Church.
‘If God wants me here, he will look after me.’
Danny tells me he enjoyed his time there and there were studies in Spanish too, obviously second nature to a Gibraltarian whilst he saw some of the English students struggling somewhat but Danny was always on hand to help out where needed. “It was exciting and on my return to the Rock, adapting from a monastic life to spending six years in the Cathedral of Saint Mary the Crowned was interesting and challenging. Meeting and dealing with people and encountering God in unexpected situations in the, ‘in-betweens’ from day to day.”
So during those years, not being old enough to become a fully fledged priest, Fr Danny was sent off to Reading in the UK to perform his duties as a Deacon in a church there. Eventually he was eligible to be ordained back home at age 23. “My mentor in Reading helped me broaden my mind, and on my return to Gib I was ordained and later became Chaplain to St Bernard’s Church at Europa, which at the time mainly served the military and their families in the area. I would visit schools too and take on pastoral duties for those who required it. I was also instrumental in the re-building of St Bernard’s chapel.”
And that’s when the army, as opposed to the navy, came to be his choice of serving in the Armed Forces. “I remember being told that if you joined the navy you would have to go through a ‘dunking’ which I so feared – being held upside down in some contraption in water for however long scared me so much, so I chose the army.”
Northern Ireland, Germany, Kosovo, Iraq, Cyprus, Kenya, and Canada were the countries Fr Danny served in, deploying to some of those theatres of war, for more than one tour… scary! “Yes, but first I went to the military academy in Sandhurst in the UK for a few weeks to sit for my Professional Qualified Officer Course, which meant I became a Chaplain of the Forces 4th Class – more or less equivalent to a Captain in the army.”
“Walls shattered as the shells hit our building with shrapnel and debris falling everywhere.”
First posting to Germany meant Father Danny met many individuals from all faiths as he got stuck into his work joining the 1st Catholic Fraternity which later became the All Souls Community. And so the postings and tours to troubled hot spots began; off he went mixing with servicemen of all ranks, together enduring the cold and discomforts. “That’s right, completely out of my usual comfort zone talking to young chaps helping to reassure them. Generally, they were excited about the task at hand, but all had fear, which was to be expected. On my second tour of Iraq we were all on a bit of a downer as mortars fell within the compound, walls shattered as the shells hit our building with shrapnel and debris falling everywhere. You feel drained when it’s non-stop! Going out on patrol with the young chaps was also not good. I remember receiving a card from one of my fellow students in Valladolid round about then who helped to re-affirm my faith when he wrote, ‘it was what God wanted you to do,’ and that, gave me comfort.”
On the lighter side on his last tour near Baghdad, under the command of the Spanish, Fr Danny suggested concelebrating mass with a Spanish priest who initially hesitated to allow that. “It turned out he thought it would be slightly awkward because I represented the British Army and assumed I was an Anglican priest, but it turned out okay in the end.”
In Iraq and later on in Kosovo, again our bilingualism came in handy as Father Danny served mass with Catholics in the military, locally employed civilians and Catholics from other Muslim countries. Added to those there were Ecuadorian and South American individuals sharing his time on Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings whilst attending to other Christian celebrations. “Sometimes it turns out to be such a small world. There was a Spanish Brigadier who commanded the UN contingent with whom I became quite friendly with who offered me turrones (Spanish nougat) which made me think of home! There was also a Spanish Soldier who began to address me in English until I spoke to him in Spanish… he turned out to be from Algeciras!
A Gibraltarian priest who clearly had his work cut out living real life experiences around the world. Well, Fr Danny Hernandez is back on home soil now serving in the Royal Navy Chaplaincy Service as part of the Full Time Reserve Service (FTRS RN) based at North Front. He’s swapped his ‘browns’ for his ‘blues’ as you will now spot him in navy uniform in the street or in the King’s Chapel serving the Tri-service community on the Rock.
So in the end, he DID join the Navy!