12/1/2006 - INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey -- A once in a life time opportunity by shear definition only comes once. We got that opportunity Nov. 29 as we celebrated Mass with Pope Benedict XVI in Ephesus, Turkey.
The Pope was invited by the Turkish Government to visit several locations in Turkey during one of the first Apostolic Journeys of his Pontificate. The significance of the Pope's trip was not lost on us, as he is attempting to improve ties between two faith traditions at a time when many people view these traditions as a source of conflict.
Access to the mass site was tightly controlled however Turkish officials did a great job with security and we felt extremely safe during every aspect of our visit. I had the opportunity to work on President Bush's second inauguration a few years ago and the security for the Pope's visit equaled the security for that event.
The mass was celebrated on the grounds of the House of the Virgin Mary. The shrine is a point of encounter and prayer for Christians and Muslims, who acknowledge Mary as the mother of Jesus. I was surprised how small the mass site was, as I've seen papal masses with tens of thousands of people in attendance and there couldn't have been more than two or three hundred people at this event. Members of our group thought the small size really enhanced the experience, as we were able to participate in the mass rather than watch it from afar. It struck me that I was closer to the Pope than I was to Father Brosk, our Catholic priest, during Sunday mass on base.
Father Brosk concelebrated the papal mass with a group of about 30 priests and actually conversed with the Pope for a few moments. I'm not sure if he's done that in the past, but I could tell he was thrilled to be there for the historic mass.
The highlight of the trip was getting an opportunity to interact personally with the Pope. Phillip Ozgul, the only student from our Incirlik American School to attend the event, actually got to shake the Pope's hand. I'm sure it's something he'll never forget.
After the mass many of us were interviewed by media outlets like CNN and Fox News. Questions focused on the significance of celebrating Mass with the Pope here in Turkey and friends have told us they saw news coverage here via American Forces Network Incirlik.
Of the three or four trips I've taken since arriving in Turkey, this is one that I'll never forget. There was a sense of peace and beauty in the natural surroundings and it was great to see and meet so many people from different religions and nationalities gathered together for one purpose--to celebrate mass with the Pope and share in his message of peace and unity in Turkey.