Many servicemembers' eyes were on Rome as new pope was elected
News from Rome spread quickly, and many in the military community expressed joy and wonder at the naming of the Catholic Church’s 265th pope on Tuesday.
During his 363 days in Iraq, Doug Treadwell has watched maybe 15 minutes of television. On Tuesday, he delayed an appointment and stopped to add about another five to 10 minutes as the television in the dining facility at the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad played the Fox News coverage of the papal choice.
“This is something I’ve been very interested in,” said Treadwell, 42, a Catholic and civilian contractor working for the embassy’s Projects and Contracting Office. “I hope they elected somebody who is dynamic and uses the position to make positive changes.”
U.S. personnel in Iraq watched the white smoke and heard the bells, and waited for the naming of the new pope.
The speedy decision stunned Army Sgt. Jason Ashurst, 30, with 1st Detachment, Alpha Company, of the 249th Engineering Battalion.
“The last guy did a lot of good and I hope the new guy can do the same. I hope he can make an impact here [in Iraq],” Ashurst said while sitting on the stoop of his transient trailer on the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad. “I was thinking it would take a lot longer, but maybe [the cardinals] already had somebody in mind.”
Marine Lance Cpl. Aaron Coleman, 20, said he only followed the pop-up news announcements of the papal coverage when logging onto his America Online e-mail account, but expressed an interest in learning more about the Catholic Church’s next leader.
“I’d like to know more about him,” said Coleman, with the 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (Antiterrorism). “This is my religion, and I’d like to know more about the guy who is going to lead my religion.”
Some in the military religious community — Catholics and non-Catholics alike — had been following the selection process closely.
Army Lt. Col. Dixey Behnken, chaplain for the 22nd Signal Brigade out of Darmstadt, Germany, was excited that a German was elected the new pope.
“I speak his language,” Behnken said, referring to his German heritage. “I’m excited because I’m in Germany and he’s a German.”
“I have great respect for the Catholic Church,” he added. “I’m sure the [German] people are very excited about that.”
“Our Catholic priest has been focusing his congregation on prayer for the cardinals in the selection of the new pope,” said Lt. Col. Fred Robinson, a Baptist chaplain with the Kitzingen, Germany-based 417th Base Support Battalion. “I think they’ll all be rejoicing in the new selection.”
The priest, Chaplain (Capt.) Gary Fukes, said many of his parishioners are 1st Infantry Division soldiers who recently have returned from a yearlong tour in Iraq. The selection of a new spiritual leader in Rome has taken second place to normal daily life.
“With my congregation, the focus has been on getting back with families,” he said. “It hasn’t really been focusing as much on the new pope.”
But about six hours before the bells began ringing in St. Peter’s Square, Fukes celebrated a special Mass at the chapel in Würzburg for the cardinal electors and for the yet-unchosen pope. He said he’d also discussed the upcoming conclave during Mass last Sunday, which was, fittingly, Good Shepherd Sunday.
“I said … we can’t really focus on whether the person is liberal or conservative, but will the person be faithful to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and to the Holy Gospels,” Fukes recalled Tuesday evening. “He almost has to be like John Paul was: a man of prayer, and a man of providence.”
“Praise God!” Pentagon Chaplain (Col.) Ralph Benson exclaimed when told of the white smoke shortly after noon Tuesday by his deputy, Chaplain (Maj.) Alan Pomaville.
“Islamic, Jewish, Christian — all the major faith communities have been coming together to pray for the Roman Catholic Church as they choose a new leader,” Benson said.
“It’s not a political decision they’re making, it’s an act of faith,” Pomaville added. The Cardinals’ decision “symbolizes the work of the Holy Spirit.”
Chaplain (Maj.) Patrick Fletcher of the Air Force 3rd Wing in Alaska, who helped teach Pope John Paul II English in the 1970s, delayed heading to the Elmendorf Air Force Base chapel Tuesday morning to watch Pope Benedict XVI’s blessing on television. He called the news exciting and “a reason to rejoice.”
“The new Holy Father has big shoes to fill, but he stands on the shoulders of a giant,” he said. “I think we will probably experience one of the great pontificates of all time.”
Fletcher, who was ordained by Pope John Paul II in 1985, said he has fielded numerous questions about the church’s past and future since the last pope’s death, from both Catholics and non-Catholics. He said he sees the quick selection of a new pontiff as a message of hope for the whole world, and said he’ll be emphasizing the importance of faith and hope in his upcoming discussions with troops.
Benson also took the occasion to praise Pope John Paul II, who died April 2.
“I particularly admire his incredible integrity,” Benson said. “He stood fast in a changing world. He was a rock.”
Lisa Burgess, Sandra Jontz, Steve Liewer, Russ Rizzo, Pary Smith and Leo Shane contributed to this report.