ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE, Md. – Hundreds of military personnel and their families and dozens of students from a nearby Catholic high school perched on bleachers set up at the edge of the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base to greet Pope Benedict XVI on his first U.S. visit as pope.
As they watched last-minute preparations – a roll of red carpet put into position, bishops in their formal robes escorted for a check of where they’d be standing in a receiving line, the military honor guard assembled – some of them talked about what they’d like to discuss with the pope if given the chance to sit down with him.
“I want to talk to him about his cat,” said 8-year-old Katie Lengyel. She and her mom, Sally Lengyel, live on the base, where their dad and husband, Col. Joseph Lengyel, is assigned with the Air National Guard. Katie had been given the day off from St. John the Evangelist Catholic School in Clinton, Md., for the occasion.
Katie explained that her teacher had read the class a story about the pope and his cat, and she wanted to compare notes with him about her cat, Kona, named for the black sand beach in Hawaii. She also might let him know that she used to live in Germany, which she learned is the pope’s homeland.
Sally Lengyel said she would be more inclined to engage Pope Benedict in some more serious topics, such as her belief that priests should be allowed to marry.
“I would like to see some changes in the church,” Mrs.Lengyel said. “Priests should be allowed to marry. I think that would solve the priest shortage.”
Katie said she wanted to come to greet the pope because “my mom says it’s a historical event.”
Vincent Harrington, a junior at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, said as a non-Catholic student at a Catholic school, he’d want to sit down and ask the pope to “just talk to me. I’d want to take in as much as I can of his knowledge and wisdom. Then I’d ask him different things, like about (the Book of) Revelation.”
His fellow McNamara student, Christopher Burke, a senior, said if he had the chance he’d like to give the pope an opportunity to “have a regular conversation, to get to know him a little better. He may be pope but he’s still a human being. I’d talk to him about what he likes to do, besides his work as pope.”
Another McNamara student, Julia Donoghue, a junior, said she looks to the pope as a role model, and “I could ask him so many questions: What inspired you to become a priest? Who were your role models growing up? How do you want to inspire people? Who is your favorite saint? I’d ask him to explain his position on gay marriage – we hear a lot about that in the United States.”
Two Navy personnel dressed in their white uniforms, Christopher Degothsier and Juan Lozano, stood out in the bleachers filled with Air Force blues and fatigues.
Degothsier said the chance to come out to the pope’s arrival was “a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be involved in something like this.”
He said he’d like to talk with the pope about how to deal with “the countries that are in a nonstop state of war. It’s our business and peace is his business.”
Lozano said he also would want to talk to the pope about peace. A native of Colombia, Lozano said he sees the church’s work in addressing problems like child labor and violence and would like to talk about how to work more for peace.
Maria de la Cruz Andres Brown stood in front of the bleachers wearing the flag of her native Spain like a cape in the chilly wind. She and her husband, Edgar, live near Andrews and were looking forward to their first chance to see a pope. Edgar Brown is retired from the Air Force, which gave them access to the event.
He said he’d want to talk to the pope about working for peace in the world. “We have to work together,” he said.