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The Southern Cross : February 2012
February 2012 Page 5 www.thesoutherncross.org.au The Southern Cross news | I-ministry in Afghanistan Before Father Mark Sexton left for a six month stint as army chaplain in Afghanistan last June, one of his parishioners gave him an Ipod to play music while he was away. A self-confessed Luddite, he had to get instructions on how to use it and with some scepticism he made a last-minute decision to buy an Ipad as well. But the downloading of an application called "I Breviary" and surprisingly good internet access meant he could look up any liturgy for any occasion and his reliance on it for Sunday Mass saw one Australian digger dub him "the Ipad padre". Every Sunday Fr Sexton would say Mass for between 20 and 30 Catholics, mainly American and Australian, in the Ghan Chapel and he heard confession a couple of times. While many Catholic service men and women were non-practising, the St Christopher or St Michael medals sent to him by his old parish at Newton would quickly disappear from the chapel. Fr Sexton said he was particularly pleased to have his Ipad app when an American female soldier who'd been brought up as a Baptist but wanted to convert to Catholicism asked him to baptise her. Fortunately he had taken the baptismal oils with him as part of the Mass kit but it was the last thing he expected to do. Sure enough the app included the Rite of Baptism! Based at Tarin Kot in the north-east of Afghanistan, Fr Sexton was one of three chaplains assisting defence forces from Australia, the United States, Singapore and Slovakia. Together with workers from Third World countries and contractors from the West, the population numbered 7000. He also visited sub-bases on several occasions, mostly travelling by helicopter to give him more time on the ground with the troops. Although he didn't visit the sub-base where an Afghan soldier killed Captain Bryce Duffy, Lance Corporal Luke Gavin and Corporal Ashley Birt, he was present when the twin brother of 22-year- old Ashley Birt, Dale, was informed of his brother's death. He also presided with the other two chaplains at the ramp ceremony preceding the bodies' departure to Australia. "The ceremony was in the gym but when the bodies are taken to the aircraft everyone lines the route then falls in behind the vehicles," he said. "As the plane leaves everyone salutes... it's very emotional." The tension in the camp was heightened by the shame felt by the Afghan troops who initially were disarmed and confined to barracks. Fr Sexton said his role was not to counsel the troops at times like this as there were psychologists for that, but rather he was there to be a "listening heart". "The psyches were very good and we'd work together and meet with them but diggers don't like talking to psyches," he said. One of the highlights for Fr Sexton was, in fact, the "openness of the diggers" to having someone like him amongst them, despite their secular background. He said he never really felt in danger, even when a rocket rebounded off the roof of a neighbouring barracks. Although confined to the safety of the "hardened" camp for most of the time, he was impressed by the "stark beauty of the place" when he got the chance to move around. With temperatures over 50 degrees during the summer months when he first arrived and plenty of walking around the base in the heat, Fr Sexton said it wasn't hard to lose weight. As for the Afghani people who have been in conflict since 1979, he said it was as if the whole population had Post Traumatic Distress but he added that there were signs of progress such as new roads being built, growers getting to markets quicker and children back in school. While Fr Sexton said was looking forward to returning to his St Mary MacKillop/ Northern Light parish this month and thanked the parishioners for their wonderful support, he said he would gladly return to Afghanistan. As for his supply of Tim Tams and Cherry Ripes (mentioned in The Southern Cross in May 2011) these were popular with everyone, particularly the Americans, but when a consignment of Farmers Union Iced Coffee turned up one day, the South Aussies kept this to themselves. By Jenny Brinkworth Nazareth Catholic Community is a place of welcome connecting faith, family and education www.nazareth.org.au T: 8406 5000 2012 Open Days Primary Campus 176 Crittenden Road, Findon Wed 21 March 9-11am Early Childhood Centre Almond Ave, Findon Sat 24 March 9:30 - 11:30am Secondary Campus 1 Hartley Road, Flinders Park Wed 28 March 4-7pm