By Paul Haring
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Francis
receives countless gifts, but most do not require anything in return. However,
at his audience with members of the military April 30, the pope received a
small gift with a tradition — and obligation — attached.
Auxiliary Bishop F. Richard Spencer
of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services gave the pope a military
challenge coin with a prayer from St. Francis of Assisi stamped on it.
Bishop Spencer, who ministers to
U.S. service members in Europe and Asia, explained to the pope — and then to
Catholic News Service — the tradition of military challenge coins. “A
long-standing military tradition is for leaders to ‘coin’ a person as an
outward sign of appreciation and admiration for their actions and service,”
the bishop said.
Military challenge coins come with a
catch. “The next time the two of you meet after being ‘coined,’ the person
receiving the coin must show the coin from the original presenter. If they do
not have the coin with them, then they owe you a beer!” said Bishop
Spencer, whose began his military service as an Army officer in 1973.
Bishop Spencer said he explained the
custom to the pope, who “asked, with a smile, if I would accept wine
In offering wine, the pope was in
fact keeping with the original European heritage of challenge coins. The
history begins in World War I when an airman with the U.S. Army Air Service was
shot down and captured by the Germany army, who took away his identification
U.S. Airman 1st Class Deana
Heitzman, who wrote a recent article about challenge coins for U.S. Air Force websites, explained the story:
“While escaping from the grasp of the Germans, the pilot made his way to
France, where they believed he was a spy and sentenced him to be executed. To
prove his identity and save his life, he revealed a bronze medallion with his
flying squadron’s emblem, confirming he was an American pilot. The French
spared his life and celebrated by giving him a bottle of wine instead,”
Carrying a unit coin became a
tradition for the saved pilot’s squadron in Germany. Coin challenges developed
as a way to ensure everyone was carrying their coin. If they didn’t have it,
they would be buying drinks.
But coins are much more than just a
fun tradition that leads to drinks. They also are exchanged on important
occasions and mark significant events in a service member’s career. Many
service members display important coins in cases as a reminder.
Pope Francis would have no trouble
participating in a coin challenge. The Vatican has a long history of creating
papal coins. The 2016 Pope Francis coins available from the Vatican are genuine
euro tender and range in value from one euro-cent to a 50-euro gold coin that sells
for 1,090 euro.
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